The Mother Hand
I grew up convinced that I was the exception in matters of safety and danger. Then a series of events taught me something: the nature of survival
My triplet siblings and I used to play a game we called “Get Down.” The premise was simple: on the rare occasion that our mother left us in the family minivan to drop off the dry cleaning, we made ourselves invisible. We did what the game’s name told us to do.
“Get down!” my brother shouted at the sight of someone outside.
“Get down!” my sister ordered when a car pulled into the next spot over.
Like a couple of rambunctious squirrels trapped inside of a tin can, we bolted up and down, hushed and frantic, while one of us chanted the phrase “Get Down.” When the chant ended, so did our movement. For a few long seconds, the three of us just lay there on the floor, juiced-up on our own fake fear, whispering that the stranger was coming until we got curious and slithered back up.
“Woman with a lotto ticket! Get down!”
“Man in red shirt! Get down!”
We carried on in this way, labeling unassuming strangers as predators, until our mother’s dark curls re-emerged from the clear glass storefront directly in front of the car. Then we scrambled into our seats. Game over.
It was, in a sense, a kind of fire drill. An exaggerated version of “stop-drop-and-roll” invented to soothe our mother’s fears. For her, danger was never the red or blue food coloring that seeped from our snow cones into the pores of our tongues. Danger was human. It was what happened when children were left on their own, so she kept us close.
On the days when my father was at work and my older brother was at school, my triplet siblings and I assumed position beside her with hands braided together. We did not wander in public spaces. Only once do I remember my sister sneaking off in the children’s department at the mall, and I can still hear my mother’s tone: “Where’s your sister.” A question hardened into a statement.
“If anything ever happened to you kids,” she used to say at the end of her cautionary tales about poisoned Halloween candy and kidnappings. “That would be it.”
The world as we knew it would end—she would end. Her survival depended on ours.
But what she never seemed to understand was that my siblings and I were the exception. As triplets, we had been born with a protective edge. I was a plural pronoun: a “we,” an “us,” an “our.” A “three-against-one.” And even when I didn’t have my brother and sister beside me, they were with me.
To become life alongside two other people is to experience a sort of metaphysical entanglement—something not unlike the pulsed calls of whales searching for each other in the dark depths of the ocean. I felt deeply connected and never alone, and by the time I got to high school, desperate for space.
It did not matter that the three of us looked startlingly different or that my parents had done everything they could to nurture our sense of individuality. My sister was not yet the photographer; my brother was not yet the engineer; I was not yet the writer. And until these labels expanded like ice between the crags of our differences, we were “the triplets”—searching for breathing room, yet bound in our togetherness.
Which is maybe why New York felt both so alluring and so familiar when I moved there for college, and possibly why I never considered leaving after graduation. There is an insular nature to being both a triplet and a New Yorker. The city is a place where even on your own, you are tied, invisibly, to others. You are never really alone-alone. Not in an apartment building, not on the sidewalk, and not on the subway. There is always someone else.
“I’m fiiiiine,” I used to tell my mother, as I walked to work surrounded by people. For nine blocks, I’d brief her over the phone about story ideas, recaps of concerts I’d gone to, friends I’d seen the night before. She was my go-to person for walk-and-talks.
“But did you take a cab home?” she would ask at some point. “Do you need me to put money in your account for cab fare?”
I was a twenty-seven year-old woman with a full-time job.
“I don’t need money. I’ve got it,” I’d say. “Mom, you worry too much.”
By New York standards, I was an early-bird. Past midnight on weekends, I took a cab home. On the weekdays, my subway cutoff time was 11. Most nights I was home by 10.
“You’re rolling your eyes,” my mother would say, resigned. “I know you are.”
“But someday you’ll be a mother and then you’ll understand. Promise me you’ll take a cab.”
So I promised. I used those words: “I promise.”
Then I swiped my subway card through the turnstile the next time I was on my way home late. It was fine. I was fine. It had always been a game.
It started with a man who needed directions.
“Excuse me, can you help me understand this?” he asked.
I remember him motioning to a map fixed in the middle of the subway platform, the mess of new and expired subway notices framed around it. But the shape of his eyes, the length of his hair, the scars and spots that could make him less of a smear in my memory—maybe I was already forgetting those things while we stood there, breathing the same air.
It was a Wednesday night in late April, and he struck me as someone people probably ignored—someone I probably would have ignored at any other moment. But nothing about the world around us seemed normal, then. We were three months into a presidency predicated upon hate and fear in ways I was struggling to comprehend, and here was an opportunity to take a stand. A chance to stay open instead of afraid.
I walked toward the giant subway map.
“The C train is re-routed,” I told the man, pointing to the notices. “After 10pm, they change the path.”
Then I looked at him.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
With his eyes locked on mine, a smile unraveled across his face, and if there was single word I gathered from it, it was this:
At first I just stood there looking down at his sneakers. Black leather. Black laces. A peak where his big toe had been pressing upwards. But pretty soon, the only thing I could do to cope with the silence escalating between us was half-smile and walk away. Initially, to the edge of the platform—a polite distance. Then, all the way to the other end of the tunnel without ever looking back. I was convinced that if our eyes never met again, he’d stay right there. He’d never sense my panic or gauge that I was suddenly, very bitterly, taking inventory: tight jeans, rings on my fingers, my mother’s gold hoops from the ’70s. A walking pawn shop.
I contemplated finding a cab or walking home from the station, but the walk would be dangerous and the train would soon arrive—and soon there it was, a set of doors opening.
I thanked God. I sat in that empty car as it moved into darkness and thanked every single God I had ever heard of. I thought of my parents, my mother whose ringtone played “Theme from New York, New York” whenever I called; my father who overnighted cucumbers to Brooklyn from his garden. Their love. I thought Never again and $25.76 is what a cab would have cost. Your life is worth more than $25.76.
But then the door that connected the subway cars opened, and I thought: Oh God, no. Walking through it were the same black sneakers. They had followed me. They now sat opposite me.
When the sneakers didn’t move at the next stop, I did. I got up and left. I left and I listened as the doors began to close behind me. Then I listened as the doors got jammed. I listened as the doors got jammed and the sneakers got through, and the train pulled away, and then I listened to the sound of myself running. Running as the words, “Brooke, why are you running?” were called out from behind me through an empty station. I ran and I forgot: who I was and how to scream, the name of my block and how to read, that I was wearing a nameplate necklace and that’s why my name was being called.
I ran and I ran and, at some point, outran him. But even after the running was over, what I could not escape was the feeling of being chased. For the next three weeks, my body was covered in hives.
Five months later, Los Angeles happened.
On a crowded street in broad September daylight I felt a thud on my head, and with it, glasses that flew from my face onto the sidewalk. They arched with the kind of slowness that gave me time to ask questions. Will it be one person? Will it be four? Will I be raped this time? Questions that maybe kept me from reacting while the man behind me grabbed my neck and strangled me.
When my voice finally woke up some seconds later, it scared me and it scared him. I sounded like a dying dog.
“You were in my path,” he gargled as his grip loosened and I twisted away.
Then I just stood there, staring at the lines of anger that were barbecued into his forehead.
Strangers swept in. There was the pregnant woman who waddled after the attacker, and the man who pulled me into a cafe while repeating the same sentence, three ways: “Sugar, you need sugar. Sweet, you need a sweet. Cookie, you need a cookie.”
He bought me a brownie I never ate, water I never drank, and ordered me a car to the hotel whose name I forgot while I see-sawed between sobbing and hyperventilating.
The next morning, with all three locks on the hotel door bolted shut, I felt my neck throb separate from the rest of me. I had only to rest the pads of my fingers onto it, to dive into the layers of trauma stacked, I imagined, like the rings inside of a tree trunk. Each of us carries our pain in a different place, and though I would leave that hotel wearing the same reflexive smile I’d always worn — the one the LAPD said made me “look too kind” — I lay in bed, imagining what someone might glimpse were they to pry my tree-neck open.
For years I had this ritual of going to concerts on my own as a way of calming my mind from the New York tumult. In the months after returning from Los Angeles, I continued showing up to venues as I always had, only I went somewhere else inside. Fixated on what I couldn’t see, the act of looking forward was accompanied by a more overwhelming urge to look back. So there was Emmy Lou Harris up on stage singing “Two More Bottles of Wine,” but then there was the man seated behind me, the man behind him. What if one of them had a gun?
This was how it happened in America, after all. One minute you were nodding your head to a legend strumming her six string, the next, someone who felt wronged and angry was unleashing on a crowd of people they’d never even met. I’d heard things like this on the news and always thought: This is horrible, when will it end? Then I’d think: If it were me, I would have —
I would have what?
In the face of life-threatening danger, I had been remarkably unexceptional. I had not given a knee to the groin or even so much as called the cops in New York. My instincts had short-circuited when I needed them most and when I pictured myself dumbly standing on the sidewalk post-attack, I hated what I saw. How pathetic I looked. I felt paranoid, alone, but also embarrassed, stuck.
The truth was, I had never actually learned how to use my body. Not fully. As a child I took tap classes instead of karate. I was not like my sister, the born fighter. The most at-risk triplet during my mother’s pregnancy, she possessed a different kind of strength. A survivor’s determination. The last in birth order but the first to walk, swim, dive, and drive—she was physically more petite but psychologically more spitfire. The shrimp who took shit from no one.
The only thing I had going for me was pepper spray, two canisters my mother had sent a decade earlier. They were buried in a dresser drawer and still encased in their original packaging.
“Seriously?” I’d scoffed when she’d mailed them to my college dorm.
In the wake of all that had happened, however, the canisters took on new appeal. I had been having anxiety about meeting new people. Dating, the idea of swiping right on an app and then having drinks with a total stranger, seemed unhinged. But what was I supposed to do? Lock myself away forever?
One night, an hour before I planned to meet a man for a first date, I stood outside in the yard with my arm outstretched for a test-spritz. As long as I knew how to operate the canister and as long as the spray hadn’t gone soft over time, it could be my solution.
The air was breezeless, the plume forceful, and the gentle gust afterward—unexpected. My throat burned. My lungs ignited. The spray had worked, but on me.
I signed up for self-defense classes.
Within the first fifteen minutes of my first two-hour session, the instructor pointed out that I carried myself like someone who was afraid to take up space.
“You’re standing like you’re on a tightrope,” he noted, repositioning my feet so both my stance and shoulders widened.
I’d chosen Krav Maga—a technique that combines street fighting, boxing, and martial arts — specifically for its emphasis on function over form. It didn’t matter how I looked or even whether I fought fair. If the attacker had a beard, I could yank it. “The only thing that matters is that you get away and survive,” my instructor said.
He was determined to coax a mad dingo out of a dopey labrador, a giggly me who kept letting out a woop sound that first happened when he insisted I whack him where his protective cup was. (I slapped his thigh instead). While we trained to the sound of pulsing synths, he told me about the difference between fear and panic. How fear stemmed from the reptilian part of the brain that had been triggering fight or flight mode for millions of years. It was a flicker of a feeling, an intuitive hit.
“If you find a way to reacquaint yourself with it, to really listen, it will help you,” he said.
Panic was the enemy. It was what most people referred to when they used the term “fear.” It could lassoe itself around you and pull you through the world in a prolonged state of paranoia that made you even more susceptible to violence. “It’s what keeps people from really looking around at their environment.”
By the end of class, I didn’t think twice about simulating a chokehold escape that dropped me right back into the scenario in Los Angeles. I let my instructor grab my throat from behind, and then I fought back. I grabbed his wrists and twisted my body away. I simulated a punch to the throat, and an exit kick to the knee. I rewrote the ending.
As the leftover adrenaline pushed me north along West Broadway, I felt incredible. Invincible, even.
“It’s like I got this,” I told my sister.
Though I didn’t.
Thirty-six hours later, I couldn’t move. Even though it had only been a mock fight, my mind had not prepared my body for the attack or what it might trigger. I awoke with bolts of pain knifing up behind my eye and down into the trenches of my shoulders, all of it tethered to my neck, the place where the dormant panic had hibernated. Reawakened, it was skewering me.
My instinct was to hide the hurt. Before I walked into the nearby medical massage office, I took quick, sharp breaths as I straightened myself up.
“I can see you’re in pain,” Matos, the masseur, said after introducing himself. “What’s going on? How can I help?”
I vaguely told him that I’d thrown out my neck, but as Matos applied pressure with his right hand, he felt the damage for himself. Wedges of scar tissue were buried and hardened beneath the muscles at the base of my neck. The pain crunched and radiated, it felt immovable.
And yet I couldn’t stop noticing his left palm, the way it smoothed over my back and blanketed me. The right hand kneaded, the left blanketed, and each time the cycle repeated itself I found myself anticipating how much it would hurt when the two finally joined forces and dove into the problem together.
Only they never did. The only thing that ever happened, was the left stayed its own course. It operated independently.
Together, both hands functioned the way magic does. They employed a series of methodical techniques that, when seamlessly executed, fool the mind into illusion—into stepping outside of the loop it had gotten stuck in. It wasn’t like anything miraculously vanished in the process, of course. The scar tissue was always still there each time Matos returned to it, but it was different. It was softer.
With my face perched into the horseshoe headrest, tears began to well up. I asked Matos to explain what he sensed.
“Your right shoulder blade has attached itself to your ribs like it’s clinging for protection,” he said. “You’re breathing through your throat rather than your diaphragm, like someone in a state of panic.”
I told him his left hand felt healing.
“The left hand is here to remind you that you’re safe,” he explained. “In the Shiatsu tradition, it’s what we call ‘The Mother Hand.’” A hand whose sole purpose is to protect the body and to calm the mind.
When I left the office an hour later, I felt myself breathe again.
Every wish I ever made when we blew out the candles on our triplet birthday cake was for my family to remain safe. As a child, I drafted all sorts of superstitious bargains, unspoken ones in which my abstaining from the last cookie so someone else could have it, granted them protection. I was my mother’s daughter, even then—fierce in the way I loved and unwavering in my want to protect. I was determined to have a say in the matter of everyone else’s survival when the only thing any of us ever stood a chance at controlling was how we moved in a given space.
Survival was all about space, what you did inside of it. Whether you walked on a tightrope or filled up a room, shouted or stayed silent, slumped like a willow or reached like a redwood—every movement and every gesture communicated something to the people who surrounded you.
Three years after my run through the subway station, my mother and I stood on the corner of 47th Street waiting for a crosswalk signal to direct us. I had a meeting downtown, she planned to see a Broadway show on her own—and I had been watching her as we walked through the city, noticing how every so often she would take a step forward and then waver. Her pink sneaker would hover mid-air for a fraction of a second until she re-found her footing.
Time and age had expressed themselves in my mother’s balance, and though it wasn’t anything severe, in a place like New York, imbalance could make her a target. It made my mother vulnerable, and this worried me. Earlier in the day I scolded her.
“Why are you moving so fast! What’s the rush!” My questions panicked into exclamations.
She brushed me off.
“Brooke, stop,” my mother said. “I’ve got it,” she sighed. “You worry too much.”
So I started doing this thing where I’d lift my left hand an inch behind my mother’s back and hold it there. It was a mini-barrier between her and the people who surrounded us—strangers who could harm or could heal, weld or fragment us with their hands. They could take her from me.
In the distance, sirens blared and I imagined curling the neck that had tightened and the shoulders that had stiffened into my mother’s body. I wanted to melt into her like a child, keep anything and anyone from hurting her, throw us into the old minivan and get down, get down, get down. Stay down. And for what?
I looked at my mother, how beautiful she was.
I looked at myself, the hand that was panicking instead of protecting. It was holding her back rather than letting her live, and that’s what we were: alive. A part of the city’s pulse. In a few more seconds, the traffic signal would change and we would go our separate ways. Two interconnected currents staying their own course.
I lowered my hand and felt the shift, the softening. I felt myself breathe again.