Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Magic of Touch

As I sat down in the rickety chair watching Asherel saddle her horse for her riding lesson, a fuzzy, matted barn cat purring loudly hopped into my lap. This barn has bunches of cats- strays that appear from all corners of the earth. The owners feed them but leave them largely to themselves beyond that, as far as I know. As I scritched behind the cat's ears, his purr exploded even louder. He closed his eyes and leaned his head into my hands. This was a cat in ecstasy. I felt all kinds of bumps and matted areas, and wondered what was under all that fur, but squelched any misgivings in deference to the magnitude of the cat's delight.

A little girl sat next to me and struck up a conversation. We discussed the very fearsome possibility that she might be required to canter today. The cat's astonishing loud purrs punctuated my assurances to the little girl.
"Cantering is fun," I said, "You will love it."

The little girl reached out to pet the cat on my lap and the mother dashed over with a warning, "Don't touch him!" I glanced up from the cat that had now jumped off my lap and was anxious for the forbidden child to pet him.
"He has mange," explained the woman. She took a credit card out and scraped the fur up to look at his skin, and this confirmed her diagnosis. I didn't ask but I assumed she was a vet or someone who knew what to look for. I didn't.
"Is it contagious to humans?" I asked.
"It can be," she said.

I hurried away to wash my hands, worried less for me than for the dogs at home I might spread it to. The cat trotted slowly away, glancing back. He seemed to know he would not be pet again by that group.

At home, I looked up "mange" on the internet and found that indeed humans can and do get mange from infected pets. Mange is a little bug that likes to burrow in the skin. It is microscopic but its effects are not- the afflicted develop itching and red flaky skin. If caught early, it is not hard to treat, but if left untreated, it can be devastating and impossible to heal in the pet. Mange bugs do not like humans however, and die off within a couple of weeks so it is never a lasting problem for us, though the two weeks of itching are not fun.

When Asherel's lesson was over, the little girl was pumping her fist in the air.
"I cantered!" she told me jubilantly.
It was apparently fun.
The cat was nowhere in sight.

I thought of the lepers of Jesus' day who were forced to live in a quarantined area, and not allowed to ever be touched or touch another living being for fear of contaminating them. Should a person approach, the leper had to shout out, "Unclean! Unclean!" in warning. One of the supreme acts of kindness was when Jesus reached out and touched a leper, perhaps the first human touch that person had felt in years.

As an Occupational Therapist, I had learned that there were neurological reasons why hugs feel so good. Deep pressure to the touch receptors in the skin set off neuronal responses that have an "inhibitory" affect on the central nervous system. That is a fancy way of saying it is calming. It is why our children fall down and skin their knees, and are so comforted by hugs. But the older they get, and the older we get, it seems that hugs from moms don't matter quite so much. Moms and mangy cats stand in the corner, craving touch, and knowing that they may not be so forthcoming. It's just the way it is. But it is comforting to know that no matter how "unclean" we are, God still reaches down , holds His hands out to us, and tells us to draw near to Him, and He will draw near to us, and touch us with the balm of Heaven.

Matthew 8:2-3 (New International Version)

2A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, "Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean."

3Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. "I am willing," he said. "Be clean!" Immediately he was cured of his leprosy.

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