From Chicken Soup for the Soul 20th Anniversary Edition


A father is always making his baby into a little woman. And when she is a woman he turns her back again.

~Enid Bagnold

She is my daughter and is immersed in the turbulence of her 16th year. Following a recent bout with illness, she learned her best friend would soon be moving away. School was not going as well as she had hoped, nor as well as her mother and I had hoped. She exuded sadness through a muffle of blankets as she huddled in bed, searching for comfort. I wanted to reach out to her and wrench away all the miseries that had taken root in her young spirit. Yet, even aware of how much I cared for her and wanted to remove her unhappiness, I knew the importance of proceeding with caution.

As a family therapist I’ve been well educated about inappropriate expressions of intimacy between fathers and daughters, primarily by clients whose lives have been torn apart by sexual abuse. I’m also aware of how easily care and closeness can be sexualized, especially by men who find the emotional field foreign territory and who mistake any expression of affection for sexual invitation. How much easier it was to hold and comfort her when she was two or three or even seven. But now her body, our society and my manhood all seemed to conspire against my comforting my daughter. How could I console her while still respecting the necessary boundaries between a father and a teenage daughter? I settled for offering her a back rub. She consented.

I gently massaged her bony back and knotted shoulders as I apologized for my recent absence. I explained that I had just returned from the international back-rubbing finals, where I had placed fourth. I assured her that it’s hard to beat the back rub of a concerned father, especially if he’s a world-class back-rubbing concerned father. I told her all about the contest and the other contestants as my hands and fingers sought to loosen tightened muscles and unlock the tensions in her young life.

I told her about the shrunken antique Asian man who had placed third in the contest. After studying acupuncture and acupressure his entire life, he could focus all his energy into his fingers, elevating back rubbing to an art. “He poked and prodded with prestidigitatious precision,” I explained, showing my daughter a sample of what I’d learned from the old man. She groaned, though I wasn’t sure whether in response to my alliteration or my touch. Then I told her about the woman who had placed second. She was from Turkey and since her childhood had practiced the art of belly dancing, so she could make muscles move and ripple in fluid motion. With her back rub, her fingers awakened in tired muscles and weary bodies an urge to vibrate and quiver and dance. “She let her fingers do the walking and the muscles tagged along,” I said, demonstrating.

“That’s weird,” emanated faintly from a face muffled by a pillow. Was it my one-liner or my touch?

Then I just rubbed my daughter’s back and we settled into silence. After a time she asked, “So who got first place?”

“You’d never believe it!” I said. “It was a baby!” And I explained how the soft, trusting touches of an infant exploring a world of skin and smells and tastes was like no other touch in the world. Softer than soft. Unpredictable, gentle, searching. Tiny hands saying more than words could ever express. About belonging. About trust. About innocent love. And then I gently and softly touched her as I had learned from the infant. I recalled vividly her own infancy — holding her, rocking her, watching her grope and grow into her world. I realized that she, in fact, was the infant who had taught me about the touch of the infant.

After another period of gentle back rubbing and silence, I said I was glad to have learned so much from the world’s expert back rubbers. I explained how I had become an even better back rubber for a 16-year-old daughter painfully stretching herself into adult shape. I offered a silent prayer of thanks that such life had been placed in my hands and that I was blessed with the miracle of touching even a part of it.

~Victor Nelson

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