I’m a tactile person --- I like to touch others and like to be touched. Not everyone is like that. No doubt the cynics have various names for me such as “touchee-feelie” but what the hell. Touching is a primitive, non-verbal communication that conveys a lot. Much more than casual words. Words will often lie. We aren’t always truthful when we speak, but our touch never lies. It’s direct, and expresses our feelings precisely. It’s the way we communicate with our natural environment, with animals and with those closest to us. Sometimes it’s the only form of communication with them.
So it was with Mama who had a stroke three days ago that deprived her of her ability to speak. Also to understand what was being said to her. Sitting across the dinner table from her, I saw it happen, though for several minutes I wasn’t sure what had happened. For several minutes Agata and I tried to elicit a response, then called for an ambulance. Mama’s eyes, half closed suggested she wasn’t aware of us, at least not visually.
In hospital, we saw no great change. She didn't respond to our presence, or to our words. As if she had drifted off to a place where we could no longer reach her. Then she lifted her left arm, moved her fingers as if searching with it for something. She wanted someone to take it and hold it. I took it; the fingers didn’t respond to my touch but there was a slight pressure. The face, frozen by the effects of the stroke didn’t reveal any expression but her eyes awakened slightly. She was there --- I was sure of it. What’s more, she knew that I was there. She also knew who I was.
The following day Mama’s eyes were open most of the time and they followed Agata and I. She moved restlessly in the bed, remained slack-jawed. Perhaps she was hungry, as she could not be fed normally. The stroke had affected her ability to swallow liquids or food. Every few minutes her eyes looked wider, a look of fear. She had to be terrified, finding herself in a place where she no longer understood what people were saying, and could not express herself. Again, taking her arm I rubbed it. No response from the arm, but the fear in her eyes appeared to recede. Agata spoke to her, telling her not to be afraid, but I had the impression that touch conveyed more than the words.
The doctor and his cortege of young assistants drifted in. After making his assessment he discussed it in a whisper with the others, before turning to us. “I think your mother has had a stroke,” he said. Not exactly breaking news. “The next few days will help us determine her recovery.” It’s all I could get out of him. I asked whether patients typically recovered the ability to swallow, but the doctor waffled so that I felt stonewalled. Later, Natasha ran in with a leaflet from the waiting room, with all the information I was seeking. That the ability to swallow often returns within weeks. I’m still not sure why the doctor’s at the very least couldn’t paraphrase to me the leaflet's contents. Why are doctors so afraid that anything they say could be used against them?
That afternoon Mama recognized our faces. She could answer our questions with a nod, or by pointing. An incremental improvement, but we were overjoyed to see it. More than anything she wanted to be held, to feel human contact and know that we were really there. That we weren’t phantasms of her imagination. The solid touch that didn’t lie was what she needed.
When the Zambian nurse, we know well from Mama's previous visits, came in, I asked her for a favour. “I know that hospital policy is that I can only visit from 3-5pm and 7-8 pm, but Mama is terrified. She needs someone there --- all the time --- holding her hand. I want permission to come at any time and to sit with her and hold her hand. I’ll get out of the way at mealtimes or if I’m in the way. The nurse was initially doubtful that such an exception could be made but she said she’d try. A few minutes later she returned and said that my request was granted.
The next morning our communication was different. I still held her, but now that I could use words to reach her, I sensed that she no longer needed or wanted to be touched. She even found it embarassing. Her eyes were awake, conscious of me, the sunlight on the window, my watch. She smiled, a crooked smile typical of a stroke victim. I explained what had happened to her and she nodded to indicate she understood. I was amazed at her rapid progress and hope that she’ll continue to develop the ability to swallow, and to speak. She has a fighting spirit that’s enviable.
Though I was delighted to be able to use language again, somehow I felt a loss of intimacy such as we shared earlier when touch was our only means of communication. Touch is reciprocal in that you cannot touch someone without experiencing touch. It takes a great deal of trust because with touch there aren’t any barriers. The boundaries between you are blurred. You’re with each other and whether you like it or not, you can affect each other deeply.