Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | November 16, 2010

A Touching Story

There are many kinds of touching.

There is the touch between parent and child. This may be the most elemental kind of touch, growing and changing as the child does. Once upon a time I could cradle my baby along a single arm, her head tucked into my cupped palm, her tiny perfect body draped between my wrist and elbow. That infant now stands several inches taller than her mother. In the last year of her father’s illness we shared things no teenager should have to see. Although we rarely speak of it, this knowledge informs our touches now; we care for each other watchfully. We share the gift of blood, the miracle of my body somehow building her body, her silky hair, her slender dexterous hands so unlike my own. She patiently allows me to play with that thick waterfall of hair even as her deft fingers search my shoulder blades for the knots she now knows so well.

There is the touch of sisters, deeply caring and nurturing. We share the dubious gift of family history, and thus the gift of laughing and crying together, sometimes both at the same time. She thinks no less of me for all my weaknesses. She settles me on the sofa in her cozy apartment, makes tea and feeds me homemade bread and fancy cookies. Her hugs and humor nourish me at least as much as do her offerings of food.

There is girlfriend touch. This can be a casual arm flung briefly across shoulder or hip with friends I see often, or the deeper embrace of compassion and empathy from more distant women. Between girlfriends are the gifts of beach walks, road trips, cocktails, paperbacks, impromptu shared suppers, impulsive phone calls or emails just to check in.

There is the touch of male friends. This touch is the occasional bear hug, its manly energy and strength so welcome now. Solid arms wrap around me, could lift me right off the ground, and I hold on just as tightly. From these few good men comes the gift of unadorned closeness – holding securely yet not grasping, the unthreatening sometimes-a-hug-is-just-a-hug-ness of them, the giving and the receiving in that moment only, nothing more from past or future. These hugs are rare, but deeply sustaining.

There is the touch of competent, even caring, although still paid hands working out the kinks in my tired body. Here is the gift of a moment’s transport out of this lonely untouched life. For a while, in the darkened, temperature-controlled room with its tasteful unobtrusive music, there is no keeping track of time. There is only me – nude under scented sheets – and the masseur: strong skilled hands running the full length of my leg from ankle to hip, finding and kneading the tight muscles, smoothing all with sweet fragrant lotion. Then the hour is over. I get dressed, and write a check, and drive home alone.

There was once the touch of care-giving, touch which deepened over long months of illness. Here were services I never expected to perform when contemplating my husband’s body with a different kind of caring. The grace in his acceptance of my offering was a great gift I received even while giving to him everything I could provide. Here touch meant tucking a blanket around him, soft fleece the deep green of his eyes. There was plumping of pillows; caressing and taking measure of his feverish brow; holding back his hair with one hand while balancing a basin with the other; cleaning him with warm damp cloths; dressing him in shirts and sweatpants, socks and slippers; my stronger arms gripping his weakened ones to bring him upright; carefully arranging him in the wheelchair. We held hands in our bedroom, across the hospital bed’s metal railing. The last gift I could give him was touch he needed as much as medicine, as much as sleep: he craved the gentle massage of his bony feet and gnarled toes, padded palms and stiff fingers, his heavy head. Here touch meant softly stroking the tender, newly revealed skin over his bare skull or stretched taut across his sharp cheekbones. My fingers knew his deep-set velvety closed eyelids, his sweet crinkly laugh-lines as well as they know my own face. They still do.

Then that one wakeful night there was the touch of my thumb and fingers encircling the soft pale skin on the underside of his wrist, searching for his blood pulsing quietly in its path beneath small bones and ligaments. No matter how I searched, that touch found only stillness. In the interminable hours before dawn was the touch that let me know his body as an empty shell, slowly cooling from the inside.

Touch helps. Heals, even. But all the touch I may receive from friends and family cannot replace the time and touch we two shared. Before we were patient and caregiver we were husband and wife; before that we were best friends shyly excited by new possibilities in one another. Touch helped us become the We who is now only me, the two who is now only one. We two were once a single unit that shared such touching, of family, friend, care-giver and receiver, wife and husband, lovers – all that and more. We shared the gift of knowing each other so deeply that we could laugh and play and give and take only through touch. At those times there was no language, no need to speak. We could use words only to enhance pleasure. Yes. More. Here. Don’t stop. Love you so.

We touch so intimately, so knowingly, for so long, we forget whose skin, whose flesh is whose; we each feel it all, giving and taking are indeed one, where taking bestows pleasure and in giving one also receives. We can rest, sleep, trusting implicitly. We can soar together or we can give each other that gift of flight, of being taken up like a kite by warm wind, past that familiar point of no return. We can watch without envy, with gratitude and love, as our other one goes to that place without words, without light, that dark warm place of pure sensation, with only the bodily knowledge of toes curled in ecstasy before we drift back to earth and open eyes to see the other’s gentle smile of peaceful knowing joy and love.

That is the touch I miss so. I feel its shadowy echo each time a small gift of touch appears. It is still difficult to think of it in past tense and realize we’ll not share those touches ever again.
That touch I’ll not be able to replace. How could I even try.

Nothing else can touch it.

©2010 Carolyn Stephens



  1. You are quite brilliant, you know?


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