by Bridget Holtz & Danielle Knight
It’s been a long while since we could stand, sit, or just be next to our fellow humans without having to take extra health precautions or automatically think, “Does he/she have the virus?” I’m sure many of us feel so over it when it comes to how Covid-19 has utterly overtaken our lives, dictating where we can go, how long we can stay, and with whom we can go.
Something tells me that when things do finally go back to normal, we’re going to jump into our loving relationships with joyful enthusiasm! We’ll likely be eager to get together, share experiences in person, AND be affectionate. I foresee lots of hugging, tight, enduring squeezes, sweet kisses on the cheek, pats on the back, and an overall basking in what it means to be physically close to those we care about.
In our craving to be reunited with our loved ones, we’re reminded about just how important those people are to us, but also how important their physical nearness means. While we might still be able to easily talk on the phone, see what’s going on through someone’s feed, or seeing a familiar face in a virtual chat, none of this replaces our ability to touch and feel these individuals in person, in the flesh. We enjoy hugs, kisses, pats, endearing signs telling us we matter. With five months of social distancing, we are long overdue for some in-person love! We’re ready to reexperience the power of touch.
Fellow contributor, Bridget, echoes just how vital this touch is to us, and especially to our physical healing, in reflections she wrote while she served abroad in Haiti:
Loving and Serving Through Touch
I was thinking the other day that I miss being able to give good massages. As part of my Athletic Training curriculum back in college, we received training in massage. I absolutely loved being able to use my hands to alleviate pain and provide tangible therapy to the athletes under my care. Even more, I treasured being able to touch them and offer that as a service as well.
As I work here in Haiti, I am reminded of the poverty of love in our world. One of these poverties shows itself in the way we suffer from a lack of loving, physical touch. A few friends of mine definitely possess the gift of touch. When they touch me, I can sense their love.
I also notice that because I am not in a place to receive regular physical affection from my friends right now, I may jump or startle when someone does touch me. The kids I am with daily thrive on the warmth of physical touch. Their hands and arms and legs are intertwined with mine before I can react, and they give hugs with all their strength. Just this morning, I got to sit with one of my favorite little girls at Mass, and she ran her fingers across my skirt, studying my arms and hands, and then burying her face against me as we stood. It is only natural to hold her close, my hand on her back as she giggled against my waist. I also finally had some baby time with our little Francheese. She clapped her hands against mine, then cried to be turned, and tucked her head into my shoulder as she stroked my arm with her tiny fingers.
Healing Through the Power of Touch
I am now spending half my time familiarizing myself with the Oncology ward at St. Damien. Numerous cancers are treated here, including leukemias, lymphomas, retinoblastomas, (cancer of the eye), Wilm’s Tumors, neuroblastomas, and osteosarcomas (cancer of the bone). I was asked to join the staff and help to form a Palliative Care program so that the children in a terminal state can be treated and supported well.
Palliative care is the support of the whole person and the numerous aspects of a patient and family’s life in the presence of chronic or acute illness. These include spiritual care, pain and symptom control, physical and occupational therapy, emotional support, continued schooling, art therapy, decision-making, social support, and the continuous process of educating the family.
The hospitalized child is often very fearful and carefully watches any approaching person wearing scrub pants or a lab coat. But there is gentleness and power in an outstretched hand. Too often, we forget in the rush of tasks to pause for this, and we quickly begin examining a patient instead of approaching them gently. All of my relationships here in Mango have begun with the simple gesture of that hand outstretched. The kids tentatively and slowly bring their hands to mine, explore my fingers, find my rings, smile, and glance back for the security of mom’s presence. They then slowly start talking.
The absolute highlight of my week was the sight of a new, little friend, Christo, as he recognized me at the top of the stairs, and despite the huge tumor in his abdomen, leaped up the remaining steps to wrap his arms around my neck and hug me with all his might! We exchanged squeezes as we traveled down the hall toward the room where he knew he would have to receive chemotherapy and blood draws, but his smile and instant demand for candy made me laugh. He screamed as he was examined, and then when his blood transfusion began, he reached for my hand to hold.
Blessed by the Hands God Gave Me
I was always a little bit proud of my hands – I thought they were attractive and strong, and my nails have always grown nicely. On a stupid impulse one afternoon, I grabbed a razor in our inventory room, and as I was opening it, it sliced my finger just so perfectly that a ridiculous series of events ensued. I was terrified that I would not regain motor ability. More than that, I feared I would not be able to use my hands to support patients through the most basic tasks, holding them, assisting them in movement, offering massage to friends, even typing on a computer keyboard or carrying equipment.
But now, two years later, I offer my hands and fingers easily to the tiny hands that timidly grasp it.
Some days I sit just craving a hug from a friend or the strength of their hand as it lovingly squeezes my arm and rests on my back. The volunteers hold hands at Mass on Sunday evenings, reciting the Lord’s Prayer over the bodies of our recently deceased brothers and sisters.
Any of the residents of my program will grasp my fingers as soon as they encounter me. Little Antoine tells me he has a “malade” (problem) with his finger, which one can easily fix with a kiss and a little bit of water. The cancer patients give me “five” as hard as they possibly can. I deal out the cards in our game of Uno. I wash and dress the newly-burned chest of a school student.
We cannot possibly count the number of times we use our hands throughout the day, but perhaps we can be a bit more conscious of how we use them and to whom we offer them, outstretched in friendship or offered in prayer, holding pen to paper in the quickly disappearing act of a handwritten letter, dignifying others through acts that confirm the genuineness of our words.
Bridget’s reflections remind us of what we already understand to be so true: we need love and physical warmth and nearness with those we love–and we need to touch! As we continue to struggle through these times of increased distance and isolation, we hope for the days when we can go back to finding a hand to intertwine with our own. To live, giving and receiving, the power of touch. May we learn anew the importance of the simple gifts we have in life, like the ability to sit next to someone, love them with a touch, and receive the same gift from them.