Last week, Jay held my hand for a while. We didn’t talk much. We just held hands. After being together for seventeen years, we’ve learned that we don’t always need to be manufacturing words to communicate.
Truthfully, even if I’d wanted to summon my inner raconteur—assuming that facet of myself is still in there after 9 years of motherhood and chronic illness—I’d have had problems. A few minutes before Jay arrived at the hospital to visit during my monthly chemo infusion, the nurses gave me a lot of IV Benadryl to help keep my body from reacting to the bag o’ poison that is the protocol for managing my systemic sarcoidosis. My tongue felt like a slab of meat, and my eyelids were heavy.
“I’m sorry, but I’m very drugged,” I told Jay as he pulled a chair up to the recliner I was splayed out on. At least, that’s what I tried to tell him. It probably sounded more like, “Limes are forty, slut tied ham, cheery pug,” given the quizzical look Jay gave me, before murmuring, “Shhh. It’s OK.”
And then he took my hand.
He brought with him the smell of early spring. His hands were cold. They felt wonderful, as they covered mine. Even though Jay is a paper pusher—or keyboard clicker—by profession, his hands feel like a worker’s. He lifts weights, so his palms are ridged with calluses. The skin on the tops of his hands is dried and rough. We maintain a zealous hygiene routine in our house in the land of the immune-compromised. Jay is meticulous about washing his hands, or bathing them in gobs of hand sanitizer when he’s in the car. He’ll do anything to keep me safe, to the point that in the driest and most germ-infested weeks of winter, his skin cracks open and bleeds from all the washing. I nag him to use hand cream. But he’s too busy, he says.
In my Benadryl-induced fugue state, I got lost in his hands. I liked the roughness of his grip. I liked the feel of his tendons stretching to let his fingers weave through mine. I liked the bulk of his wrist bone, the hard edge of his nails. I liked the sense that his hands were bigger and stronger than mine, that they could cover me and protect me.
I couldn’t think or talk, but the Benadryl didn’t knock me out. The three other infusion medications on the day’s roster tend to amp me up. I start to feel sick and agitated from the chemo long before the bag is done draining into me. The Benadryl prevents my throat from closing in an allergic reaction. But it doesn’t give me the gift of sleeping through the seven, or eight, or sometimes nine hours each of my treatment days requires.
It’s taken some work for Jay and I simply to hold hands, skipping the informational swap-meet that parenting and marriage can become. We’ve both learned that not everything needs to be said, or even can be said. This latter was a particularly hard lesson for two aggressively verbal people. But there is pain, joy, hope, grace, humor, and hopelessness that refuse to be bound by the edges of letters and words. There are moments in Chronic Town—in any town—that dissolve language. Jay stayed and held my hand, even as he could have taken up a dozen “practical” tasks with his. There was a boy to shuttle to a Lego Robotics class, dinner to get on the table, laundry balled up and waiting to be sorted. There is always work to be done.
But holding on to each other through the drip-drip of the Rituxan into my veins, through the fatigue of chronic illness and parenting and stressful jobs, through our fears, are work of their own kind. It is work hands can take up.
Stillness – the ability to just be with another person – doesn’t always feel natural. We’re trained to swoop into a situation and fix it. We’ve got to bat down the thousand “helpful” ideas that bombard the stillness. Ask the nurses why she’s not asleep. Is she going to react to the chemo? Send a work text about a crisis at the office. Tell her to relax, that it’s OK. Ask if she wants a pillow. Or a cup of water. Does she want her ipod? I bet some music would take her mind off this problem. These are things Jay did not say to me. Instead we held onto each other. And it was good.
Staying with me—in that place beyond words—meant that Jay was truly with me. When someone executes a to-do list about and around you, it can feel lonely. I did not feel lonely, as Jay twined his fingers with mine and watched the medicine drip. I was held.
His hand in mind, his steady grip during some of my most-difficult hours, was a gift beyond measure. He showed up to my crappy day, and stayed there. He held my hand.
“I love you, Jay,” I said later.
“I’m a honey-dew day,” he probably heard, as my useless tongue made nonsense Benadryl words.
“Shhh, I love you,” he said. And I could feel his pulse, constant and warm, flow from his wrist to my mine.
Have you ever been in a place beyond words, when you really needed someone just to hold your hand and be with you?