You know that cute old couple holding hands as they walk across the parking lot? That cute couple is us.
When I hold hands with Kim, it may mean that she is walking over uneven terrain where the slightest stumble, or even an awkward step, can cause shooting pain into her slowly healing back. She no longer uses a walker, and we have not yet looked for a good hiking stick, so at times I substitute for the stick, which is something I feel good about.
But there is more to it. Handholding is a direct connection, flesh to flesh. It says, “I am here, here with you, and we are connected.” A hug does the same thing, of course, but handholding is different, more intimate in a way. For many people, hugs seem to have replaced shaking hands, a ritual that historically was simply an indication that you were not carrying a weapon in your right hand – a form of connection, to be sure, but not intimacy. A hug, unlike a handshake (unless you have excellent flirtation skills) also can add erotic or romantic overtones, which most of us scrupulously avoid when greeting or parting from friends. And a hug is a pause in the action, giving it a certain intensity, especially when expressing support for someone going through a hard time. You become a prop, like a hiking stick, and you express your role as non-erotic lover. That’s a good thing.
Handholding seems, at first glance, to be somewhat less than a hug – less intimate, less romantic. I think of the phrase “just friends,” which indicates a falling short of a preferred relationship, probably as lovers. Handholding is less than hugging and kissing.
For me, however, handholding is something Kim and I do as we are going about the minor projects of our life together – walking across the parking lot to the grocery store, sitting on the couch watching something from Netflix, or taking our daily mile or two “hike” on the paths around our condo. Sometimes in bed I will gently put my hand on her shoulder, and she will reach up in response to hold my hand. We are connected as partners in the busyness of our life. Before Kim’s surgery we would hold each other up as we walked, especially when there was ice in the parking lot.
I’m reminded of the cynical definition of marriage: two people jumping out of an airplane together, each thinking the other is a parachute. Well, now I provide more physical support than Kim does, but she’s still my parachute, providing all kinds of emotional support for me while encouraging my better self. Holding hands means that connection. We spend so much time together that some say that we are connected at the hip. Nope. We are connected at the hand.
I am, of course, making this up. The meaning of an event, like the meaning of a work of literature, is constructed by the audience or participant. Meaning is a matter of interpretation rather than residing somehow in the event itself. And that being said, I choose to interpret handholding with Kim the way I do. One of the most valuable things I learned at Amherst was in the fraternity pledge I took: “Place the best construction on the words and deeds of my brothers.” Well, we are all brothers, even the sisters among us, and I can choose to interpret events – that is, the meaning of an event – is ultimately up to me, even when the event is as apparently insignificant as holding your partner’s hand. Epictetus and the Stoics taught us that while we don’t have control over what happens to us, we do control how we choose to respond to what happens. This is as true for love as it is for anger.
I don’t want to exaggerate here. Sometimes it can be annoying when your partner wants to hold your hand. Kim doesn’t seem to enjoy it when cooking my dinner, for example, and I find one-handed typing unnecessarily difficult. Choose your occasions, however, and it works.