Holding hands, and letting go

Of all the intimacies of life, holding hands is the sweetest. It's about comfort. It's about keeping each other safe in the world. It's about tenderness.

Now and then my son and I hold our hands up against each other, measuring. He grins, but I look sadly at our hands. Not only are his fingers longer than mine, his hands are just plain bigger all over. I'm not surprised.

His feet have been bigger than mine for some time, and it's only a matter of an inch or so before he's taller than I am. My little boy is growing up, which is as it should be. I can't remember the last time he held my hand. But I remember the first time.

In the maternity ward, as the snow fell outside my window, they brought me the warm little cocoon that was my son. Alone with him at last, I gently unfolded that tiny fist and watched, delighted and amazed, as his miniature fingers firmly grasped one of mine. I was captivated. I was in love.

I remember the feel of my toddler's warm hand in mine as he navigated across the floor and then out into the world. I remember walking him to school, holding his strong, brown, little-boy hand as we crossed the street and the reassuring feel of his hand in mine in a crowded store.

When he got older, he grew impatient with this hand-holding business. He wanted to run free, his arms pumping. But if something scared him, he'd circle back to my side, his hand slipping into mine.

Then one day, purely by an old reflex, I reached for his hand at a busy intersection and he gave me "the look" - the one that says, "Mom, have you lost your mind? If you do this, I will die of embarrassment."

Quickly covering my tracks, I reached a little behind him and grabbed the hand of his little brother, who is still at a hand- holding age. Don't ask me what I'll do when the same thing happens with Little Brother. I'll probably end up holding hands with the dog.

It's not that my boys aren't affectionate. But public displays of affection with their mother, probably the most uncool woman on the planet, ... well, I understand. I really do. He loves me, he needs me, but he's trying to figure out what it means to be a man, a daunting task in our complex society. He has launched himself on a headlong rush into maturity.

Parenthood is a dance. Together, apart, fast, slow, hold tight, let go. Let's not kid ourselves: In the dance of parenthood, our children are leading. Letting go can be scary. You try to take things slowly, but some changes occur in the blink of an eye.

One minute, you're running next to a 6-year-old on a wobbly bike, and the next, you've quietly let go. Suddenly he's riding alone. As you watch, you shout, "Look at him go!" Then, softly, "Don't go too far."

I know my days of holding my son's hand are nearing an end. I don't expect it to happen again until he has crossed over adolescence and emerged on the other side. Then, I hope, some day when I need comfort, he will reach over and take my hand again. I'm hoping this will happen about the time his youngest brother lets go and gives me "the look."

As I sense my son moving away from me, I reach out and hold my husband's hand a little more. His hand is warm, firm, and strong. It has held me up through most of the crises of my life. It reminds me that he is here with me, no matter what.

So I can let go of my son's hand and watch as he gets his balance in the world. I'll watch with a mixture of pride and regret, because I think that the next time I hold that hand, he will be a man. Man enough to know that there is strength in tenderness. Man enough to understand that, as author Robert Fulghum says, "no matter how old you are, when you go out into the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together."

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