Please Do Not Touch Me

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H_Heather

“Rub the Buddha belly, Rylee,” my older sister, Katie, said to her daughter.

Rylee smiled up at me and gingerly put her hand on the crest of my pregnant abdomen. She moved it back and forth, with a hesitant, irritating judder.

I smiled, but had to grit my teeth to not swat her hand away.

I felt ashamed of my knee-jerk reaction, but frustrated that my sister didn’t remember how ticklish I am.

Mostly, I was tired and afraid.

Any day now, labor would start. Any day now, I would become a mother.

“I should give you some back rubs!” Katie said, her voice cheerful.

I cringed, trying not to show it. The idea of anyone touching me right now made me want to cry. Anyone, but especially my sister.

She had called months before, her voice joyful, and told me she was coming. “I can come for two weeks,” she said. “So I have a really good chance of being there for the big day!”

I sat on the floor, and bent my knees up against my belly, as if to shield myself. “That’s great,” I said, trying to make my voice sincere. “That’s great you’ll be here.”

I meant it, and I didn’t. I felt honored my sister wanted to be there for my birth. I knew she was telling me she loved me by showing up.

But also, I didn’t know exactly why she was coming. We didn’t talk regularly—she would disappear for months, sometimes a year at a time, not answering my calls or emails, her voice mail so overfull I couldn’t even leave a message. Then one day she would call out of the blue, and tell me she loved me, and we’d talk.

We’d grown up mostly apart—her at a children’s home, me with our parents. Even when we were children, I was thirsty for any detail about who she was and what she was like and what she did each day.

On her calls, I’d get a few hints: her new art studio, her daughter’s antics, the church she’d started attending, but after a half-hour of us exchanging our stories, she’d say she had to go. When I hung up, I’d wonder when—or if—I’d hear her voice again.

Did she want to be sisters, or not? How could the barrier between us come down unless she opened up?

A week and a half later, my water broke. Labor was a freight train, contractions one after another during my home birth. I lost a decent amount of blood after the labor, so much so that my midwife set me up with an IV to replenish my fluids. The morning after, I was so shaky I had to hold the sides of the shower.

And then, for two days, I didn’t sleep.

On the third morning, my sister came over by herself, without my niece. She knocked tentatively at my bedroom door and peeked in. I was alone; she was there to relieve my husband so he could buy groceries.

My newborn was lying on the middle of the bed, asleep, and I was trying to tidy the room. I hardly looked at my sister as I organized, picking up things and setting them down, so desperate to rest I could not stop moving.

“How are you?” she said.

I stopped. For a moment, I contemplated lying. I did not want to admit I was poised on the edge of a cliff.

Then my face crumpled, and I started to cry.

In two strides, she had her arms around me. She held on tight as I stuttered out the long nights, how my usual insomnia had worsened, and how other events after the birth had undone me. I unspooled there in her arms, no longer strong enough to hold myself together.

She held me so tight I knew I was safe. I was astonished to realize how safe she was. She was safe, as though there had never been any barrier between us.

Later, I lay in the bed next to my daughter, while Katie gave me the massage she’d promised. Her hands smoothed away the knot in my shoulders, rubbed away the charley horse in my thigh. It felt incredible.

She had never touched me like this.

I had never allowed her to.

All this time, I had wondered what was wrong with her. I wondered why she didn’t reach out to me. I wondered why she was afraid. I measured the distance between us and assumed she’d need to be the one to bridge it.

I thought it would take a gargantuan effort, something, perhaps, beyond her.

There, safe in my sister’s arms, I realized the truth: the barriers were as much about me as they were about her. And instead of a great force of will, what I’d needed to do was completely let go, and allow her to hold me.

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Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who loves British murder mysteries, advice columns, and hot breakfasts. She uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, “Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.
Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri
  • O, this feels close to home, Heather … Thank you for drawing me—and us—closer, even in telling this story.

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  • Oh those darn barriers! They’re pretty well always as much about us as it is about them!

  • Got to the end of the essay, and realized I’d been holding my breath as I read.
    Intense.
    I’m thinking that a lot of the barriers in life are of our own making — or at least our maintaining.

  • Heather, thank you for letting us glimpse this very personal part of your world. I have wanting to hear more about your sister since you told me you have had a complicated relationship with her when you read my sister story:) Thank God for the messy, beautiful thing called family and what it teaches us about ourselves!

  • Gosh, Heather, you’re making me think about all the times and ways I may be unwilling to receive what someone is willing to offer — by resisting, reluctant to let down my guard. What tenderness in the moment; I imagine it’ll carry you for a while!

  • Donna-Jean Brown

    Good reminder of difference – not everyone wants to be hugged the way I want to hug them – and yet it doesn’t hurt to offer the way your sister did…just in case being held is what they need without even knowing it. How good to trust that our mother/father God holds each of us perfectly. This is the Gospel of Jesus. Thanks, Heather.

  • cjdeboer

    I love the heart of this piece Heather. So often we think those walls in relationships are created by others, but we need only to look at ourselves to find the answers. Love your posts and your writing – always! xo

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  • Nicole A. Joshua

    I had a huge lump in my throat as I read this. What a beautiful picture of feeling safe and being held, Heather. Once again, your vulnerability and honesty is breathtaking.

  • fiona lynne

    Oh wow this is beautiful. I’m with Michele – I was holding my breath throughout! x

  • Joy Howard

    The truth you weave here in this very physical, very vulnerable story is palpable. So well crafted. Such as the short but amazing sentence “In two strides, she had her arms around me.” Not a word too many or too few. Whoa. Please keep writing!

  • pastordt

    Oh, Heather. This is so rich, so layered. Thank you, thank you for writing this out. It adds so much to what I know of your story. So glad I saved this to read.

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