My son gleefully squeezed harder at the knotted muscle in my shoulder, with a ‘Now I’ve got you’ as I groaned in agony. We have established and agreed that he has a slightly sadistic tendency where I am concerned. It may have something to do with my knack of getting just the right spot on the painful muscles as we got his body working again. Day after painful day, for months on end. So now it is payback… and he appears to enjoy it. He still manages to lay the blame squarely on my aching shoulders, muttering something that sounds vaguely like ‘hereditary’.
He is a little more squeamish than I. His face screws up in horror as my wrist bones crunch back into place when he applies traction. It is, however, nice to regain freedom of movement occasionally. So I make him do it from time to time. I, on the other hand, had no compunction when it came to stretching his hamstrings using my entire bodyweight, such as it was.
Hands are one of the first things I notice, after the eyes and the smile; they have always mattered to me. They are wonderful things, capable of such creativity and expression, both of character and the unspoken word. They can be beautiful in many ways, through form or function, delicacy or strength, but they are never silent.
There is a lot to be said for the healing touch of hands. In the hospice I worked with, the entire nursing staff was trained in Reiki and a room was set aside for alternative therapies. The Matron was kind enough to offer me some therapy when I was going through a particularly rough patch some years ago.
Not only was it unusual for someone to take time and care for me at that point of my life, it was a beautiful experience in its own right. Although I had learned Reiki myself years earlier, it was the first time I had been on the receiving end since that time. The room was quiet, the garden visible through the window, the light soft. I do not know whether it was what she was doing, the ambience of a place where so much care was given, or simply the possibility of release in the intimacy of such a moment of care, but I remember sitting there with tears streaming down my cheeks.
I had learned the value of touch while caring for my late partner through severe arthritis and cancer some years before. There was a period where we were warned that massage was not a good idea for cancer patients as it might encourage it to spread through the stimulation of the lymphatic system…but there came a point I was told it was okay to go ahead. Which brought its own grief in the knowing.
Our physical relationship had suffered very badly. It is a common thing in chronic illness, but seldom spoken of, so I will speak of it here. It was one of the greatest griefs of his illness, loving each other as we did, when he was so weary and in so much pain most of the time. Afraid of raising emotions he could not meet for either of us, he withdrew from me for a very long time. We no longer even cuddled or held hands, there was no contact other than at a practical or therapeutic level… or when I reached out my hand every morning before opening my eyes, to see if he was still with me, still warm, still breathing.
Then one day, on his way to the kitchen, he squeezed my shoulder in passing. So precious was that simple touch that I burst into tears. That opened the floodgates for us both and the intimacy of touch and tenderness was restored, for the little while we had left together.
Touch was the last thing we had too. I was close by when he died at home. I closed his eyes and washed his face, composed into lines of peace. I spoke to him as I made him ready for the medics that had to come. When he finally lay in our bed I kept vigil with him for a little while, a last while, performing those final services of care as the warmth of life left his body. Then I kissed him goodbye.
The value of those final moments to lay him to rest cannot be described. My younger son, then 12, had crept in to sit with him, speaking to him softly and stroking his face. Saying goodbye and seeing the life that had left with no fear of death, only love.
I remember even further back, assisting at the birth of my little brother. I was ten years old and my mother had chosen to give birth at home. No doubt many today may frown on the idea of a child watching her own mother in labour or helping at a birth. To me it was simply the most beautiful thing to hold that scrap of humanity, still wet, as he took his first breath. I watched in wonder and a tiny hand grasped my finger. That touch too was full of love. Touch, after all, is the simplest and most beautiful communication.
Birth and death have become sanitised in our cultures and we have become divorced from the natural process of passing into life and out of it. We are encouraged to be born and to die in hospitals, rather than at home, and no matter how wonderful the staff, or how much safer it may be, there is a constraint and a lack of intimacy in such circumstances.
I have told elsewhere of the death of one of my great grandmothers, when I was a very little girl. I do not remember her funeral at all… but I remember the solemn gathering around the great bed and the goodbyes. There was no fear. Death was acknowledged and life marked with respect. Grieving began gently and had time to unfold, instead of being, as is all too often the case these days, rushed through the rapid time slot of a funeral that means those left behind have to deal with a sense of unreality and disbelief, as well as their loss.
These natural transitions become shrouded in mystery and often fear, when they are kept behind closed doors in a sterile environment. Yet, in the intimacy of these first and last moments, touch is so important, both to welcome and to say goodbye. It is a healing in its own right, for both the one who reaches out and the one who receives that gift.
I think we shy away from touch a lot generally. Particularly in England, where our stiff upper lip can seem to extend to encompass the whole body. Outside of a close relationship we do not like to invade another’s personal space uninvited… and we seldom have the courage to invite when we feel a need to be held. I can only speak for myself here, because it is so seldom spoken of. But there are times when all I want is a shoulder on which to lay my head or the touch of a hand, the warmth of another human being who is aware, and who cares enough to reach through the barriers of convention.
We speak about staying in touch. About how we feel. So many of the words we use to describe our emotions are the same ones we use about the sense of touch. I do not think that is a coincidence. It is the simplest, most basic human need in many ways, from the very moment we enter this world to that final closing of the eyes and the kiss in loving blessing as we enter a new phase of existence. I have to wonder how often we miss the unspoken signs and fail to offer the simple magic and tenderness of touch.