My cat likes to have her ears pulled. Her eyes narrow, and she arches her neck with pleasure as she awaits the next gentle tug. This feline resists being picked up, but curls into the crook of my arm when I am propped up in bed reading. She nudges, seeking my touch, and the pressure of her warm purring body is a sweet reminder of the relaxed heft of a sleeping baby.
Some months after my husband, Len, died, one of my younger friends took on the role of the caring daughter and gave me an unusual gift: a massage by a therapist she admired. When I told her this was something I’d never done before, she said, “Everyone needs to be touched, and you’re alone now.”
I went, and continue to go every now and then, welcoming this time of complete ease and pleasure. The therapist always begins by massaging my feet, and though I only spoke this thought aloud after many months, whenever her skilled fingers knead these muscles, I wish I had done this for Len, especially in his last six months when he was in bed more hours than usual. For this man whose feet were almost always on the go, it would have been a special way to express the sweetness of old love.
It is easier to write of my cat and a masseuse than of the sensual pleasures of my marriage, but there is a point in doing so. For us, the promise of touch was ever present. The gentle pressure of my fingers on the back of his neck as he drove, his hands easing my tensed shoulders as I sat at my desk, holding hands in the movies or nestled together when watching TV—intimate touching renewed our appetite for life.
Now that I’m alone, though engaged with others during the day, my patterns and pleasures have changed. I enjoy my solitude, but it differs from a past shared with another. Evenings, I no longer watch programs or movies that I suspect will cause me to feel anxious. When we watched the news together, leaning into each other, no matter how fraught the coverage, I was safe, moored. Now I check the Internet for newsworthy events the next morning, in the light of day.
On Sundays I often reread old letters. His words and his handwriting almost feel like a touch, a lingering memory of the pleasures we shared, which can quite take my breath away. Then I close that door and reenter the present with a sigh but no anguish, knowing I can return.
Comfort with touch is tied to family history. Mine was a family in which physical affection was open and easy. Len’s family was just the opposite—casual touching was rare, foreign, even uncomfortable. When he and I were first together, seeking physical closeness, I consistently walked him off the sidewalk onto the grassy verge. It was a lasting joke between us that spoke volumes. I eventually converted him.
Lest this become a maudlin description of an idealized marriage, I also well remember the hours, sometimes days, when we didn’t touch, lay back to back and distant in bed, or silently left the house for a solitary walk. But being deprived of touch inevitably brought us to talking, so much was it the glue of our marriage.
So why write of this? The importance of touch is well established. Infants need it to thrive, and now studies are proving the same is true for adults. Breaching the chasm of being alone in one’s skin, and experiencing or giving pleasure, can lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, and improve immune function.
So, a reminder for those with a loving partner at their fingertips: massage their feet.