This post is part of an ongoing series called Community Stories, where I share the questions, conversations and diverse interactions that have enriched my own story, after having shared our story with a wide spectrum of people during more than twenty years of speaking engagements around the country. Click here to view other posts in the Community Stories series.
Whenever we speak, we learn as much from the participants as they learn from us. This was definitely the case when we spoke at the annual conference of the Association of Hospital Hospitality Houses.
As the name implies, members of this association are the administrators of no-cost or low-cost long-term stay facilities for people who are dealing with conditions that require long-term treatment, such as patients who have had kidney or liver transplants, various heart conditions and transplants, and long-term treatments for cancer. One of the most recognized of these facilities is the Ronald MacDonald House.
In many of these houses, patients stay for weeks at a time and frequently return multiple times. The ‘house’ becomes their home away from home and the staff a part of their family. All of these facilities offer educational sessions for both patients and caregivers on various topics relating to regaining and maintaining ‘normalcy’ both during the healing process and after recovery.
We were invited to their conference to talk about the importance of intimacy as an integral component of recovery—a topic often not discussed in detail between healthcare providers and patients.
Our presentation followed our typical format of telling our story and emphasizing our fears, hesitations, misunderstandings, and our silence in expressing our experience to one another. I was concerned about hurting Keith both physically and mentally, while Keith was afraid to even try to have sex for fear of not being able to ‘perform’ or experience pleasure. We talked about how distanced we became from each other, nearly to the point of separating. We concluded with our recognition that touch—loving touch—from one’s partner is as vital and critical to recovery as any medicine or procedure.
When we opened the floor for questions and comments, the first hand to go up was from an administrator from the Ronald McDonald House. She began by saying, “Thank you. Thank you. You’ve helped me understand why my marriage didn’t survive.” When she spoke again her voice trembled. “My son was in the hospital for months recovering from brain damage. During those months, especially when we knew he was going to survive, my husband wanted to be intimate.” She stopped to catch her breath. “But I refused. I felt it was selfish of us to experience pleasure when our son was so sick.” She paused again as the room fell silent. “And then as the months passed my husband and I never were intimate again. Ultimately we divorced.” Once again she paused to catch her breath. “But now, after hearing you two speak, I realize that I was wrong in turning away from my partner. We should have given comfort and shared physical pleasure…we needed the release and the reassurance and comfort that comes from physical touch.”
More than two years later we received a note from this woman, letting us know she was married to a wonderful man who she had met through her work at the Ronald McDonald House in her city. She again thanked us for our talk and said she now includes the importance of touch in her sessions regarding the healing process at the Ronald House. And she emphasizes touch not only for the patient but equally for the care givers, and she does so through sharing her story.
After the suicidal death of our young grandson, I felt a similar sense of selfishness and guilt at the thought of engaging in pleasure when I was so incredibly sad and bereaved. But I recalled that poignant moment of understanding. And in the midst of my grief, sorrow, and anger—I continued to make love with Keith, even as our tears mingled.