Monday, January 9, 2017
“Touch has a memory.” ― John Keats
I guess you could call this a “prequel” to yesterday’s blog, at least it is chronologically, but it does make a different, if sort of similar point. On February 16, 1996, I was up at two in the morning watching old black and white movies from the thirties. I didn’t feel good suddenly and went in to wake up Karen to tell her—something I almost never did. She took one look at me, put me in the car and drove me to Mercy Hospital emergency in Rogers, Arkansas. They took one look at me and began hooking up wires all over me. While they were busy, I smiled and said, “Good bye, folks.” At that point, I leaned back and died. It was a warm and pleasant experience but it was not to be a lasting one. If you read yesterday’s blog, you know that a nurse pounded on my chest and brought me back after the ER doc had pronounced me dead. Since I was back among the living, they got all their machines working, hooked up to me, and relaxed just a bit. They got me ready to be transferred to CCU (intensive care for cardiac patients) up on the third floor. Then things got weird. The power went out (common here but not there). Some guy had run his truck into a transformer pole near the hospital. The hospital’s generators kicked in, but they didn’t produce enough power to run the elevators, so I had to stay put for a while. The place was in an eerie light from the emergency lights. Then it got weirder. As we still had insurance then, and I was currently alive and breathing, Karen was hustled off to fill out the seventy-eleven insurance forms for my admission and treatment. Then, after being the center of attention of every person in the ER for over an hour, they suddenly all left me. Seems a Baptist pastor had come in with a heart attack (bad night for religious hearts), so everyone who had been working on me switched over to another part of the ER where I couldn’t hear them and began trying to save him (they did). So, after dying, coming back, and being fussed over by almost everybody, I was alone in an eerily lighted emergency room which was being kept cold enough to hang sides of beef (maybe that’s a rule for ER’s). It was a weird experience all the way round. Cold, alone, having died, and now waiting for power to come back so they could move me up to the third floor, I was more than a trifle confused, a little disoriented, and most decidedly anxious. I jumped a little when someone suddenly pulled the curtains back, and a woman in a lab coat walked up to my gurney, picked up and held my hand, and began slowly and tenderly stroking my arm with her other hand. She told me her name, but I’ve forgotten it. The woman explained that she worked in the lab there at the hospital and recognized my name on the lab work request. When she finished doing the lab work, she came to see me. I had never seen her before in my life (haven’t since either, but that’s not part of the story). Before I had moved to Grace UMC in Rogers as a pastor, I had been the pastor of the Gravette UMC. Gravette was a huge metropolis of about 1,000 people then (with twelve churches). Smallest town in which I had ever lived. Turned out that the lab lady lived in Gravette and her child attended school there. She had heard about me when I first moved to Gravette and knew that I had graduate degrees in literature. That and that alone convinced her to suggest me to be the judge for the third-grade poetry contest at her daughter’s school (the only one in town). I didn’t remember it, but apparently I had agreed to judge the thing and did. Her daughter came in third, she told me, and the little girl was delighted. All this led to her recognizing my name and thinking that I must be a good man (not much to go on, but I’ll take it). This made her want to come see me. What made all this a most significant moment in my life was that just as I was feeling cold, disoriented, alone, and afraid—this kind woman came to my side and held my hand. It was her caring touch that righted my upside-down world. I was not raised by touchy-feely parents nor had touchy-feely siblings and always wanted to be touched and held more than anything. She didn’t know that, of course, she was just a kind woman who somehow knew that what I needed more than anything right then was a caring, human touch, and she provided it. I don’t know how long she stayed there holding my hand and stroking my arm, but she left just minutes before Karen came back and picked up my hand. I remember my wife saying, “I thought your hand would be cold, but it’s warm.” I didn’t say anything at the time, I didn’t know what to say or how to say it. What was even more important was that my heart that hadn’t been beating a little earlier was not only beating now, but it was strangely warmed as well. I don’t think I’m all that unusual in wanting and needing human touch. In the world we now live in, well where you live anyway, touching can be a crime. I’d probably have been arrested for all the hugging and touching I did when I taught second grade in a Los Angeles ghetto twenty years earlier, and I got lice and impetigo from doing it, but those kids needed hugging and by God, I hugged them. My point is that sometimes touch can be the most important thing you can do. I had a friend who was a pastor in Kansas when all the small, family farms were going under and families had to stand by and watch as all their personal belongings were auctioned off by the bank. I remember asking my pastor friend what he said to those families during those auctions. He told me, “There is nothing to say. I just put my arm around the father and hold the hand of the mother. It’s the best thing I can do—let them know they’re not alone.” I knew exactly what he meant. Words come easily to me, often when I would be better served by being silent. That night I learned what a simple touch can do. If you can do it without running afoul of the law, I say “touch away” whenever it’s appropriate. Touch shoulders, upper arms, a hand—it will go much farther than any platitude or scripture if it’s sincere. I will never forget and can still feel that woman’s hand in mine and her other hand on my arm and it’s been over twenty years now. Sure glad I agreed to judge that third-grade poetry contest. Who’d a thought it would make such a difference? We simply don’t know how what we do fits into God’s plan for us, but being kind always seems to work. Don’t neglect a hug, a pat on the back, or holding a trembling hand—you are being God’s physical presence when you do, as that woman was on that exceptional night, and I will never forget her small act of kindness.