'The Kissing Hand': The Book That Taught Me How To Grieve My Mom
Reading a book 200 times is a surefire way to find out whether you love it or want to throw its rhyming llama couplets into the diaper pail. Children's books especially do a tricky dance for an audience of squinty-eyed parents and wide-eyed tots: the best ones, like a syringe of infant-suspension Tylenol, have a little something for the parent at the end. These are the ones we are celebrating in This Book Belongs To — the books that send us back to the days of our own footed pajamas, and make us feel only half-exhausted when our tiny overlords ask to read them one more time.
I've never been a great sleeper. To this day, I toss and turn, wake up multiple times a night, and take the occasional sleeping pill when dreamland just won't let me in. If I had to diagnose my sleeping problems, I'd say I'm a nervous sleeper. My anxiety creeps towards me from the shadows of a darkened bedroom and threatens to keep me awake all night. I used to fear monsters skulking around my room, but now I'm more worried about deadlines and the state of the government. It's been like this for as long as I can remember.
When I was young, I got homesick at sleepovers, laying awake long after the other girls had fallen asleep. I had massive anxiety attacks when I had to go on overnight field trips for school, and I straight-up refused to go to sleep-away camp. I slept at my dad's house every other weekend, and experienced anxiety there, too, because I was far away from the person who made everything and everywhere feel safe: my mom.
I was sure that if I could just stay close to my mom, nothing bad would ever happen to me.
I think most kids think their parents are magical guardians at some point throughout their childhoods. I was sure that if I could just stay close to my mom, nothing bad would ever happen to me. My logic proved true most of the time: my mom protected me from thunderstorms, tumbles on the playground, fights with other kids, and the monsters I thought would devour me, toes first, while I fell asleep. My mom's impeccable record at keeping me out of harm's way just made me more sure she was the key to safety, increasing my homesickness whenever I had to sleep somewhere new. My younger sister began to grow anxious before bedtime, too; soon, both of us refused to close our eyes unless our mom was there to watch over us while we drifted off.
Looking back, I'm sure our demands were wildly inconvenient for our mom. She must've been exhausted, and probably a little annoyed, but she never showed it, staying with us until we were in a full REM cycle every night. The three of us carried on in this co-dependent sleep pattern for months with no end in sight, until my mom found a book that solved all of our problems: The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn.
The Kissing Hand stars young Chester Raccoon, a cub who does not want to go to school. He cries, listing all the reasons he wants to stay home, the most important of which is that he wants to stay with his mom. His mother, Mrs. Raccoon, comforts him by telling him about all the fun things he'll get to do at school, but Chester seems unconvinced. Finally, Mrs. Raccoon lets him in on a secret she learned from her mom. She kisses the palm of his paw, and Chester suddenly feels better.
Chester could feel his mother's kiss leap straight into his heart. "With a Kissing Hand," said Chester's mom, "We'll never be apart. Just press your hand to your cheek and feel that loving glow. It's Mommy saying 'I love you' wherever you may go."
If that's not enough to melt your heart, the most touching part of the story comes just before Chester runs off to join his classmates for his first night of school. He stops and takes his mother's hand, giving her a kissing hand to have while he is gone. Smiling, he "dances" off to his new adventure, and the parting image in the book is of Mrs. Raccoon watching her son with her hand on her cheek. Penn wrote the story for children who are scared to go to school, but she sneaks in a message for parents struggling to let their kids go. Whether you're a grownup or a kid, Chester and Mrs. Raccoon show us the bonds between a parent and a child can survive anything, even something as scary as starting school for the first time.
The story is a go-to for the parents of nervous children the night before school starts, and the Grindell girls were immediately inspired by it. As soon as we finished reading, my mom gave my sister and I kissing hands of our own, brushing her lips on our tiny hands and telling us she would be with us wherever we went. We touched our palms to our cheeks, feeling the glow of her love. We grinned at each other, knowing Mom's protection would be with us no matter what.
The Kissing Hand didn't magically fix my bedtime anxiety. There were still slumber parties I had to be picked up from because I was too nervous to sleep, and I always slept best next to my mom. But Penn's tale reminded my sister and I that our mom's love didn't just live in whatever room we shared; she could and would keep us safe no matter where we were. That was how much she loved us.
Kissing hands remained a theme in our family long past childhood, with my mom even kissing my palm on the day she dropped me off at college. I pressed my kissing hand to my cheek that first night in my dorm room with tears in my eyes, and for many nights after that. But because we had figured out a way for my mom's love to feel tangible no matter where I was, I knew I would be okay at college and wherever else I chose to go.
My kissing hand got me through my first semester, and although I had days when I felt homesick, I was a happy 18-year-old most of the time, enjoying my new adventure and budding independence. All that changed when I came home for a weekend in January and my mom announced she had stage four lung cancer. And not only did she have stage four lung cancer, but she insisted I return to school despite her diagnosis.
I kissed her hand before I left, pressing it to her cheek so she would have me with her as she fought this disease she in no way deserved.
"I don't want to take away your joy," she told my sobbing sister and I as we held onto her fiercely. She had a treatment plan in place; her twin sister would take care of her; and her daughters' lives would not be disrupted by a something as silly as cancer. She wouldn't allow it. I argued, but she won, all but shoving me into my car to go back to school two days later. I kissed her hand before I left, pressing it to her cheek so she would have me with her as she fought this disease she in no way deserved.
I came home often when my mom was sick, spending my weekends curled up in her bed with her and my sister. On the nights I was a state away at school, my anxiety was a constant companion, settling in on my chest as I tried to fall asleep. The months of what-ifs and days of waiting to hear from doctors exhausted us all, but my mom met it all with positivity and a refusal to accept anything but survival as the outcome. Her death was not a possibility as far as she was concerned. I hugged her and pressed her hand to my cheek every time I had to leave her, trying to absorb as much of her as I could.
Cancer infects your whole life, hollowing out parts of your identity until you're hanging on by sheer force of will. My mom fought so hard that she lived four times longer than the six months her doctors estimated she had, spreading happiness and filling everyone around her with love as she struggled to survive. She died after two years of being unable to breathe properly, and I tried to find relief knowing that her pain was over. It was two days before my 21st birthday.
I held onto my sister for dear life after our mom died. We stuck close to each other in the confusing weeks of funeral services and condolences and flower arrangements, hugging each other as we fell asleep. Our extended family supported us despite their own grief; my aunt shadowed our first, stumbling steps in the world without a mom, waiting to catch us if we fell even though it was all she could do to breathe in and out without her twin. Impossibly, we found ourselves in the midst of short bursts of laughter and sunny days, feeling my mom's legacy in our happiness.
Eventually, my sister and I had to go back to school, thousands of miles apart from each other. We talked at least twice a day, everyday, whispering words of comfort between laughing about whatever was happening at school; we tried to adjust to the fact that the world would keep spinning as normal. My sleep anxiety was joined by nightmares of my mom — in some she was sick; in others I couldn't get to her; in the worst she was healthy and none of this had ever happened. The dreams faded after a few months, but they still linger in my subconscious, floating up from time to time.
I kept thinking to myself, how am I supposed to do this? How can I go on missing her this much forever?
I struggled to find traces of my mom in the world after she was gone. Her absence screamed at me from all sides: from the house we had to move out of after she died, from the silence from my phone, from the sadness in my sister's eyes. I wasn't sure how to find her, if I even could find her. I kept thinking to myself, how am I supposed to do this? How can I go on missing her this much forever?
I started to sleep with my hand tucked under my cheek, settling it there after I wiped away tears. I didn't think about The Kissing Hand directly, but found myself drifting off with my palm pressed firmly to my face each night. Maybe it was the force of habit from nights I used the kissing hand as my comfort at sleepovers, or maybe I was trying to find my mom in my half sleep, the fuzzy realm that exists between waking and dreaming. I'm not sure what started it, but I still sleep in that position two and a half years later.
It's the biggest cliché in the world, but you do get used to grief. It becomes part of your day to day, as natural as breathing, and it doesn't stop hurting, but you find a way to live with the pain. I will never stop missing my mom, but I know where to look for her now. I feel her on days with blue skies; in my sister's laugh; in the echo of her face on my aunt's. And I press my hand to my cheek each night when I go to sleep, feeling my mom's love course through me, just as a little raccoon felt the warmth of his mom's touch on his first day of school.