When I’m not feeling well, everything looks bleak. I’ll start accentuating the negative, like, I must look awful, no one would want to be around me; I’m no good for anything.
There was a period not long ago when I hadn’t been well and I was heavily involved with medical treatment. I was cared for by more nurses than I had known in my entire life – except for my sister, a nurse, whom I don’t include in these tender reflections as our relationship was characterized more by conflict than concord. When I was a kid, I don’t think she cared for me, much.
I’ve been thinking about caring; the caring I’ve offered others in my lifetime and received, myself.
In providing care to others, I can’t say I leave a sterling track record. Even the normal caring involved in being a young dad I often found tedious: night feedings, diaper changes, the constant vigilance required to keep children from harm and the relentless demands of maintaining a home often made me feel put upon. I guess I’d have to say I did not bring the level of positive energy to these tasks as I wish now that I had. I can confidently say that I’ve gotten better, but I’m amazed at how long it’s taken. I believe caring is a virtue people can learn but there are others who are blessed enough to come by it naturally. Nurses are ‘naturals.’
Of the nurses who dealt with me, most were women and, with one exception, all of them were caring. I don’t mean caring in the perfunctory sense that they performed their duties efficiently and responsibly. I mean caring in the subtle, attitudinal sense of the word. With them, my experience led me to believe that each one took personal satisfaction in bringing comfort to me and to all those they ministered to. Their presence made me feel valued.
To be effective, a measure of genuine concern has to be in the caring somewhere. If the transaction has none, the interactions become lackluster and brittle.
At Johns Hopkins Hospital, I began noticing the significance that touching played in the interactions between a nurse and patient. While engaging in medical interventions or even small talk, a nurse’s touch communicated to me a powerful sense of being cared for at times when my illness and its treatment left me feeling disconnected, vulnerable and useless. I still marvel at how something apparently as small and inconsequential as a touch can have such a powerful effect on the emotional life of a human being. It remains for me one of the great mysteries of spirituality.
Touch is a powerful agent in the human experience. At the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo immortalized touch when he artistically rendered “The Creation of Adam.” In this portrayal, Adam is given life, not from the breath of God as written in Genesis, but from the touch of God’s finger. Something about a touch as a life-giving force seized the popular imagination even more than breath.
The touch I am speaking of is a very different sort from the erotic kind. Unfortunately, in today’s troubled world, the word ‘touch’ has become a forbidden word. It evokes predatory images, heartbreaking pictures of exploitation and broken trust. With erotic touching, there’s a compulsion to dominate and to make emotional claims on another.
The touch I’m discussing makes no claims. It occasions no arousal or titillation. I can best describe my reaction to the nurses’ touch as a feeling of being incredibly grounded, belonging, an integral part of a dynamic process greater which although unseen, is palpable. It’s a little like feeling loved but without any of the possessive claims that are so often associated with the word ‘love.’
For me, nurse Jean represented the restorative power of a touch. A birdlike young woman, thin as a willow’s limb, Jean walked soundlessly in and out of my room at a pace just short of sprinting. She was frequently assigned to my care. Jean was emotive and demonstrative. She had a hint of an accent, Puerto Rican maybe. Jean wore the protective mask which only emphasized her eyes that flashed intermittently as she emphasized something about which she felt strongly. The energy in the room seemed to increase with her presence.
Jean loved to talk.
When Jean would finish some medical intervention, she’d place a finger on my arm or shoulder and just chat for a minute. In fact she talked all the time. Her finger pressure increased or decreased depending on the level of enthusiasm her story invoked for her. Her soliloquies always seemed more like free association than inspired by some particular topic. I recall little of what she said, but I know I felt better even though my discomforts may have remained. I did not feel alone. It was not her words, but the music I heard in her voice and in the touch that I felt. They mobilized a form of healing that doesn’t’ necessarily heal but definitely transforms. I feel the climate changing, as I do with shifts in the weather.
The night before I was to leave Hopkins, I tossed and turned, fearful of the days coming next. The door opened and Jean entered silently, taking her characteristically long strides. She drew close to the bed, saw I was awake, and placed her hand on my arm. She chatted briefly. She told me she’d be leaving on vacation to see family, and she knew I’d be gone when she returned. Jean wished me well and said she wanted to leave this note. She chatted some and left.
The note read;
I didn’t want to wake you up but I’m off for the next 7 days and I hope that you’re outta here by then. Thank you for being such a nice patient.
Don’t come back too soon ––even though I know you will miss us too much!!! I hope you get well soon and say “Hi” to Ms. Jo for me.!!! Take care always!!!
It was a nice touch, I thought.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.