While people suffering from Covid can lose the sense of smell and taste, touch is the sense that has been diminished for almost all of us, test-positive or not, symptomatic or not, hospitalised or not
The Oxford dictionary defines touch as “an act of touching someone or something” and “the faculty of perception through physical contact, especially with the fingers.”
“Touch comes before sight, before speech,” writes Margaret Atwood in her novel The Blind Assassin (2000).
Anne Sexton wrote a poem, The Touch. The poem is a sorrowful testimony of what desertion feels like and just how incredible the healing that follows can be.
For months my hand was sealed off
in a tin box. Nothing was there but the subway railings.
Perhaps it is bruised, I thought,
and that is why they have locked it up.
You could tell time by this, I thought,
like a clock, by its five knuckles
and the thin underground veins.
It lay there like an unconscious woman
fed by tubes she knew not of.
The hand had collapse,
a small wood pigeon
that had gone into seclusion.
I turned it over and the palm was old,
its lines traced like fine needlepoint
and stitched up into fingers.
It was fat and soft and blind in places.
Nothing but vulnerable.
And all this is metaphor.
An ordinary hand — just lonely
for something to touch
that touches back.
The dog won’t do it.
Her tail wags in the swamp for a frog.
I’m no better than a case of dog food.
She owns her own hunger.
My sisters won’t do it.
They live in school except for buttons
and tears running down like lemonade.
My father won’t do it.
He comes in the house and even at night he lives in a machine made by my mother and well oiled by his job, his job.
The trouble is that I’d let my gestures freeze.
The trouble was not in the kitchen or the tulips but only in my head, my head.
Then all this became history.
Your hand found mine.
Life rushed to my fingers like a blood clot.
Oh, my carpenter,
the fingers are rebuilt.
They dance with yours.
They dance in the attic and in Vienna.
My hand is alive all over America.
Not even death will stop it,
death shedding her blood.
Nothing will stop it, for this is the kingdom
and the kingdom come.
Whether it’s shaking a coworker’s hand or hugging a friend, most people are accustomed to some level of platonic physical touch on a daily basis. But for those who are quarantining alone or with people with whom they don’t have physical contact, loneliness and social isolation are growing concerns. The present drought of touch arrived after a period in which people were already growing more afraid of touching one another.
Whether we get a friendly slap on the back, a sensual caress, or a loving kiss – interpersonal touch has a powerful impact on our emotions. We use touch every day to communicate our emotions, and to tell someone that we are scared, happy, in love, sad, sexually aroused, and much more. In turn, we are pretty good at reading other people’s intentions and emotions based on the way they touch us.
Lately, though, touch has been going through a ‘prohibition era’. It’s been a rough time for this most important of the senses. The Covid pandemic served to make touch the ultimate taboo, next to coughing and sneezing in public. While people suffering from Covid can lose the sense of smell and taste, touch is the sense that has been diminished for almost all of us, test-positive or not, symptomatic or not, hospitalised or not. Touch is the sense that has paid the highest price.
Touch has become such a huge absence in my life. I feel it constantly, ironically. I’ve been deprived of human touch for the past few days after developing symptoms of Covid-19. More than anything, I’m suffering from a kind of touch-hunger, which has had effects on my mood and overall health. At least once a day, the feeling of wanting a simple touch overwhelms me. But I don’t think there is any safe way for me to get one. Touch has always been my favourite sense – a loyal friend, something I can rely on to lift me up when I am feeling down, or spread joy when I am on a high because John Keats said, “Touch has a memory.”
So, for now, I and those thousands others who are living without a touch, without a memory, without a hand in their hand, it’s just a matter of counting down the days until normalcy can be resumed and we all stay in touch, again.
Till then, don’t forget to read Anne Sexton.
The writer is a bachelor’s student at Aligarh Muslim University. [email protected]