I love my mother's cough. It's very distinctive. First there is a small intake of breath and then the cough itself, deep and slightly hoarse. It is usually followed immediately by another cough, and then a slight clearing of the throat.
For a little girl, that cough meant security. It meant that the sunshine in my life was in very close proximity. Late at night, tossing in bed, I'd hear that cough along with the tread of the plastic soles on the cloth slippers she loved to wear. Those two noises would tell me that my mother was still up, guarding us from all evils, and I'd drift off to sleep, cocooned by that knowledge.
When she would go out on errands, it was often her cough, magnified in the drafty lobby of our apartment building, which would herald her homecoming. She was back, and all was right in the world once more. When she would lay down for one of her rare naps, the house would seem suspended, biding time until she would awaken. Her cough, heard from the end of the hallway, meant that she was once more among us and real life would resume.
I would have thought that as a married woman, and a mother of several children, that cough would no longer carry such significance for me. Yet every time I hear it, my heart lifts. My mother is near and the safe, cozy feeling returns.
I was startled one night to hear my mother's cough on an empty street in my neighborhood, far from my mother's home. It took a moment to realize that the cough was mine. I tried coughing again just to be sure. Yes, my cough sounds just like hers. This was a rather unsettling realization. My mother is a rock of stability, and her cough could symbolize safety. It seemed deceptive to have a cough that sounds like hers, like a little girl thinking she is fully grown simply by putting on her mother's high-heeled shoes.
Disconcerting as this discovery was, there was also an element of comfort. I felt like I was carrying around a little bit of my mother. Wherever she may actually be on this planet, all I have to do is cough and a piece of her is there. I mulled this over as I walked home in the cold, damp night.
I got home and shrugged off my coat. I stood still for a moment, appreciating the warmth, light and quiet of my home. Then I changed in to my comfortable clogs and got to work. Finishing the supper dishes and folding two loads of laundry, I headed for my kids' bedrooms to lay out their clothes for the next day. They looked so peaceful, slumbering heaps of innocence. In the girls' room, my five year old tossed and turned in her sleep. I straightened her covers and kissed her forehead. As I selected jumpers and tops, my throat tickled me. I coughed once, and then again. My daughter settled more deeply under her covers.
I was mesmerized. Could it be? Did the thud of my clogs and the sound of my cough let her know that I was near? Dare I contemplate the thought that maybe, just maybe, those sounds calm her with the realization that I will guard her from all evil and allow her to drift off into a deep sleep cocooned by that knowledge?
I will probably never know, but that very thought made me feel so small and so big all at once. I was filled with pride at being part of a chain of those wonderful beings called mothers, and awed by the knowledge of how much I could mean to the little people in my life. Humbled and grateful, I kissed my daughter once more and went off to bed.
This article originally appeared in "On the Front Page."