Friday, January 25, 2008

Holding Hands

When I see people holding hands, it is usually young lovers, or parents holding the hands of their precious children, lest they dart off into the path of danger. It is something that gives comfort and strength, that words simply cannot express.

When I was 15 I became a Candy Striper at PG Community Hospital in Maryland. Once or twice a week my father drove me to the hospital and I put in my few hours there. I "passed nourishments" for a good portion of my time, and spent the rest of the time simply helping the patients with "human comforts." Sometimes that was reading to them the Get Well Soon cards they had received, sometimes it was running a brush through the thin hair of an elderly patient, dying of cancer. Always, it was the little thing that the patient
requested and that helped make them feel like a person who someone cared about during their stay away from home.

I worked primarily on the geriatric ward and a large number of the patients were never going to return home. One such patient was a little old lady who was terrified that the doctors were going to kill her. Each time I was on duty, she would beg me to stay, to read her a story, to tell her about my life, but always, to hold her hand. She did not want to be alone, leaving this earth unnoticed. I did not mind reading to her, or telling her about my day, and I never minded holding her hand until she drifted back to sleep.

Nearly thirty years later, I received notification that my grandfather was failing and the doctors were saying it was just a matter of a few days to a few weeks he had left on this earth. I left work immediately and my husband and I made the four hour drive to his assisted living home in northern Virginia. There, we found him sleeping peacefully for spells of 20 minutes, awakening and carrying on very lucid conversation for 2-5 minutes before falling back into his peaceful nap.

Each time he awoke, he wanted to know about what was going on in our lives. He wanted to talk about my sister and her children, and about my brothers and their families. And he wanted me to sing to him. But, with each request, his hand was extended, and my hand took his, as we talked. And I held his hand until he fell back to sleep.

When I left him that evening, having spent about four hours visiting, I called my mother and told her he was at peace, lucid and sleepy, but at peace. I was not certain he would awaken many more days, but I knew he knew who I was and what the current events were. He was still with us.

The following day was my birthday, and was also the day my grandfather passed away. I have always been grateful I was able to spend those last few hours with him. And I was happy I was able to hold his hand as he drifted off to sleep, the last time he laid eyes on me.

I will never underestimate the connection between two people. The strength and comfort shared by the simple holding of hands. And it doesn't cost one red cent.

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