Black-and-white photo depicting Sophia Malik resting on her nani's lap as the elder runs her fingers through her hair.

OPINION | The Wisdom of Touch

by Sophia Malik

My grandmother-in-law was like Yoda in a hijab. She was tiny, old, had leathery skin, and was apt to speak in poetry or riddles. She spent much of her time sitting quietly. This made her words more potent when she did speak. When her mood was crispy she would chide me and ask why wasn’t I wearing makeup or jewelry or when was I going to stop studying and have kids. Even though I have a tendency to take things personally, I never did with Nani. Something about the brevity of her cantankerousness combined with her adorable squishiness drew me closer to her instead of pushing me away. When I didn’t want to argue with her or my head hurt from trying to force my Urdu beyond its feeble abilities, I used to reach out for her hand and lay my head in her lap. 

She wore the nani uniform of shalwar kameez overlaid with a thick sweater and wrapped in dupatta. The homey layers and her soft lack of muscle tone created a nest for me to lay in. She would take her hands and place her fingertips on my scalp. Moving her fingertips back and forth in a soothing motion, she would occasionally click two of her nails together. The sound and motion was supposed to mimic finding bugs and removing them. I thought this was strange at first but came to find the silliness of the game comforting. In that moment, nothing was serious. It was only a time and place of play and care. 

During the pandemic, I had my husband and children to hold, but touch of this specific character was missing. It had nourished and strengthened without needing anything from me. In my isolation and the demands of the moment, responsibilities grew and my ability to attend to myself diminished. Not receiving sufficient care, I had less to give others. My shoulders and neck became tight, and eventually my voice.

At the suggestion of a friend, I went for a facial, something I had never done in my life. I was extremely nervous and uncomfortable and asked the aesthetician so many questions she could barely get started. Eventually she asked me as kindly as possible to stop talking and to trust her. I had difficulty lying still while she was applying different potions to my face. Towards the end of the treatment, she put some warm oil in my hair and put her fingertips to my crown. 

She massaged my scalp with such tenderness that tears started to run down my face. I hadn’t known she was planning to do this and she didn’t know the women before her who had done the same for me. I imagined she was taking all that wasn’t mine, willingly removing it, as if this receiving was a gift she very much wanted. 

I have seen her a few times since then. My family lives on the opposite coast, so I don’t get to see them often, but when I do I coax my nieces to rub my back or braid my hair. Our bodies hold many stories. Often our sensations are a remembrance of something important, something that needs attention and can’t be forgotten or pushed past. I’m trying to train myself to hear the call sooner. To both address what is needed and receive what is given without too much delay. And I’m grateful for those who come into my life, sometimes unexpectedly, to remind me.

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Sophia Malik is a family medicine physician and lives in South Seattle.

📸 Featured Image: “When I didn’t want to argue with her or my head hurt from trying to force my Urdu beyond its feeble abilities, I used to reach out for her hand and lay my head in her lap.” Sophia Malik and her Nani. (Photo courtesy of Sophia Malik.)

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