I used to volunteer in the Alzheimer’s Care Unit of a retirement home. Each guest had their own special needs–there was no one-size fits all way of attending to those needs or mollifying the eruptions of confusion, sorrow, or anger that would often arise out of nowhere. One man liked to be sung too–old Americana tunes. One woman would calm down and get very docile when you retold the plots of TV shows like the Brady Bunch or Leave It to Beaver, as though the idyllic tales were stories from her own past.
I will never forget one old French lady with no teeth. She would scream and scream and scream until someone held her hand and stroked it. And then, like magic, she would lay back in her seat, complete serenity and peace overtaking her face. Her body would relax, her screams would dissipate into soft whimpers, and her eyes would shut as she’d dream of some better time, some better place.
Takkin always wants to hold hands, with everyone. He holds my hands when we’re walking into an unknown area and he is frightened there may be too many people around. He holds my hands when he’s telling me how much he loves me. He holds my hand in the car as I’m driving. I am always the one to let go first. And then he reaches back out again.
“Why don’t you want to go in public places?” I asked him today.
“Because I don’t want to get in trouble.”
“Why would you get into trouble?”
“Because I will touch someone and they don’t want to be touched.”
“Then don’t touch them.”
“I … can’t.”
Takkin went on to tell me that if strangers allowed him to high-five them, or shake hands with them, or embrace them, or hold hands, he’d feel better about being in public. So I’ve been thinking about touch.
He doesn’t touch anyone; there are so few people who hug him or kiss him or stroke his cheek. He didn’t even have much of that when he was an infant. It soothes him, it helps him regain a sense of himself. When he is feeling unmoored, someone’s touch shores him back up. When he reaches for your hand, or mine, or his, or hers, he is asking “show that you are here for me, that I am not alone, that I am worth being loved.” But it’s not up to strangers to provide that to him. It’s up to the one’s who love him. And we’ve somehow gravely failed him.
I recoiled from his touch today. It was just too much–there had been too many hand holdings, too many kisses on the cheek and head, too many hugs, it was all starting to feel… icky. And overwhelming; like with every touch, some phantom energy was being sucked from me. He sensed my half reticence/half disgust, even though it was a microfacial expression at most. But the damage was done. “Fine. You hate me. You don’t even want to be here. You are mean. Forget you. I don’t like you. Mean sister. Bad sister. I’m leaving. No one likes me. Go to Iran.” I tried to give him a high five but he saw right through it, so instead I gave him some time alone. Fifteen minutes later all was forgotten and he kissed me on the forehead and laid his head on my shoulder.
At the retirement home, as soon as I’d let go of that French lady’s hand, she’d take a deep breath and scream her high-pitched screams as though she was being buried alive. Takkin’s screams aren’t audible; they are happening within. But they are just as loud, just as unsettling, and only one thing abates them–the one thing he can only rarely have.