|The gift of touch
||[Jan. 23rd, 2005|03:30 pm]
A very dear family friend has died and Friday was his service. He had been a wonderful husband, father, grandfather and friend. He also had been a conscientious, capable, and trustworthy employee. His job was what ultimately killed him. The nature of his work many years ago had exposed him to copious amounts of asbestos, and there was nothing the doctors could do anymore to keep his lungs from sharing space with grapefruit-sized tumors. |
It was to be a very private gathering. A cremation. Just family. The phone call on Thursday urged, “You must come, after all you are family.” It would not be possible to be at the service, we could not get there in time, but going to the house to spend the afternoon with the bereaved was something that needed to be done. After all, we were family.
The drive to New York State – to a town on the west side of the Hudson River -- took just about five hours. As the car got nearer to the house, I remembered all the drives to this area to spend the summers away from the heat and humidity of D.C. The first thing that needed to be done, after opening and airing out the house, of course, was to call these friends and tell them we were finally there. “Ah, the summer has officially begun,” he would always say and then, “Come for supper.”
Driving to JackandMary’s house. That’s how I always called it. Not Jack’s house. Not Mary’s house. JackandMary’s house as if it were one word. Before supper, there was swimming in the pool and then, on the stone back patio, we would sit, eat, talk, and laugh. For years, we followed this routine. They were like parents to me, making sure I had what I needed when I was alone at the house where I spent the summer. And when I didn’t have the car, Jack would come and pick me up and take me to his and Mary’s house for swimming and supper.
So, on Friday, I was finally at…Mary’s house. Her children were there and she was sitting in the kitchen in her wheelchair and she looked calm. We shared stories about Jack, drank coffee, ate, laughed, and shared. It was time for supper and the children pressed us to stay and have something to eat before we hit the road because, unfortunately, we were not spending the night in the area and had to drive the five hours back to D.C. It was getting late but, of course, I stayed for supper.
When it was really time to leave, I looked around and everyone was doing something. Mary was at the table in her wheelchair and she was quietly looking at everything around her and seemed to be enjoying the bustle. She hadn’t cried the whole five hours I was there, and this made it possible for me not to as well. Privately, I had wanted to reach out to her, to find something to say to her that would help her in her grief. I didn’t know what to say because what could one say in such a situation. But I was leaving and it was time to give her some comfort. I walked over to her, hoping that I would find the gift of words that would give her peace, for that moment anyway.
She looked up at me and winked. That threw me. I expected a small smile, maybe, but an impish wink? I smiled at her and put my hand on her head. It was then that I realized that for the time that I had been at her house, nobody touched her. Oh, they spoke to her, gave her things, pushed her wheelchair when she wanted to go to her room, smiled at her, laughed at what she would say…but, no touch.
My hands were on her head and I began to stroke and play with her hair. Her reaction was immediate: she closed her eyes, sighed and said, “That really feels good. I could go to sleep right now.”
So for about ten minutes I stayed by Mary’s side, stroking her hair, feeling her relax. Then it was time. I hugged her tightly and whispered, “Mary.” She squeezed my arm and said, “Ssh. I know.”
Hugging the children goodbye, they each said the same thing to me, “I am so happy and moved that you were here. Thank you for coming.”
How could I not? They are family.