Two years ago this month, I was sleeping late. I had just published the first issue of Atlanta 30306 and was recovering from three all-nighters earlier in the month. The phone rang.
The call was from either a brother or a sister. I don’t remember which now. My dad had been walking down the hallway at the Northside YMCA on Roswell Road going to his daily swimming aerobics class when he had massive stroke.
I drove quickly to Piedmont Hospital and ran in the emergency room. I thought about how dad had cared for me there through broken bones, an appendectomy, and so on. Now, I was going to see him.
I found him in a room, unconscious. It was so quiet. I just stood by his side, helplessly. A nurse I hadn’t seen standing in the corner told me I could touch him.
“Touch him?” I thought. “How?” I looked at his hands. I remembered grasping them in handshakes for years. I remembered how later, after our family discovered affection, hugging him, and even in recent year, kissing him. But I had no memory of ever just holding his hand, as a child might grab a parent’s hand to cross the street.
I placed his hand in mine and just held it. It felt so large; bony, yet soft. “Why have I never done this before,” I thought. Was it my insecurities, or his? Perhaps both. It was the last time I touched my father. He never regained consciousness and died later that evening.
I revisit that image often and have drawn much comfort from remembering that simple act of holding hands with my dad during the last hours of his life. A seemingly small gesture, but one that allows two people to connect so quickly, so closely.
My own 11-year-old son knows this and is thankfully not bound by the inhibitions of earlier generations. One time, after my dad’s death, I was walking in a mall with him and his cousin of the same age. His cousin asked him why he was holding my hand. He said nothing, but quickly released my grasp. “That was it,” I thought. The defining moment. Even though I had felt a little self-conscious holding his hand there in the mall, I knew I would miss his touch more than he would ever know. Yet, a few weeks later during another weekend together, he quietly slipped his hand in mine. I felt connected again.
This summer in Paris we walked along the Seine as I led him and his 13-year-old sister to cathedrals and museums. He grabbed my hand and we walked together for several blocks. My daughter, who had stopped holding my hand at age nine or 10, sped up and looked over at the clasp. I knew she was going to say something as only a sister, much too cool for such a display, would. Then she caught my eye and my smile. Uncharacteristically, she retreated and said nothing.
And so we continued along the river bank, a family of three, she comfortable in her detachment, my son content with his innate instinct to connect with others, and me, somewhere in between.
Sometimes we have a choice of when to let go. Sometimes we don’t.