Is there any human sensation more intimate or consoling than that of the caring touch of another human? Pondering this, I imagined if I were blind how powerful and reassuringly connective the sensation of touch would be. Children need to feel their mother’s touch, completing the bond of connection that simple words or gestures cannot. Couples unconsciously reach for each other’s hands throughout the many moments of shared joys and abstract pains in their collective lives. As children, we’re taught to never cross the street without “holding hands.” As adolescents, we’re told to “shake hands” after a game or maybe after a fight with a sibling. It is the sense of touch that commits us all to one another, especially when words cannot convey the weight of our hearts.
Who hasn’t wiped a tear from a child’s cheek and, in doing so, offered the gentle persuasion and support of touching the child to reconnect the bond of protection and love, as if through our touch we could erase their pain? Holding my daughter’s soft little hand in my much bigger and stronger hand is as placating to me as I know it is to her. While her smooth little hand feels like a spring flower in mine, I know well the feeling of my much larger, coarser hand around hers, as I remember my father’s strong protective grip on mine.
As I stood over my father’s receding life in his hospice bed, it all seems too surreal, too soon. I realize I’m not ready for this. And now, after a lifetime of words, it’s all come down to the touch of his rugged hand. While all manners of his physical being have slowly been depleted,
it’s his rugged hands I notice. His hands remain chiseled and strong, long since forged from 50 years of hard work. As I struggle to compose both my thoughts and demeanor, I look anew upon these hands as I hold them in my once little, but now stronger ones, and wonder if he feels my touch. My thoughts flash back to my daughter’s precious little hands, and I worry for her someday when it might be my old hand lovingly caressed in hers.
As the hours turn to days and the wind whips the budding branches of spring outside my father’s window, I slowly, though begrudgingly, begin to accept what is to be. Having both my parents into my mid-forties had, in essence, allowed me in my mind to remain someone’s child, perpetually protected in my adolescent memory of two young, strong and beautiful parents. Funny how so many events play out in your mind with regard to wishing time would speed up and you too would be “grown up” until one day you are, as you then long for the innocence of your youth. The distractions of life somehow cloud our visions of reality; instead we stay cloaked in the clutter of our own life, still in many ways not completely grown up so long as we’re still someone’s child.
Though I am not sure if he even knows I’m here, my father responds with a squeeze that seems to replace the words he cannot utter. He’s unable to communicate other than by squeezing my hand when I ask if he’s comfortable, cold, or if he needs anything. After a lifetime of words, it’s all come down to the touch of a rugged hand. Against the sorrow I feel in my heart I assure him it’s “OK” to just let go; he squeezes my hand harder.
I do all I can to comfort him, wiping his brow, cleaning his face, massaging his legs. I establish a rapport with every nurse immediately, learning their names, where they are from, as I try to take as much interest in their lives as I want them to take in my father’s. It seems to work. They are kind, pleasant and seem to genuinely care about him, at least when I am there. I post a photo of him on his bulletin board surrounded by his five sons, just so that they see that this is a “real” person, one who has a real life, and people who love him, too. This is done in an attempt to keep him as humanized as possible while the familiar traces of his being begin to fade ever so slowly.
And as he fades I sit quietly, occasionally reassured by the gentle and caring hospice nurses that they are just outside the room if I need anything. I think to myself that what I need is for my father to get up out of this bed as the strong man I remember him to be. I know this will not happen. I’m slowly coming to terms with his mortality, as well as our shared path. And as I do, I realize, maybe for the first time in my life, that all our existences are circular, his present condition illuminating this fact daily as I see him slip more and more into the reliance of others. And when all else has been given, all I can give is love. I cannot take away his pain, nor can I make him well. All I have left to offer is the loving assur- ance that he is not alone, that he is much loved, and that I am here with him.
My father is nothing if not the toughest man I know. After everything he’s been through, and all the physical ailments, his spirit yields nothing to his condition. He fights, and I hold his hand. Occasionally a tear wells up in his eye and I’ll dab it before it falls, making me wonder if maybe he does know what is going on around him and that I have come from Florida
to be with him. Because of this fact, I will not cavalierly discuss his condition or my options in his room with his doctors or nurses, choosing instead to always step outside his room. I operate on the assumption that the body is weak, but the mind and spirit are still alive, probably in ways we cannot understand until the day when it will be our turn.
Still, it all comes back to his hands. These hands that once held mine when I was deathly sick myself as a child; or lifted me through the endless summer waves of my youth at the Jersey shore. These are the hands that may have occasionally been used in anger, though I cannot recall now that they ever were. He is weak for sure, but his hands speak of the 72 years that have sculpted them, as if the hands are the odometer of one’s life. No one wants to see their parent die; however, as I’ve sat and pondered his life and mine, I’ve slowly prepared myself for this moment. The selfishness in me wants to hold onto that grip as long as I can, though the compassion in me wants to see his suffering end. Problem is, I’m not sure who has a greater grip on whom at this point. The one thing I am sure of is that life has a way of making us all grow up in different ways. I had mistakenly thought that when I arrived for this vigil I already was. I now know I wasn’t.
Still, the process of growing up is not something that is acquired so much by our accomplishments and triumphs, as it is by the lessons learned through our defeats and heartaches, and in the value of what really matters and, quite often, what really hurts. Losing a parent, at least for me, represens a much more tangible lesson in what growing up is all about—it’s about cherishing who we have, while we have them. Those who fail to recognize this before the fact, often fail to ever really grow in this life. The pain, much like a touch, is what assures us that we are indeed connected, and that we have both grown and learned from that connection.
My seven-day journey took me down a painful and touching path of enlightenment that culminated with my father’s passing on March 13, 2006 – something that I believe made me a better son, father, and person. More important than my loss was the realization of what I had gained through such a vividly sad and real experience, one that for me completed a life-long journey of growing up both chronologically and emotionally.