Genetics: Comfort or Concern?

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As the forty-two-year-old mother of a three-year-old daughter and nine-month-old son, the power of genetics has certainly been at the top of my mind in recent years. Every older mother (hate that term!) wrings her hands as she waits for the results of the tests that will tell you whether or not her growing baby has a genetic deformity of some kind. The emotions you feel during the wait for those results are powerful and unexplainable. So, for me, thinking about genetics has always been associated with risk … and then a rush of overwhelming relief upon finding that everything was okay with my children. 

But recently, I had an experience with genetics that brought comfort and laughter to me. As I was sitting on the sofa watching television, I glanced down at my lap and was shocked to see my mother’s hand resting on my leg. And just to clarify, my mother was not in the room … she was a couple of hundred miles away.

It was a bizarre experience … one of those slow-motion moments that seem to last forever, but in reality only lasts for five seconds at the most. As my brain slowly slogged through processing what I was seeing, I thought, Am I having a stroke? Has she learned to teleport herself? What in the holy hell is going on?

I soon figured out the obvious: it wasn’t my mother’s hand on my leg. Nope … that was my own hand, which happens to now look more and more like my mother’s. My hands have always looked like hers, with long slim fingers and pretty good nails. So the resemblance is actually a good thing. But for many years I’ve fallen prey to saying what millions of daughters say every day: “I’ll never be like my mother!” 

This time, my reaction was different. I was actually relieved to see the similarities. My memories of my mother’s hands are all good. Those hands knew—and still know—how to comfort and heal. Her fingers are always cool to the touch and feel great on a feverish head. Even as an adult, the first person I want to call when I’m sick is my mother. When I was a child, I played with those long fingers during church—twisting them, tracing them—anything to pass the time! Those hands know how to make up a deliciously comfortable bed with linens tucked and folded just right. Her hands have such precise, sweet ways of accomplishing everyday tasks. They are assurance that everything is going to be okay. I love those hands, and I want mine to be just like them … and the person to whom they are attached.

After regaining my composure, I headed to the bathroom. As I was washing my hands, I looked into the mirror and—darn it—saw my father’s face staring right back at me. Luckily, I was no longer fooled by my stroke/teleporting theories. This time, I knew it was my face, and that I was just recognizing some of the striking similarities between my dad and me, even more at this moment. I have his fair, ruddy skin; I have his uneven eyebrow arches; I have his jaw. In general, people have always said that I look like him. 

My sweet father passed away in August 2008. Taken from us far too soon, his death’s impact on my whole family has been massive. Grief and his absence have forever changed my relationship with the rest of the world. I thought grief was something that you recover from—but it’s not. It fundamentally changes you, and the challenge is learning how to live your life anyway. To see parts of him in my face and in my skin is an odd comfort to me. It’s a reminder that it’s my responsibility to remember everything he taught us … especially that laughter truly is the best medicine.

As I wiped my hands and brushed my hair back from my face, I felt a little taller, a little stronger … and I felt the power of family and the impact we all have to shape each other’s daily lives. An unofficial definition of genetics states that it is how information and similarities are stored and transmitted between generations. I like the idea that I’m a product of generations of family members before me, and I like the idea that I’m influencing generations of family members after me. Of course, that’s intimidating as well. Uh-oh … something new to worry about!  


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