The sheets were crisp and white, just the way he liked them. The gauze blanket was tucked in tight at the foot of the bed. Being a military man, these things meant a lot to him. I hated hospitals and I hated visiting anyone in them even more, but there I was sitting at the foot of his bed. I found it odd and ironic that I was sitting at the feet of the man who had caused so much pain for me and my family throughout the years. If I had to think of three adjectives to describe him they would be self-righteous, disparaging, and condescending. Still, I was compelled to sit at his feet. I started to rub his legs through the lightweight blanket. As I rubbed, I began to feel the greatest comfort coming from this shell of a man who had always made me feel “less than.”
Hearing the death rattle in his body made me uncomfortable. My throat felt thick and I wanted to clear it. Then it happened. I moved to the side of the bed and took his hands in mine and held them. You can tell a lot about a person by looking closely at their hands. His nails had been bitten down to the quick and the callouses were astonishing. I had never noticed them before on this once strong, virile, and meticulous man who was now dying from cancer. Why were his nails so short? Why was his skin so rough? He was always the one on top of his game, impeccably dressed, always in charge. How could this be? That moment changed me forever. A tenderness washed over me that remains to this day. It was in those hands that I saw his humanness for the first time. I realized that he was just like the rest of us – vulnerable, lonely, afraid, and uncertain. I watched my 52 year old brother-in-law give up his life that day, but he left his gift behind. His hands had transferred a tenderness into me that allowed me to forgive him for all of the pain I’d been through. It was a memorable gift.
There is an almost forgotten language that happens when we are in a natural or vulnerable state. This forgotten language is called tenderness. I am not sure if tenderness has been forgotten or simply buried under all of the baggage we carry around each day, but the desire for tenderness is deeply couched in our individual psychological makeup. Without its presence, we feel dry and wooden. Both women and men intuitively sense when tenderness is present and when it is not.
When no anger or hidden agendas exist, the dance of tenderness can possess us. Tenderness can be experienced through many channels – a word, a simple touch, a Band-Aid on someone’s finger, a glance from the eyes of another – but it is a direct hit experience when it is tasted and it can lead us to forgiveness. Tenderness is a meltdown. We are never the same once we experience it. All that exists and everything that matters is present with us during times of tenderness.
Tenderness is a magical process that transforms our base selves into something of true merit. It is the language of the heart and the soul and is therefore existential. Tenderness seems to be missing in our world today. I am on a mission to reclaim it.
“We win by tenderness. We conquer by forgiveness.” Frederick W. Robertson
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