I was no more than five years old. We were staying with one of my great-grandmothers for a while. She was an old lady by that point, with a sharp mind and a wicked sense of fun. She was also blind, having lost her sight quite suddenly one day on her way to work. We were there to make sure she would be able to manage on her own. My mother had gone out to get some shopping and Grandma and I were alone.
“You’d better go watch the cat,” she said, quite suddenly. Whether it was her hearing or her sense of smell that had alerted her, I never thought to ask, but she knew the moment that the resident moggy went into labour. The cat was curled up a cardboard box lined with clean rags. Grandma had me watch and keep up a running commentary, explaining to me what was happening and what to watch for in case the little mother needed help. Thankfully, she seemed to know what she was doing and, before my mother returned, six damp balls of fur were being licked clean and stretching uncertain limbs. It was the first time I saw a creature born into the world, the first time I held a newborn being. The second came soon afterwards when her son, great-uncle Wilfred, placed a half-hatched egg in my hand and I felt the new life emerge. Warm and damp, the tiny, ugly squab was the most beautiful thing in the world.
Five years later, I was privileged to help my baby brother into this world. I will never forget the wonder of that moment, nor that mine was the first loving touch that he felt. Later, I gave birth to two sons of my own, and the breathless magic of holding them for that very first time is etched in my memory. Many people will experience and recognise that feeling, but each time that ‘feeling’ is ours alone as it is through our senses that we experience the world as a unique and personal journey.
My sons, growing up, would bring me all sorts of injured creatures they had found. Some we could help, others died in my hands and I felt the life leave them. It seems more than the cessation of breath and heartbeat; one moment there is a living thing in your hands, the next, no more than an empty shell. When my partner died of cancer many years ago, it was the same. The much-loved shell remained, but holding his hand as I waited for the ambulance, I could feel the last flicker of life leave him and knew the moment of that final parting.
I have known the beauty of the sense of touch at both ends of life. I have clung to a hand that called me back from the confusion of illness and the blackness of grief and held out that same hand for my sons. I have known the gift of a friend’s arms, the warmth of a lover’s embrace and the joy of a child’s hand in mine. Touch is our first welcome and our last farewell in this world. It is a common human language that, in spite of cultural differences, we all understand and respond to at a level deeper than logic.
Our sense of touch is incredibly important. While the simple, sensory function allows us to learn about and navigate our world, the type of touch that evokes an emotional response plays a huge part in our health and wellbeing. An affectionate hug or a hand holding yours can change everything, from offering reassurance to easing both emotional and physical pain. It alters the levels of oxytocin, the bonding hormone, and cortisol, the stress hormone, as well as having a beneficial effect on blood pressure and helps protect the heart’s physical health. It helps shape our children’s ability to interact with the world, bolster our own self confidence and sense of self-worth and creates the social bonds of trust that we, as a species, all need.
I remember a time when I had first moved to Paris, wandering the streets… loving every minute, but desperately missing contact with another human being. It took all my self-control not to hug a stranger in the street… a wholly inappropriate impulse, but one that arose from a primal and gut-wrenching instinct. That feeling too is etched in memory.
I recognise the beginnings of that feeling now, when touch is being denied to so many, especially those who live alone and who rely on time with loved ones to fulfil this human need. People are beginning to notice and talk about the lack of affective touch and the longer this situation goes on, the worse it will feel. It is one of the tragedies of the pandemic that so many people are being starved of its comfort and reassurance.
I wonder how much collateral damage is being done to our mental and emotional health, just for lack of a hug. How much less stressful the current situation would be if we could hold those we love, instead of being taught to fear any kind of physical closeness. And, perhaps more importantly, how much damage prolonged social distancing and emotional isolation could inflict upon young children, learning to live and love in a world kept two metres apart.
When you open your arms to someone for whom you care, you are opening your heart to them too as you welcome them into your personal space. It is a gesture of trust and acceptance, a sharing of life and love, even just for a moment. For those who see Love as the heart of Creation, it may go deeper still, expressing and affirming the oneness of all.