Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Moment of Touch

It's never easy to play second fiddle. To come into a situation where someone else has already left their mark; there's no way you could fill their shoes or play the role they did, no matter how hard you try, at least not in the exact way they did. And that's for good reason: You are not them; relationships, at their essence, are non-transferable.

Each and everyday I meet new people. On any given Thursday, I could be in seven different houses, meeting seven different families, finding God in seven different ways. On a Monday, a dozen people could come in the door of the center for help and with a brief phone call from the secretary at the front desk I am with them- called into their lives, shaking hands, packaging food, picking out coats, and taking down personal information and life details for later exploration. Not with Sally.

Sally is the woman who lives in a row house on the same block as Visitation. She is a widow and, for all intents and purposes, she is a shut in. She suffers from emphysema, the result of life long smoking and a pack a day (two on bad days) habit. To Sally, I am the new Mary Beth. I am a substitute, at best, certainly not a replacement, one who could never quite live up to the real thing... or at least that's what I thought.

Mary Beth is the volunteer who worked at my ministry site last year. I can't say that she is the volunteer who did my job last year, because the jobs we do, while similar, are very different. We have both visited homes for the St. Vincent de Paul Society but with the addition of the community center to the parish over the summer, my job has become much more focused on managing social outreach through and for the community center and by extension the parish.

Mary Beth is the executor of Sally's estate. She is often a topic of conversation when I go to visit Sally; popular topics include the great job she now has in Washington and the time she invited Sally to Mass at the Mission Corps house for Christmas last year, a story I hear almost every other visit.

So I was surprised when the pastor, Fr. Bruce told me that I needed to go see Sally right away in mid-December. I had been there earlier in the week to talk and had gotten her a new winter jacket, what could be so pressing that I needed to get to Sally as soon as possible. I didn't bother to put on my jacket, better to jog the block then to smell entirely like smoke when I returned to work. I knocked on Sally's door and she slowly answered, a pained look on her face and a slowness to her walk that was more than her normal shortness of breath. I sat down and told her Fr. Bruce had told me she'd called for me. "Yes," she said wincing,"I need your help."

She had kidney stones and the only relief she could get was a Bengay patch on her lower back. She had tried to apply it herself along with regular Bengay cream but to no avail. The lower back is not a do it yourself job. She asked if I could help her. "Of course,"I responded and almost before I had finished my sentence she was moving to her feet, visibly pained by any and every movement. She gently handed me a patch and lifted her sweatshirt while facing me. We had reached a new level in our relationship.

I didn't yet know to heat the patch, I would only learn in subsequent visits to put the patch under my leg while we talked to warm it. I peeled open the packaging and removed the patch. The smell of medicated wintergreen rose to my nose. I pressed the tacky side of the patch gently to her skin. She jumped at the chill and then the medicine kicked in. I massaged the patch into place to make sure it stuck, my hands grazing her bare flesh.

A sense of ease entered the air. Sally lowered her sweatshirt and I insisted she lay back down. She apologized for having to call me over- no apology needed I assured her. I asked about the stones and how she was feeling. We talked, covering topics we've touched on a million times before: her cat, Tiny, her son's impending release from prison, her lack of appetite, her husband and how much he meant to her, and the state of the neighborhood.

After some time I left to go back to work, my hands smelling of Bengay and my fingers remembering the feeling of Sally's skin beneath their touch. Sally scolded me for not having a jacket and I told her to call any time she needed help. And she has. The priests of the parish insisting that she will call the rectory and yell my name for relief.

Sally now hugs me and declares that I am a "ghetto girl." A title she proudly states applies to herself and Mary Beth. That's what they always used to call each other. I am one of them and I wonder when that happened.

For me, it was that moment of touch. I am present to all the people I meet (or at least I try to be) but there is a big difference between a listening presence and true, bodily presence. The unique sensation of flesh on flesh. It is very real and very human. To touch another's body and feel it react creates a new intimacy. There is vulnerability and grace to be found in that.

I can feel that moment. The memory of it is triggered deep within me and while the details of our conversation fade, that touch does not. And I wonder, did Christ ever forget those he touched? The lepers and the blind people he healed- each one had a connection through touch with Christ. For healing to happen they needed to touch, not because healing is somehow linked to touch, no, they needed to touch to believe that change could happen. Such belief comes from a connection, a presence, a belief and care by those who touch us. Jesus touched those in need and changed their lives. We are called to personally touch those we encounter, such a touch changes hearts and builds relationships.

Too often our interactions are superficial. Strangers enter our lives and leave on the turn of a dime. Next week I will serve a whole bunch of people, many of whom I will never see again. I need to remind myself that they deserve to be cared for too.

I wonder how much of Jesus's ministry was spent listening to people's stories and reaching out to what needed to be touched in them at that moment. He seems to have never tired of what he did and even when he couldn't seem to fully reach others (ex. the rich young man) he still managed to make the best of it.

I can hope to reach out like that in/with my life. If I do, God is bound to touch me and that's the type of feeling you don't forget- it changes you, it heals you, it stays with you, and it makes you stay in touch with what's all around you.


  1. this is so beautiful in it's simplicity. thanks colleen for bringing it to forefront of our thoughts. love.

  2. Beautiful, Colleen. It reminds me of today's gospel:

    "if you wish you can make me clean."
    Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand,
    touched the leper and said to him,
    "I will do it. Be made clean."

    It is Godde touching Sally through you.


  3. Thank you, Colleen!