When I was a little girl, it was such a treat to be allowed to braid my mother Catherine’s long hair. Better than a doll’s little locks, Catherine’s life-sized hair was sleek and black, and I liked to make rows of tiny braids and loop them around her head like a crown. Catherine, a working single mom, was not the princess type in her business suits with sculpted shoulder pads, and she tried to be patient at the weak cosmetological skills of her 10-year-old. Still, I remember the treat of it, the heavy silky strands, the conversations we had as I brushed and braided.
As I grew older, there was the typical conflict of a single mom with a single daughter, the adolescent desire to push against what she stood for. But earlier than most, I relented. I became interested in what Catherine was interested in, curious about the work world she was making. Catherine was very early in the field of leadership development and executive coaching, and in my 20s I started writing with her, editing books with her, teaching with her. It isn’t clear anymore which of us got into which thing first—I think I introduced her to adult development, but she had a study group with Bob Kegan in the 90s when I was a doctoral student. I think she introduced me to complexity, but I remember telling her about this interesting Cynefin framework I was reading about in graduate school. Now we were braiding ideas, words, practices together. We edited a book together, wrote chapters together. She faxed me drafts of my books with her looping scrawl, tightening my ideas, ignoring the case studies. She joined Cultivating Leadership and pushed us all to think more deeply about our practice, hosting monthly “complexity calls” to illuminate the edge of our work together.
Over time, she slowed down. I sped up. We published our most recent book chapter together last year, on coaching and complexity (you can see an earlier draft of that here or order the book to see the final chapter here). She worked less, coached less. I worked more, coached more.
This week, I have been at my mother’s bedside, brushing and braiding again. Catherine’s silver hair is silky in my hands, the back of her head a little hard to get to in the crowded hospital room.
The stroke paralyzed her right side but mercifully left her speech and her whole mind intact. I have finally fully understood the difference between a brain—hers now seriously damaged—and a mind—hers sharp and gleaming. In this week, I was advocate, cheerleader, companion, errand girl, and hair brusher. I watched with profound admiration as she navigated hospital systems, occupational therapy, Medicare requirements, physical therapy, medication, hospital food. She read up on the latest in stroke treatments, advocated for her next placement, and explained her medicine to the nurses after a shift change. And I sat by her side and brushed her hair.
I wheeled her under a redwood in the “healing garden” outside her hospital, and we talked about the difficulties of clipping your nails with only one working hand, about the multifaceted skill of the physical therapist (Catherine was watching closely the ways this woman worked), and the culture of the hospital. We talked about the book on Superforcasting by Phil Tetlock (which she remembered better than I did, even though she read it three years ago). And I cut her food, and filled her cup with ice water, and polished her glasses.
I have loved caring for my children, feeling the softness of their skin, plump cheeks turning sleek and, in Aidan’s case, prickly. While 12 hours on a plane behind parents with small children reminds me of all the ways I don’t miss the extraordinary demands of early parenting, I do find myself longing for the tactile nature of it all, the shampooing, the curling up together to read a book, the heads limp on my shoulder as they fall asleep. I did not imagine that I would get some of that back with my mother, her forehead cool under my lips, her motionless arm heavy in my hands as we try on new clothes for this new chapter.
I am grateful to my mother for all she has given me, for all the conversations and the shared reading and the braiding of ideas. Our work in complexity has totally changed the way I see the world. I deeply understand the doctors when they tell me they cannot know if my cancer will return, cannot know if Catherine will be able to walk again. I do not search for causes that could not be given to me, do not wonder what punishment or reward is bestowed and by whom. Life is made of uncertainty; to be alive is to be unsure of the future.
But there are times when it is simplicity that is most human, when what matters most are the repeatable manifestations of care. These most basic functions—holding my baby at my breast, cutting my mother’s food, watching my now-grown children fall asleep on a train—these are made of tenderness, made of the love we have for one another. The thing I have learned in this circular, braided week, is that underneath the complexities of what it means to be a family, there is nothing but pure love, shining, silky, as heavy in my heart and my hands as my mother’s silver braid.