A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away … I was a child. It was Christmas, and I thought I’d just received the best gift ever. EVER. I was now the proud owner of my very own big ol’ box of sausages, cheeses, petit fours, crackers, jams, and other treats. And a stack of new books. I grabbed a blanket and some pillows, crawled under the kid's art table in the living room, and disappeared for the better part of the day. Nothing could top this, I thought. EVER.
I was wrong.
I grew up, got married, had kids. Had all the happy I wanted, right inside of me and all around me in the sweet little faces of my children. My husband and I had two healthy kiddos, a girl named Ellie and a boy named Michael. And I’d just given birth to Clinton, our third child. Clinton, with his heart issues. Clinton, with his strength and determination. Clinton, who died ten days before Christmas in a state six-hundred miles away from home.
It was while we were at the hospital that I realized I’d actually, this time, received the greatest gift ever. EVER.
It stemmed from our infant son, and it changed me. Because of the little dark haired fellow, I began to understand the true value of human contact. Human touch. I’d never been much of a touchy-feely person—apart from babies and kiddos, anyway. My immediate family, sure, I could hug and kiss them just fine. But anyone beyond them … meh. It just wasn’t my thing.
Enter Clinton. He was an open-chest patient. They’d done various surgeries on his heart to fix his Transposition of the Great Vessels diagnosis. After so many times under the knife, and as he got sicker, his skin became too fragile to seal up. Instead, they sewed a little patch onto him, covering the open incision. We could watch the beating of his heart against the surface. Because of Clinton’s open-chest status, we could not hold him (with one exception when a nurse felt it had been too long for mommy and son to have gone without a cuddle).
Clinton had a feeding tube down his throat, and therefore could not make vocal sounds. Loaded with intense medications to alleviate pain and keep him from moving too much, his motions were drowsy and slow. As a newborn, he didn’t have tears when he cried; it takes many weeks for the tear ducts to produce that moisture. Watching his sweet baby face was the main way for us to tell if he was crying and needed something. He’d pucker up, furrow his brow, and push out that lower lip. My mama heart would lurch, and his daddy and I would comfort him however we could.
Forehead to forehead, I’d touch him, leaning over the side of his plastic bassinet hospital bed. Rub his arms and legs with my fingers, kiss his cheeks. Breathe him in. Hold his tiny hands.
This touching was normal, easy—natural for me. But it became extended to others. A nurse. A Child Life Specialist. Visitors in the hallway. Other parents with young ones in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. Friends of friends who came to visit. The list grew. I couldn’t tell if I was hugging for my insides to feel better or hugging to help the other people feel stronger. Pretty soon, it didn’t even matter to me what the reason might be. There was something precious and profound in each hug. A recognition of humanity. Of a shared moment in a side-by-side life story. A reminder that none of us was alone. The validation that what we faced in our individual days was tough and scary. Heart wrenching. But that we were stronger than our worst fears. That love was stronger than anything. EVER. That, through touch, we could hold tight and hold up … or simply let go.
When we left that hospital, my husband driving, two of our sweet children in the back seat, one precious baby in our hearts, and a small white box of ashes on my lap, I was a changed person. I craved touch and hugs. From anyone.
Which brings us to the present-day. There’s this woman at my gym—a local YMCA—and I’ll call her Fran. Because I think that’s her name. Let me just put it out there: I want to be Fran when I grow up. She comes for a senior strengthening class, and she always arrives early. And she passes out hugs. To everyone. Sweaty, smelly, gym-using bodies get folded into her soft, strong arms. Pulled tight against her fresh clothes, surrounded by a welcoming soul-to-soul recognition of “You’re here today, and I’m glad to see you.” She wishes everyone a good day, passes to the next person. I watched the other day as five people waited their turn: men, women, old and young. Nothing fazes her as she walks across the gym floor. She waits until a person recognizes the opportunity, and then she’ll open her arms and smile.
Without my experience with Clinton, I’d have missed this amazing connection. I’d have shied away from a stranger wanting to get so close to me. I am forever thankful that he put me in a place in my life where I could grow.
I think all people should receive such a gift, the understanding of the importance of touch. To be seen, to be held. To be given the knowledge that they are not alone, that what they have inside of them holds value. It would help our broken humanity if we had ties to each other like this. Fewer tragedies might take place throughout the world. Hugs are easy to give, nice to receive, and have the potential to save humanity. What a great gift; indeed, they are the best. EVER.