Interlocked Hands: The healing power of touch

Monday, August 27, 2012

As I entered the dining room of the nursing home where I was volunteering, I saw a feeble, pale man push himself out of his wheelchair. With his finger pointed at me, he yelled “get this nigger out of here!” As the nurses rushed to get him back into his chair, he continued to demand that I be removed from the room. The nurses explained to him that I was a volunteer to which he responded “colored people don’t deserve to work here.” I stood there frozen
in time, my mind rushing to somehow undo the last thirty seconds of my existence.

He was a new resident who had moved in two days earlier. Since his Alzheimer’s had become progressively worse, his family could no longer provide the care he needed. At the debriefing meeting later that day, the nurses were shocked at his outburst as he had been very respectful and friendly with them.

As the only colored person in the nursing home, I decided it was best not to be directly responsible for serving him food during meal times. Rather, I switched to the role of feeding the few residents who ate in their own rooms. My new duties ended up working well for both of us. He remained calm when he didn’t see me and it gave me more time to get to know the residents I fed on a personal level.

A year later, on a spring Sunday afternoon, I interacted with this man again. This particular day, the nursing home was extremely short-staffed and as a result I needed to step in for the people who usually took care of the floor where he lived.

I remember my heart racing as I knocked on his door. A part of me didn’t want to see the face of the man who made me feel second-class, but another part of me wanted to get to know him. As I walked in with the food tray in my hands, he traced my every move from his bed. I laid the tray down by his nightstand and asked him if I could feed him dinner. He nodded slowly. Having received his permission, I put my arms under his arms to get him into a seated position. As I raised him up, I felt his hand grab a hold of mine.

As his hand interlocked with mine, the paleness of his skin didn’t clash against the darkness of mine. His hands didn’t feel like that of a man who had a visceral reaction to the color of my skin. His hands didn’t feel like that of a man who had asked for my removal. His hands didn’t feel like that of a man who believed in the second-class treatment of colored folks. His hands just felt human.

I stared at our interlocked hands in surprise, recognizing the magical power of our human hands to fit together so perfectly. Though the textures of our hands were different, though the stories of our lives were different, we still had hands that interlocked. Our hands illuminated the many ways in which we were similar. It was a moment of pure humanness as I felt histories being exchanged through the power of a simple touch.

I fed him in complete silence that night. As he ate, I remembered the day when I arrived in America, excited about the possibility of a completely free life. When the immigration officer shook my hands welcoming me to America, I noticed the stark difference in color between my hand and his. It was the first time in eleven years of life that I realized that I am colored. I remember staring at myself in the mirror my first night in America, shocked at the realization that my skin was dark, and even more shocked that I had never noticed that about myself. As I gazed into my reflection, I instinctively knew that the color of my skin meant something in America. I knew my skin color had a history in this country.

As I got up to leave after feeding him, I heard him clear his throat. He whispered something into the stillness of the room. I turned around and waited for him to repeat himself. “I feel” he said pausing momentarily, “I feel at peace.” As his words echoed through me, he smiled at me for the first time in a year of knowing him. I knew something had changed in the twenty minutes we spent together and as I smiled back, I felt fragments of history, both personal and societal, heal themselves.