Take your index finger and run it down your brow, over the curve of your nose to your lips. Consider your awareness—consider the tingling, tickling feeling of your live-wire nerve endings firing at each other. You have thousands of fireworks exploding in that fingertip, an entire fourth of July night sky inside of you. Miniscule receptors record the exact angle and arc of the curve of your nose, the dryness of your lips.
Walk outside. Wrap your hands around the trunk of a tree, any tree. You will feel rough canyons beneath your fingertips, extending places you cannot reach. Feel the solidity of the thing, feel the years it holds inside of it. You are too soft and supple to stand so long. Your hands are wanderers, not meant to be rooted here for the wind to brush against.
You gained this ability for touch before you even left the watery womb, when your fingers were shrunken, hieroglyphic, puckered and pruned. You practiced this every time your mother’s impossibly careful hands slid along her planetary stomach—universes inside, you inside.
You and I do not know many things about the personal lives of unborn babies. We do not know what they dream, what they remember, what they feel, what they forget. But we know this: when a mother strokes her stomach, a tiny translucent hand presses itself against the lining of its womb—to reach, to touch.
This urge for touch will be there after the baby is born. If you run the same fingertip down the middle of the baby’s palm, it will close its impossibly small fingers around your impossibly large one.
Its eyes will flutter closed if you trail a fingertip around the arc of its cheek.
Sometimes, when babies grow older, become leather-backed and forgetful, they begin to lose themselves. They lose mountains of time. Some of them develop a disease that takes away years. Advanced stage sufferers of Alzheimer’s are called pearls. Pearls do not connect to other people. Pearls do not know their children, their husbands or wives, their mothers. Pearls do not respond to fireworks or whispers or flavors or smells. But if you run your fingertip down the palm of the pearl’s hand, you will feel impossibly old fingers close around yours.
We do not know why infants reach toward their mother’s hand deep in the womb, why babies grasp tight to a finger, why touch penetrates layers of bad circuitry when sound and sight fail. But we do know this: When a person is dying, old or young, one of the last senses to abandon them is touch. The area from their temple to their chin will be alive with nerve endings, sending fireworks wildly ricocheting to the brain until all of the lights go out.
Janna Coleman is a junior in the Creative Writing department at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, focusing on creative non-fiction.