Sunday, July 5, 2009

Touching


The social rules about touching were suspended, just for a week.

I am the product of two very different emotional paradigms. My father's family is fun-loving, but not emotionally demonstrative. They show love, rather than express it in a touchy-feely way. My mom's family, by contrast, had hugging lines, and everyone got grabbed both coming in or going out the door every time. Very demonstrative. 

So I grew up with two different senses of how personal interactions work. Most of the time, that meant that I had a deep-seated desire to be touchy feely and a deep-seated sense that it was inappropriate to be that way.  The way I have come to terms with it is to have a handshake to fill the gap. A good handshake, but just a handshake.

And this past week, all of my internal social rules about touching were suspended. 

My father in law had a brain tumor that left him more and more weak. Last Saturday we visited, and he was in bed, his breathing assisted by two tubes in his nose. Big Ern has spent the past two weeks passing between two poles - pain and unconscious, unable to speak or to express anything but discomfort.

His wife, Barbara, was with him there the whole time. Our visit Saturday was the first time she had left his side – my wife took her grocery shopping. I stayed with Ernie.

At first I read to him, but that did nothing but agitate him (don't know whether that was the voice or the source material). So I held his hand. I straightened him up on his pillow. I caressed his head. I touched his cheek. I put my hand on his shoulder.

I touched. And for a moment, it seemed like the fear that gripped him passed, if just for a short while. Somehow, the rules that we have as a society were relaxed, just for a while, to provide comfort to someone who was in pain.
And I don’t mean Ernie.

My father in law, Ernest Earl O’Hara, retired Major in the Air Force, veteran of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, died Monday morning, around five o'clock AM. 

In the aftermath, the rules remained suspended as we as a family dealt with our sadness. 

My sister in law is a wreck. As in a trainwreck. She is battling demons I don’t even want to think about, and she did not make it to my in-laws to say goodbye. She spent most of the trip sobbing uncontrollably. 

I hugged her. I held her hand when she went to view the body. My hand was on her shoulder as she touched the face of her father. apologizing to him for not coming in time. The rules relaxed, just for a while, to provide comfort to someone who was in pain.

I haven’t somehow lost my inner Scot. I am still every bit as uncomfortable with the intense physical contact. I still worry that it will be misunderstood. I am not going to go around the table, laying on hands, nor will I try to hold hands with the person next to me when I sit down.

But I am beginning to question our rules. The prohibition on touching is not a cultural universal. I am beginning to wonder whether what we are seeing in terms of violence around us is not based in pain. If maybe the abuses we see would not be alleviated by the calming effect of taking someone’s hand. 

We live in a society with sensory overload. The sounds around us are so much that we shut them out with iphones and ipods. We protect ourselves against aromas by using underarm protection and mouthwash and we place our city dumps far away from where we live. We eat foods that have been carefully processed from animals that have been kept away from anything that might make them taste different. We have a sterile society.

And we don’t touch. And when we do, it is momentous.

You see the end results of peace accords. The symbolic handshake. You see the winner of the pageant hugging the runner up and the conflict of emotion there – ecstasy and sadness and excitement and comfort. 

Yes, far too many times has touch been abused, and resulted in one person exerting domination over another. That is not what I am suggesting; not what I want. But I am doing a re-assessment of my own inner struggle with reaching out. 

Because I know the effect that the simple smoothing of the brow of a man with whom I had a complicated relationship – I know what that did for me. 

I know what happened when, just for a moment, the rules were suspended.