In my 20s, I was touch-deprived. Shy and emotionally numb, I was the opposite of touchy-feely -- a virtual bubble boy.
Now, in middle age, I marvel at how optimistic my mood has become, and I'm convinced that part of the reason is the therapeutic power of touch.
With two young sons and a loving wife, I get to hold hands with somebody dear to me every day -- the warm, Skittle-caked hands of my 7-year-old son or the cool, shapely hands of my wife (who, incidentally, could be a professional hand model). For someone who came of age as a loner, this fills up my heart.
Lately, I've begun to note my family's hand-holding rituals.
My older son, who is 12, has properly stopped holding hands with his dad, unless he is grabbing my paw to hoist himself up after a wrestling match.
But he has taken to holding hands with his mother, which both amuses and pleases me. He holds her hand on walks down the streets of Chattanooga and on the sidewalk leading to our church. I've never spoken to my wife about this for fear of upsetting these fragile moments -- like pointing at a hummingbird only to have it startle and fly way.
In effect, my older son is saying: It might not be cool for a soon-to-be-seventh-grader to admit, but I love my Mom. I think she's great, and I don't care who knows it. Take that, peer presser. Take that, 13.
I sometimes watch them from behind, their hands stitched together -- his right, her left. They swing their arms like kids headed to recess. There is an obvious self-awareness about this that makes me think it's a fleeting phenomenon -- a mom clinging to her first baby, a boy reveling in his first-child bond with his mother, whom he occasionally battles but deeply loves.
On the other hand, when my younger son reaches up for my hand, I know he's facing a moment of insecurity -- whether he is about to cross a busy intersection or he's uncertain about the intentions of a neighborhood dog.
For a dad, holding your youngest child's hand is bittersweet. Sweet because, well, it just is; bitter because you know the day will come when he no longer reaches out for you. Dads, back me up on this: When one of your babies holds your hand, you feel like, if necessary, you could punch through a brick wall.
My wife and I have been married for 18 years. (Quick, 2014 minus 1996. OK, right.) Yet we hold hands just as much as now as when we were dating. The longer you're married, the more touch becomes a form of unspoken communication. When our hands join, it's shorthand for: We're still a team; we still need affirmation every day. Our love is the foundation of everything good around us and a shield against everything bad.
One night at Riverbend earlier this year, I felt my 7-year-old son grab my left hand. I looked down and noticed he was attached to his Mom with his other hand. Meanwhile, my 12-year-old son held his mother's left hand. We were walking four abreast all holding hands like Dorothy and the gang setting out on the Yellow Brick Road. I quickly realized that I was the only one who saw what was happening, yet it was one of those small moments in the life of our family that I will never forget. I instantly felt a chord of strong emotions: love, admiration, amusement, trust.
My mind drifted. I thought of the June day 18 years earlier when my wife and I waited to say our wedding vows, holding hands, giggling and thumb wrestling to fight off nervousness. I thought of times 30 years earlier when I sometimes wandered through the Riverbend grounds for a week without touching another human being.
Then, I took a deep breath and allowed myself a moment of bliss.