| As I walk toward the post office, I see him hold his hat firmly against a sudden wind. It’s the kind of wind felt only in the early Fall. More than cold, it warns of much more soon to come.
The old man begins to exaggerate his action, puts on a show as soon as he catches my eye.
I say, “You’ll be lucky if only your hat blows away in this,” and he stops me with his intent gaze and a few unintelligible words.
I can’t quite understand him. His words tumble over each other, as if he doesn’t want to waste any of these precious moments spent speaking to another. I gather he is eighty years old and was once a barber. During the few minutes he speaks, I really can’t understand anything else, but he seems to want nothing other than attention and acceptance. He doesn’t pause for any comment from me, and wants only to hold my eyes. I never say another word.
As he speaks, I feel an urge to act in a way that comes so easily in the clinic, but with such difficulty in public. I want to take his arm in my hand, the upper part of his arm. Gently but firmly held there, I know I will feel a connection that will comfort both of us.
Before I can bring myself to do this, he turns slightly in his animated way continuing his story told in some Martian tongue. The moment is lost, I would have to reach too far.
I’ve watched a lot of Cleveland Indians games the past two years. Perhaps you’ve heard of them? Anyway, I’ve begun to notice the behavior of their first base coach, Davey Nelson. Whenever a batter arrives at first, he moves close to their side, one hand gently but firmly gripping their far shoulder, his mouth close to their ear as they gaze toward the pitcher they have just defeated.
Davey speaks softly and clearly to them about the current situation and the plans the manager has for the next batter. In baseball there is always much to discuss. This talk is only for Davey’s player. It’s clear that neither want the first baseman to hear.
This interaction has within it more intimacy than we see in most homes, let alone in public. And Davey does it easily over and over again, in front of 43,000 at Jacob’s Field, and many more on television. I think it’s beautiful, and I think it’s why the Indians are batting nearly .290 as a team. They all want that hug from Davey.
Suddenly the sounds stop tumbling from the old man and he jerks a bit more erect, punctuating his final sentence with his body. He sticks out his hand and takes mine firmly. As he walks away, I feel a little cheated. I want more than this.
Although there is a lot of talk in therapy of how much we can do with our hands and how well regarded we are for this, I’m convinced that more than ever, our culture is fearful of the touch of another. Increasingly the clinic is an island, the only place where something beyond a ritual handshake is tolerated. Students have become too dangerous for a teacher to touch, parishioners too dangerous for the minister, co-workers, neighbors…the list grows longer.
I rush to return to my office, to close the door against that cold wind that I know is growing stronger, and makes it harder and harder to touch another without fear of misunderstanding and reprisal. Where, as yet, an old, lonely man can sense my compassion in the way I can express it best. But the wind is strong, and winter is coming.
Tonight, the Indians are playing Kansas City. I’ll be watching.