Tuesday, May 14, 2013
I have mentioned before that my father and I did not really have a physically affectionate relationship. I have also mentioned that it is something I have always felt my dad wanted, and something I did try to foster as best I could – while fighting through my own reticence with my dad. From childhood, I know I felt keenly the alienation and lack of affection between us – wishing often that it could be different. When I became his caregiver and moved in with him, we became more demonstrative verbally and physically with each other in a way I found very healing. Dad’s illness allowed him in some way to conquer his reserve and physical awkwardness and let his natural affection shine through. I enjoyed hearing that he loved me, telling him I loved him, and exchanging hugs and pats on the hand.
As he’s descended further into his illness and I don’t personally care for him any more, I’ve noticed that while I’m still verbally affectionate with him, I don’t touch him very much, except to hold his arm, or stroke it a little so he can feel my touch. Whether that’s a function of our past distance, a disinclination to wake him up or bother him, or simply that I haven’t needed to because I don’t dress him or change him, is unclear to me. It’s just something I’ve realized lately. I’ve been reading so many memoirs, however, and caregiving and dementia manuals, and in many of them, caregivers have been able to connect with their care-takers in a comforting way by massaging their hands and feet with lotion. Having been a massage therapist a few years ago, I figured that, at least, was one thing I knew I could do well, so I thought I’d give it a try next time I visited.
I went to see him this week, and came in to his room as he was sleeping, so I sat on the bed. After a bit, he woke up and looked around stiffly, so I got up and perched on the wide arm of his recliner so that I could be close and look in his face. I smiled at him and said hello and he smiled back, and I began to gently stroke his arm. I then began to carefully stroke the hand that was closest to me, which I noticed was slightly curled and stiff from the Parkinson’s. I didn’t want to hurt him, so I just very gently stroked from his wrist along the base of his thumb, rubbing the web between thumb and forefinger, and then curling my fingers into his palm – over and over – switching back and forth between hands.
My father was a man who used his hands for everything, and they served him well. They were big and strong enough to loosen a stubborn bolt or hammer a nail, and agile enough to lay fiberglass along the body of an airplane. They always hung slightly out of the too-short cuffs of his sleeves – he was so tall that he had trouble finding shirts that were long enough – and the big bone of his wrist was always visible. He often had bits of duct or masking tape on his hands, covering the many cuts and scrapes made by tools or machinery; his only acknowledgement of any injury.
I was surprised at how cool his hands were – almost too cold, as if the Parkinson’s was stealing the circulation away. His knuckles were big and bony, although they’ve been like that for a long time, and I wondered if the tension and enlarged knuckles might be causing him pain. I also noticed how many pale white scar tracings he had on his hands, remnants of struggles with recalcitrant engine parts, and I was surprised I’d never really seen them before. As I stroked his hands, I watched his eyes become heavy and as he nodded off I realized I was relaxing him with my rhythmic smoothing of possibly aching hands.
I continued to perch there uncomfortably on the arm of that chair, massaging Dad’s hands and reluctant to move because I realized how lovely it felt to be close again – and I realized how much I had missed it. I knew that Dad and I had been able to heal many of the wounds and scars of my childhood during the time I gave Dad care but what I didn’t realize was that there might be more to heal. And that the best way to heal my hurts – and my scars – might be to gently massage the ones on my Dad’s hands.