The Loss of Touch

As we keep our distance from one another, what I miss most is touch, a handshake, contact with a steadying arm allowing me to safely match the stride of a companion,  and the pleasure of being pulled into the gentle embrace of a friend, feeling the texture of their clothing, their scent, the pressure of another body held against mine. Memories arise of longing for the lost loving touch of my husband, skin to skin. Over time the yearning receded, eased by the physical touch of others who reached out, at first to offer comfort and then simply as a sign of our deepening friendships.

Scientists inform that touch, not just sensual touch, even the casual welcomed touch of others, releases the hormone oxytocin, countering cortisol, the stress hormone. So too does social interaction. Research repeatedly proves that neural responses to threat cues are minimized when social connection and support is provided. When staying home with our door closed to others, that too is in short supply.

I know well I’m not alone in bemoaning this loss. The Pew Research Center reported earlier this year that twenty-seven percent of adults in the U.S. aged sixty and older live alone. The number rises to fifty-one percent of those seventy-five and older. In 2017, Pew reported the most startling number of all: forty-two percent of all adults in the country are living without a spouse or partner. I had assumed that the trend for cohabitation meant many more were partnered up. But apparently the increase in cohabitation has not been large enough to offset the decline in marriage. So many of those who abide by the distancing rules of the pandemic must be as starved as I am for touch.

When awake at 3:00am with troubling thoughts, I sometimes reach into my stash of letters my husband and I exchanged many years ago. Seeing his handwriting and reading his words can almost feel like a touch.

A conversation with a friend, by phone or email, that goes beyond the mundane, the sharing of an intimate story of pleasure, or fear…is almost like a touch.

The check-in call from a friend whose email has gone too long without a response…is almost like a touch.

Alone at my dining table eating a home cooked meal prepared and delivered by a friend, visualizing their preparation, the chopping, the stirring, the baking…is almost like a touch.

The compassion I feel for others whose suffering is so great and the reward of being able to make a gift to those dedicated to feeding the hungry…is almost like a touch.

A card received in the mail or a call from a friend expressing concern about my well-being…is almost like a touch.

Exchanging a smile and a wave from a passing jogger when I’m out for a walk… is almost like a touch.

A collective effort by neighbors to express concern about another neighbor’s mishap…is almost like a touch.

The responsive call from the neighbor expressing gratitude while holding back tears…is almost like a touch.

The renewed connection with a niece absent from my life for many years…is almost like a touch.

Exchanging texts with a distant child, miles away and many decades removed from childhood…is almost like a touch.

Sitting on a garden bench, basking in the warmth of the springtime sun on my upturned face…is almost like a touch.

Even the vibrant red blossoms of my neighbor’s azaleas lit by the late afternoon sun… is almost like a touch.

Giving voice to my gratitude to those who let me know how ready they are to respond to my concerns in these scary times…is almost like a touch.

No skin touches skin, but these connections that show me what community and friendship mean course right through me with pleasure.

And then there is my actual tactile reward, my pet.  How grateful I am for Eleanor, my orange tabby cat, who is often by my side. She arches her neck responding to a gentle pull on her ears. I find her curled against the curve of my sleeping body as I come awake in the morning. Still half asleep, I reach to stroke her silky fur, my fingers absorbing the warmth of her breathing body, her subtle movements urging my strokes to continue. But before long she nudges me with her forehead, repeatedly, until I swing my legs to the floor. Should I rest a moment before rising she nips at my ankles, not to be denied her breakfast. Later in the day she often sits at my side when my laptop has usurped her preferred space.

And knowing I am in this together with all of my loner comrades and reaching out in thought and written words…is almost like a touch.

Eleanor

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Nancy Nolan here: During this time of great uncertainty, while sheltering in place, consider reading a few of the essays included in Bea’s book, The Third Person in the Room, which can be found at www.bealarsen.com under “my posts.” If you like what you read, you can purchase the book on www.Amazon.com. Thank you.

12 thoughts on “The Loss of Touch

  1. Absorbing every syllable, phrase, paragraph, of your clear and passionate essay is a closely held, and enjoyed touch!

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  2. How well you have captured this emptiness. I am feeling this same sadness. I pray that we get back to normal soon.

    Bertha Helmick, ESQ. 513-651-9666

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  3. You nailed it. We need each other during this strange time of isolation and you described so poetically how we can touch. Thank you Bea.

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  4. Hi Bea? This is very touching, I think that we will have a pandemic of mental illness as well! I am feeling a bit tired as well of not going out dancing! I stead, i face time with My sister from Orlando Florida and we do zumba. It feels really nice Other things i do is cook special treats for friends and neighbors. The point is touching someone in any way we can without the physical touch. Lovely article Bea. 😢❤️ Sent from my iPhone

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  5. Lovely article. It is so nice ghat you also have Eleonor! I am so happy for that. All the dogs have been adopted here in My area. There are some positive things that come with the negative!

    Sent from my iPhone

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  6. So value your perspective on distancing-and the alternative sources of non-physical contact. I am back in the office-and so glad to be there! Hope to see you soon-I’m not quite ready to dine out yet (:

    Pam

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  7. Oh Bea,

    This could not have come at a better time.

    I look forward to seeing you at Ruth’s Parkside Cafe, hopefully in the near future.

    Thank you, Bea.

    Kate Nolan

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  8. No, you are not alone in feeling this loss. It is what I miss so much as well. So close, and yet so far from me. Being involved with people all of my adult life, loving the hugs and embraces my students sensed would be welcomed by me, and knowing from experience the effect a hug and a kind and encouraging word has on anyone at any time, especially in trying times, I miss so much. I wear my mask when I go out. I know so many of the people in the (few) places I am going, and I feel such a sadness and loneliness that I cannot see their smile. I give a nod of my head, or raise my index finger to say hello and then I get back into my car and the tears come down. I am reminded of what Rose Kennedy would say. This too shall pass. I feel confident that it will and we will have our hugs and kisses back. Thank you for your message.

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