October 2, 2015
Just Touch Me
By Warren Holleman
Have you ever heard the gospel hymn, “He Touched Me”? It was written by Bill Gaither and recorded by Elvis Presley. We used to sing it a lot back in the 1980s, at the evangelical church we went to. The chorus went like this:
He touched me, oh He touched me.
And oh the joy that floods my soul.
Something happened and now I know
He touched me and made me whole.
In 1987 something happened to me, and that something infused this song with a richer, deeper meaning.
I’ll begin by saying that 1987 was a year of exciting new beginnings for my wife and me. We had our first baby, a little girl named Annie. And we were just launching our careers as well.
But it was also a time of sad endings that seemed so dissonant with all those happy beginnings. 1987 was the year the AIDS epidemic hit hard, especially in the Montrose community where we lived. It seemed like all the young men around us were dying. Over the next few years the Walgreen’s Pharmacy on Montrose Boulevard would sell more AZT than any other pharmacy in the United States. So I guess you could say our community was “ground zero” of one of the worst epidemics in modern history.
One afternoon the phone rang. “If you want to see Sam (not his real name) before he dies, you’d better come soon.” But first, our friend said, “I need to warn you.”
She said Sam’s health had deteriorated since we were last there, including his mind. “It’s unlikely he will recognize you, your wife, or your baby.”
She also told us that Sam’s mother had come for a visit: “finally.” But being prejudiced against homosexuality and afraid of AIDS, she wouldn’t go near him. “Imagine, you’re dying,” our friend said, “and your own mother is afraid of you and won’t touch you!”
I told her that was hard for me to imagine. Being a new parent, the only thing I wanted to do was to touch my child.
My friend agreed and added: “Sometimes I think his mom’s response seems more toxic than the AIDS virus itself.”
When we got to Sam’s apartment, he was lying in a bed in the middle of his living room. His mother sat on the other side of the room. She was as far from Sam as she could be and still be in the room. She was seated in a chair and not exactly facing us but not completely turned away, either.
Sam’s appearance had changed dramatically. Once a strikingly tall, fit, and handsome young man, now he looked as frail as a person can and still be alive. His mouth was full of ulcers. His bare, bony, sweaty chest heaved up and down as he struggled to breathe.
And our friend was right about Sam’s mind. He said little in those first few minutes that made much sense. The only thing that did make sense was that he kept staring at our baby. He seemed markedly disinterested in everything else, but fascinated by our baby.
My wife and I exchanged this look, and we knew what we must do. We put our baby face-down on Sam’s chest. We stood close by in case something went wrong.
I’ll never forget what happened next. Sam’s scarecrow arms rose up slowly and held her in a firm embrace. Then Sam relaxed and began breathing normally. And then he spoke: “Annie. I’m so glad to see you again, Annie.”
We were speechless. We had been talking over Sam as though he wasn’t there. And he really wasn’t, not until someone touched him.
I’ve always been grateful for that moment, that opportunity to see the power of touch to awaken the mind, to relieve the suffering, and to innervate the spirit. In short, to heal.
And I’m so grateful our friend called and we went right away. Because early the next morning she called again to tell us that, at 4 o’clock in the morning, Sam died.
I’ll always believe that Sam died “healed,” healed of all the hurt caused by his mother’s withdrawal of love. And all it took was the touch of a 6-month-old baby.
Nowadays when I’m visiting someone who’s sick or dying, and I don’t know what to say, I think back to this incident. And then I remember that I don’t have to say anything. I just need to be there, to be fully present, and to be in touch.
Note to readers: Realizing that “sometimes stories say best what must be said,” I plan to publish a story–or a poem–each month, generally the first Wednesday.