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The Squeeze that Broke the Dam

We were not very close, my father and I. Sure we were cordial. Polite. Even friendly. But consistently superficial – shallow, even. Always joking, always laughing, but never really talking. Communication was neither of our strong points. We were the comedians – the happy makers – the King and Princess of rose-colored glasses. So that day in the doctor’s office was no different. Until the squeeze. The squeeze that finally broke the dam.

It was March of 2003. I was sitting with my father in an exam room, waiting for the results of the CT scan for his back pain. We were in uncomfortable chairs, bored, making meaningless small talk. The PA walked in, took his seat, and without any preamble or warning matter-of-factly looked at us both and stated that my father had cancer – and it had spread throughout his body.

We sat there in shocked silence. Strong. Stoic. Expressionless mannequins, side-by-side. Our world was shattering around us, yet we were both fighting to maintain our neutrality, to show no feelings. Two emotionally-stunted human beings. Then quite unexpectedly I felt my right arm go up as I reached out smoothly and silently, grabbed my father’s hand – and squeezed.

In that instant, that one simple touch, that one simple connection of skin against skin, communicated what I had never been able to actually voice: I love you Dad.

He died five months later.

Touch provides comfort. Touch reassures. Touch helps physical and mental growth. Most of all, touch communicates, as I learned that fateful day.

In a world where we’ve been bombarded by the term “sexual harassment,” everyone is afraid of touch. Unless you are in a sexual relationship, have small children, or even pets, touch is persona non grata. And yet – yet – it is probably the most important part of life.

At the IDEA fitness conference in July of 2007, Life Fitness founder Augie Nieto, now confined to a wheelchair due to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) spoke as a keynote presenter. His speech was infused with humor and insight. Possibly his most poignant point was about touch. He stated that touch is his most basic need now, the one thing he craves. And he made it clear that we need to touch people in wheelchairs, because they really need the interaction and the reassurance that it provides. He received a standing ovation.

Touch is magic. In people of all ages, it reduces stress, increases seratonin levels, releases oxytocin, and reduces cortisol levels in the body. Studies on infants and children link touch directly to healthy physical development. And yet we don’t do enough of it.

Don’t be afraid to reach out. Don’t be afraid to hug. Let’s not have society dictate an existence that forces us further apart from each other. We waste too much time in front of televisions, computers and in cars. We can be with people and yet feel alone and lonely. And if we are not careful we will wither away.

If you have kids, pets or are getting some “action” – maybe you have enough. But for the rest of us, or the handicapped, or the elderly, touch is probably fairly non-existent.

We are all aware of what touching is appropriate and what’s not. Let’s not fear so much. Reach out – hug – pat someone on the arm or the back. If someone is sad, hold their hand. If someone needs your arms, have them ready. It’s not hard. And it will make a difference – to all of us.

Pass it on.

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10 Comments on "The Squeeze that Broke the Dam"

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Deborah
Guest

Wow, reading this just blew me away!

Junie
Guest

Helen, thank you for writing this. It was an eye-opener

Kristen
Guest

Helen,
We have so much in common, you and I. We both love food, and probably both use it for comfort from time to time, although we know not to. And our relationship with our fathers are much the same.
I have not had to opportunity to touch my father in that way yet, he is very resistant to touch. I pray that someday I will have the same chance to express how much I love him. You’re article made me cry.

spinchick
Guest
Kristen, I looked down just now found Oreos in my lap…how did they get there? I don’t even LIKE Oreos. But it’s been a stressful week and that’s all I had in the house. :-} On my dad’s last day, I sat by the hospital bed holding his hand (again) in mine, and rubbing his chest with the other. After he died I found myself rubbing his lower legs – I don’t know why. I couldn’t stop for about 30 minutes after he’d passed. It was weird. I think I just wanted to make sure he knew I was there.… Read more »
Tammy
Guest

Very touching story. I don’t think we realize the value and need for touch, until it is missing. I come from a very affectionate family and am the same way with my own daughter. However, my husband’s family was not that way and so neither is he. It is something we have struggled with.

spinchick
Guest
Tammy, with guys it can be particularly hard, because many of them are not used to touching unless it’s in a sexual or possessive way (excuse my bluntness). I am fortunate to have a couple of guy friends who are great and natural touchers. It feels relaxed and comfortable rather than forced. As parents, we are our childrens’ teachers and we show them what to expect from life. When fathers cuddle and are close with their daughters it teaches young girls that they can be loved for who they are – and that they don’t have to “put out” with… Read more »
Toni
Guest

Your story is very touching and made me cry. Touching is one of the many things I miss about living in San Diego. Watching the sunset and giving hugs was a neighborhood ritual that simply felt right.

Heather t.G.
Guest
“As a side note, massage therapists are amazing people. They are true “healers” of body and soul.” Very true! Massage tharpists are the BEST! 😉 Touch , to me, is best explained like a conductor of electricity. When the connection is made, it opens up the “freeway” of energy. The sadness can leave thier soul, while the comfort then can come on in! It’s more soothing than traffic though!!! 🙂 Aside from the emotional benifits that are more obvious, I’m glad that you “touched on” (notice the play on words!) the physical benifits and the changes that are actually made… Read more »
spinchick
Guest

HtG, I thought of you when I wrote about massage…and my (ex)sister-in-law. You both rock. Power to the massage therapists!

JJ
Guest
The message about your Dad also touched me. I was an only child. I have a brief memory that Dad hugged me when I was a little girl & then the next time was @ my wedding. He died of a heart attack @ 47 years old. There were no warnings to this horrible event. On that fateful day, Mom & Dad had just driven to Balboa Park in San Diego to enjoy the Christmas lights. When they were getting ready for bed, Mom heard some strange noises. She found Dad on the floor in another room gasping & holding… Read more »
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