Pondering Human TouchPosted: May 13, 2010
During the week I sleep in my bed, ride public transit, sit at my desk, read in my chair, sleep in my bed… But come Monday night my small frame is converted into a living jungle gym. I’ve become good friends with three little boys who live just a few houses down from mine. Upon entering their home I am attacked by an onslaught of wiggling and giggling brothers. This is absolutely the highlight of my week. Could there possibly be anything more therapeutic in the world?
My mom cares for elderly. She recently kissed the forehead of a bald old man. His eyes shot up at her, glowing with surprise. His wife has been dead for decades. He has no family left. He lives alone. When was the last time anyone kissed him? On her next visit to take care of this aging man she found him lying on his bed, holding up a large tissue paper flower toward her.
Our first nine months of life, we grow to the beat of our mother’s heart; we are enveloped within another human’s flesh. Newborn babies who are placed skin-to-skin on their mother adjust more easily to life outside the womb. They cry less, have lower levels of stress hormones, breastfeed sooner, maintain better body temperatures and more stable blood sugar levels, and have an easier time breathing. Their mothers produce more oxytocin and bond more deeply with their babies, they produce more milk, and respond to their baby’s needs with more confidence than mothers who do not have regular skin-to-skin contact with their babies.
My sister spend last summer caring for children in a Romanian orphanage. Their drastic deprivation of human contact left many grossly delayed in physical and mental development. Some rocked incessantly. Others scratched themselves until they bled. Many were not capable of developing healthy attachment patterns with anyone.
Weeks ago I hopped on the train as a man was stumbling out, carrying a limp woman in his arms. “Does anyone have some water, some sugar? I just found her like this. I think she is diabetic. Can someone call for help?” I handed over my bag of black licorice, but wished I had something of another flavor when I saw her grimace at the flavor. He was supporting all of her weight, and rain was pouring down. I wonder how long they stayed like that before help arrived. Where had they each been traveling before their path’s crossed?
Last summer I found myself in a hospital room with a screaming woman who could not speak any English. The nurses and midwife had been struggling to communicate with hand signals and broken Spanish to this frightened Hispanic woman. I whispered in her ear, “Puedes hacerlo.” She squeezed onto my hand for the next 2 hours until her baby finally came and the pain subsided. After the baby was suckling at the breast, I left the birthing room, flexing blood back into my tingling fingertips.
“Sometimes we touch strangers. Sometimes no one speaks. Like clouds we travelers meet and part with members of our cohort, our fellows in the panting caravans of those who are alive while we are. How many strangers have we occasion to hold in our arms?” -Annie Dillard, For the Time Being, 135.
The day I read these words, I stopped by the house of an elderly neighbor I’d never met. I just knew her name and knew that she lived alone. She’d never married and never had children. She didn’t ask me very many questions. She had so much to tell, and I was happy to just listen. When she started to look sleepy I excused myself and slipped by her to the door, but then I stopped. I turned back around and wrapped my arms around her withered shoulders.