Photo: Rob Howard
In the foot washing room, without speaking, she motioned for me to move closer and sit on the higher stool in front of her. I slipped my shoes off my feet, which I had scrubbed especially hard for the occasion, and let them sway above the water. Leaning forward, head bowed, she carefully guided them into the basin with her hands. The water was welcoming and warm, and as her fingers cupped handfuls and poured them over my toes, I felt ticklish. When I plunged my soles deeper into the basin, she gently massaged my arches. After she was done, she toweled my feet dry and helped me place them back in my shoes.
We switched places and now it was my turn at her feet, which unlike mine were fine, beautiful, well manicured.
I could suddenly see her staring at them, propped up for weeks as she lay in bed, hoping, waiting, and dreaming about a future with her son. Grabbing them tighter than I'd hoped, I gave her a real scrubbing, as though she were a dusty-footed visitor who'd just entered my home. Her face did not betray the surprise she must have felt. This was symbolic after all. But having never done it before, I knew no other way.
With her feet in my hands, I couldn't help but think of a reflexology chart I'd once seen, a diagram that linked various parts of the foot to different organs in the body. Here I was, connecting to her brain by maneuvering her big toes, and to her kidneys, lung, and heart by rubbing the middle of her feet. The place she held her son, I had under my pinky. Through touch, we were thoroughly linked not just symbolically but for real.
Going in, I knew this would be a humbling experience. I had read about nuns in India who'd washed the feet of lepers to teach themselves the lessons of true humility. What I didn't expect was that it would also make me feel stronger in a way one experiences only by extending oneself, one's hand, unguardedly toward another.
After we finished, the woman and I hugged. We lingered in our embrace, purposefully acknowledging that we now knew each other in a slightly different way than we had before. We touch the people we love all the time, I exuberantly told her, or at least we should. But to touch someone we don't know as well can feel bold, even dangerous. That is until our life paths surprisingly merge, if even for an instant, among fingers and toes and water.
We Hear You!