Touching thoughts …

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The hand is one of the most heavily enervated structures in the human body.

In terms of delicacy, there is no instrument like it … and the range of sensations it can report on beat any other part of the body … heat, cold, texture, sharpness, pressure: everything from the cold, sharp edge of a razor, to the downy delicacy of a baby’s cheek …

There is a reason we greet one another with a clasping of hands. There’s an entire range of communications which can only be transmitted by touch – and each of those things is primal, and far too complex to couch in words! Imagine a person in pain, emotional or physical … which is more effective? To mutter how sorry you are – or to touch them?

And the range of messages! A hand on the shoulder might mean “Be strong! You aren’t alone!”, a hug might mean “You are loved – I’m with you!”, a caress of the cheek and a soft kiss might mean “You’re so very precious to me!”

Of course, there are harsher messages … the message of the fist, the back-hand, the slap …

All of these, everything it’s possible to say without words, were among the very first things humans said to one another, long before the intricacy of language was learned.  Touch is unutterably primal – and absolutely essential! Raise a child without touching him, and the chances are very, very good that what you’ve actually done is raised an emotional cripple – or a monster.

It’s been a while since anyone has touched me. A long while.

I touch my lovely young Kayla, when I can:  hugs, a gentle kiss on the forehead, sometimes a squeezing of her shoulder … but those are almost always initiated by me.  She seldom offers them. And no one else ever does at all. Ever.

I’ve been told I have a very large “body space”:  somehow I seem to signal people that they are unwelcome near me … that they shouldn’t touch me.  There was an exception, once:  a young woman who was perfectly aware of the taboo, and shattered it anyway – a woman who had been treated horribly all her life, and yet had come out of it, full of love for others … most especially those among us who are damaged in some fashion. She’d sneak up on me, throw her arms around me, and hug me, not really caring if it made me uncomfortable – because she knew it was what I needed.

I miss her. I miss that freely offered affection. I miss the touch of her hands, the feel of her warmth, the gentle kisses she’d leave on my cheek or bald head …

I’m a gentle man. A loving man. But all my life, I’ve been afraid to offer my affections so openly … afraid to ignore body space and just give someone what they needed …

Except just once.

A long time ago, my father had to have bypass surgery.  When the surgery was over, the surgeon came out and told us that things had gone well, but we couldn’t see him for several hours.  My brother and sister went off to run errands, and I took a long walk on the grounds of the Hospital (a huge one:  William Beaumont Army Hospital, in El Paso.)

It was early spring, and pleasantly cool in the sunlight. I came, in my wanderings, to a sunken court-yard with stone benches in front of a modern-looking high-rise building. There was an ash tray there, between the benches, so I sat down to have a smoke.  In the shade of the High Rise, it was very chilly, making me glad of the leather jacket I wore… My heart was heavy with any number of troubles, from a fight I’d had with my brother, to my fear that my dad might yet die, to the knowledge that this whole thing had only delayed the inevitable end of my first marriage … It seemed to me that my entire life had been pointless, and I wondered if there were much use in continuing to live it.

The doors to the High Rise slid open, and a man in the white clothes of an orderly, or Nurse’s Aid, escorted a very frail-looking woman, wearing a hospital gown and bathrobe, to the threshold of the door, said something quietly to her, and vanished back inside.

I had taken her to be an old lady, but a closer look showed me to be wrong:  she was quite young — not even my age, and I was just over 30.  She had straight black hair, carelessly cut, and in need of brushing, a pale, thin face, and an extremely thin body.  Her eyes never left the concrete in front of her, and she shuffled toward the benches without really lifting her feet, moving with agonizing slowness, not of pain, but of sheer listlessness…

Her face was dead. There was no spark of life in it. No hope. She had the look of a concentration-camp survivor: technically alive, but so traumatized as to scarcely be there any longer.

She came to the bench I was sitting on, showed no sign that she was aware of my presence, and sat at the extreme edge of it.  She was still a moment, as if casting about for what she ought to do next, then fished a pack of cigarettes and a lighter out of the pocket of her robe.  She shook out a cigarette, then tried to light it… but a light, chilly wind had sprung up, and her nerveless hands trembled so that she could barely light the lighter, let alone the cigarette.

I watched her try twice, then slid over to sit beside her. Moving slowly, I took the cigarette and lighter from her, and lit it myself, then gave them back. She slipped the lighter back into her pocket, and drew deeply on the cigarette, still making no sign that she was aware of my presence.

Her trembling got worse, and I realized the thin robe was no match for the chilly breeze.  I slipped out of my jacket and slowly draped it around her thin shoulders. Automatically, she drew it about her, holding it closed in the front, and sighed, very quietly.  She began to lean toward me, and I worried she was passing out — but she laid her head on my shoulder, and snuggled closer against me.  I put my arm around her and held her, gently. When she finished her smoke, I lit us each a new one, and we sat there, cuddled together and smoking, like people long accustomed to one another — lovers who can sit in companionable silence, without awkwardness, and with no need to fill the silence with idle chatter.

As she stubbed out her smoke, the orderly appeared once more at the door. “Time to come back in, now, Alice,” he called, as if speaking to a little child.

She slid away from me and stood up, eyes still fixed on the concrete, and shuffled back towards him.  After a few steps, though, she stopped, shrugged out of my coat, and turned back to me, holding it out. I rose to take it, and saw the deep, ugly, newly-stitched cut, running from wrist to elbow of the arm that held out my jacket. I took it, and then, for a tiny moment, she looked up and met my eyes.

Her eyes were a lovely green, but tormented, full of dull, hopeless pain — then, as our eyes met, they changed:  awareness, gratitude, and the tiniest shade of relief appeared, and disappeared, as her gaze returned to the ground. I put my coat back on, wondering if she’d speak, but the orderly called again, impatient “come on Alice, time to go back upstairs!”

She started to turn away, then turned back with surprising swiftness, compared to her earlier movements, and she kissed my cheek.  She turned away, hurriedly, and now her feet actually left the ground when she walked, and her stooped shoulders lifted, as if she had shed a heavy load.

In that moment, I knew, whatever might happen later, for the span of a smoke-break, and in complete silence, I had been EXACTLY what Alice had needed, and she had been EXACTLY what I had been in need of.

Coincidence?  Not a chance in hell.

I put away my depression, and left that place, praising God in my heart.

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~ by dourscot on March 26, 2013.

One Response to “Touching thoughts …”

  1. Lovely… just lovely.

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