When Butch and I started dating in November of 1969, he was not exactly what you would describe as “huggy-feely”. In fact, coming from a family that did not touch one another much at all in those days, it took him awhile to enjoy spontaneous hugging. His idea of holding hands was initially hooking little fingers as we walked. The first time I attempted to give him a quick kiss when we parted in the hall at school, he was startled. He adapted quickly. A regular part of our ritual before school was to meet near his locker and snuggle as we waited for a particular instructor to walk by and ceremoniously drone, “unwrap people.” It wasn’t morning without him.
One of the advantages of his being stationed at Fort Hood, TX was its proximity to my very large family spread across Texas and Louisiana. The first time we traveled with my cousin, Carolyn, to visit our Grandmama, we were greeted by all the aunts, uncles, and cousins who were in the vicinity. I was sure that by the time the last of them gave him a big southern hug he was near the point at which he would blow up and fly around the room backwards. He learned to welcome those hugs over the years, but I was never sure he was really comfortable.
With me, however, he became down right huggy-feely. We held hands wherever we went. I was often doing homework in the car or working on a beading project. But whenever I was idle, we either held hands or I was in contact with him somehow. On the nights when we were both home and went to bed together, we would lay facing each other to talk. I greatly preferred petting him to the cat. He would put his hand on my pillow and I would lay my cheek on his hand. I often fell asleep like that, relaxed by the sensation of his warm hand on my cheek. If he turned to his other side, I would spoon behind him, putting my hand in the pocket of his pajamas. When facing in opposite directions, I would lay with my back against his, like a giant heating pad. If I woke up in the night and could not go back to sleep, spooning was a sure bet for settling down and dozing off. We watched TV in a double recliner where one of us always had a foot on the other person’s side for light contact. When we ate in a restaurant we frequently held hands across the table as we talked and waited for our meal to be served. He loved to sit in the backyard swing in the cool of the evening where I would have a hand on his leg as we unwound from our busy days and gently rocked away the weight of the world.
He found all kinds of excuses for a hug or a nuzzle. He would regularly come and find me during commercials, no matter what I doing. He would say, “Is there anything I can nibble for you?” This was followed by a short interruption of my project as he nibbled my neck just long enough to become a pest and then return to his television viewing. If I passed him in a doorway, the hall, or a narrow part of the room, he would often say, “There is a toll here” and then give me a big hug. When he came in from work, his dog would happily greet him. He would give her a pat and say, “Mom first” and then give me a kiss and hug. I could always count on that same greeting if he was home when I arrived. If both of us were awake in the morning, we always exchanged a goodbye kiss.
The day he died, I came home and retrieved the wrap-around body pillow he relegated to the closet because it “screwed up the snuggling.” It was a decoy at best, but I continue to sleep with it now. I could feel it there, all around me in my sleep. In the first horrible moments of waking up in the bed alone it gave my body a moment to imagine him there before reality hit and took my breath away. I avoided sitting in the double recliner, watching TV, and anything else that was a reminder that those precious touches were forever gone. It’s even hard now to work on projects, anticipating his interruptions that will never actually come. The sleep inducing comfort of his touch has been replaced by the sound of an audio book, droning away on his pillow. It took a long time to sit in the backyard swing without reaching out for the empty place beside me. Despite the warnings not to move too soon after the death of a spouse, I was greatly relieved to move after 10 months to escape things like the empty doorways and unobstructed hallway where the absence of his “tolls” was like landmines everywhere.
Becoming us without them will most definitely include grieving the loss of their touch. Far more than sex, it is affection that finds its way into the stories of loss after a death. Research indicates that meaningful touch is life sustaining from the cradle to the grave. Witness Cuddle Connection, a growing nationwide chain that offers non-sexual cuddle sessions for the touch deprived. Or a research project that included a grandmotherly librarian whose line is always twice as long because she offers patrons a hug with each interaction. Like many parts of them that were not truly appreciated until after they were gone, the absence of their touch will loom large on the horizon. Those touches, snuggles and nuzzles can result in your body producing feel good neurochemicals that are relaxing and provide a sense of comfort and belonging. In the absence of those touches, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and other emotional and physical ailments abound. Many who have remarried after the loss of a spouse say that what motivated them to seek a new partner had its roots in touch. “I got tired of sleeping alone.” “I just wanted someone to hold me in their arms again.” “I missed being hugged.” Those whose subsequent marriages have faltered often realize they sought that touch so desperately that they neglected to notice warning signs of incompatibility.
Finding ways to fill our lives with healthy and sustaining touch will be one of the most important parts of our journey. What we know we need can seem far outside our reach for a long time. Becoming us without then will be far worse if it means us without loving touch. A great blessing of doing addiction counseling at the Salvation Army is that it is a very “huggy-feely” culture where hugs are freely exchanged. Taking care of ourselves means reaching out for hugs from friends and family members when available, discovering that others enjoy them as much as we do. Widowed people act as baby holders in ICU at a local hospitals or volunteer at nursing homes where hugs are welcomed with open arms.
The biggest obstacle will be that what we really want is the only thing we can never have while remaining open to the many blessings yet to come.