“And when I touch you I feel happy inside”
The Beatles (I Wanna Hold Your Hand)
On this morning’s walk, a saw a young dad and his 7 year-old son strolling down the sidewalk in front of me holding hands. As I walked by, I was struck by how profoundly such a seemingly commonplace sight affected me, cut through to my soul like a knife through warm butter. And then I realized it’s because the sight of fathers & sons holding hands is not “commonplace” at all. Why is that? Don’t dads understand that their little (and not-so-little) boys have the same need for “connectedness” with their father as their “little girls” – that there’s nothing uncool or unmanly about such PDAs (public displays of affection) between the guys. Surely, my dad understood that – didn’t he? Why then, despite racking my brain over the next two miles of my walk, was I unable to remember what his hand felt like in mine? Why couldn’t I remember a single time after I learned to walk safely and independently that he reached out and took my hand for no particular reason or made me feel comfortable in reaching out for his, even in times when I most needed the simple reassurance of his touch?
My dad, I suspect like many of his generation, really wasn’t the affectionate type – even when it came to my mom or his mom, let alone his dad. He was a man who expressed his love (when he did) in deed. He cared by doing or so he thought. Problem was: I was too young to “appreciate” these kinds of deep-seated, family-of-origin issues. All I knew was that many of my friends’ moms and dads were very much touchy/feely types, had no problem openly, physically expressing themselves and that I was starving – emotionally. I longed to experience the kind of genuine physical connection that only a hug or a hand can deliver. I waited until my parents’ dying day – and it never came. The hugs remained hollow and vacuous and the hand was never extended. I’d like to think I did a better job with my own children, especially my daughter, but I’m not at all sure I did with my son – even though, looking back, he was always the more welcoming of the two when it came to mom and dad’s touch. It wasn’t that I hadn’t learned my lesson with respect to the importance of holding my son’s hand, it’s just that I’d never really learned how to hold a hand and “mean” it and, as a result, I mostly sucked at it!
Several months ago, I was reminded of the power of a properly held hand. I was sitting at my desk early one morning when a courageous friend in need called and asked to see me. We met and I sat listening and watching as her delicate heart broke before my eyes and an endless stream of tears borne of years of guilt and shame silently streamed down the side of her beautiful face. I’m always humbled to be in the presence of such vulnerability and never at all sure what to do or say. This time, at least initially, I didn’t say anything. Instead, I reached out, took her hand and gently placed it in mine – and the two of us just sat for a moment in silence. As we did, I could almost feel some of the pain being siphoned off her heart and transferred through the tips of our intertwined fingers to mine, which was wide open with empathy and ready to bear it so that hers could have moment’s respite. The words that followed were really secondary and unnecessary. My touch said it all:
“You are not alone in this world.”
“You don’t have to walk this leg of the journey alone.”
“I accept you – just as (and right where) you are.”
“You matter to me.”
“You are worthy of my touch.”
“I affirm the goodness in you and empathize with your struggle.”
“I’m here to share your burden.”
“We’re all in this Life thing together.”
“Whatever “it” is it will have to deal with both of us!”
“I value you enough to give you part of me.”
I smiled as I walked past that young dad, knowing that by simply, tenderly and lovingly letting his son borrow his hand for an early morning walk he was conveying those same unspoken messages – and then I cried (a lot) for all the times the little boy inside of me so desperately needed them and the messenger hand that came with them.