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As soon as I asked the question, I asked myself why I had asked the question. Even as I was mouthing the words, the stodgy side of me whispered to the daring side, “What do you think you’re doing?”
She has been a resident in the long-term care facility for several years and given her advanced age, this likely will be her home until she dies. It doesn’t take much for me to illicit a smile from her, most any caring words will do: “You look nice today.” “I love that smile.” “You’re in a happy mood.”
And her grin embraces the entire room, her world.
That day, I was about to make my exit when I noticed she kept squirming in her chair.
“Is something wrong with your back?” I queried.
“It itches,” she declared.
And that’s when the words quite involuntarily slipped out: “Would you like me to scratch your back?”
As a pastor, I’ve sat up all night with people as death waited at the door, gone to the grocery store for needy people, helped a farmer cut tobacco (I was practically worthless to him), and eaten meals, the content of which, in some cases, I didn’t know and was afraid to ask.
(I did once ask, “What was in that dish?” and discovered I had just eaten horse meat.)
But as a minister, I’ve never scratched a back.
She leaned forward, “Please…”
What was I to do?
I imagined what I would say when I arrived home and my wife asked, “What did you do at work today?”
“Oh, let me see, I worked on my sermon, counseled a young couple, had a planning meeting, read a couple of journal articles, and by the way, scratched someone’s back - my definitive accomplishment for the day.”
It’s a fact: Our backs itch in response to stimuli, like clothing, dust, hair or a bug. Our first natural response is to scratch the spot of the itch with our fingernails.
“The reason for this response is simple - we want to remove the irritant as soon as possible,” according to the website, health.howstuffworks.com.
That helps me understand my role a little better: I’m not merely a back scratcher. I’m practically a physical therapist, alleviating pain in people who can’t help themselves.
As I left her room, I held my head high, for after all, I was on a higher plane: I should don a white coat, one like the physicians wear with my name embroidered on it: Dr. Whitlock, Itch Therapist.
I would tell my wife that in addition to thinking deep theological thoughts and dispensing wise words of counsel, I had added the art of back scratching therapy to my repertoire of pastoral activities.
And then I read something quite distressing.
According to a study at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, the ankle has overtaken the back as the most satisfying spot to scratch.
Indeed, Professor Francis McGlone, a member of the International Forum for the Study of Itch (It does exist, I looked it up, and I’m itching to become a member) observed, “It was interesting that the ankle was the itchiest site and that the most pleasure came from scratching it, because the back has been well-known as a preferred site for scratching.”
Now, what am I going to do if I notice some poor souls trying unsuccessfully to scratch their ankles? Unlike the back, ankles are often uncovered. Before scratching, they would need to be cleaned. That would of course entail washing someone’s feet.
But for that I wouldn’t get to wear the prestigious doctor’s white coat, spotless and starched, emblazoned with my name and title. It might get wet and soiled. No, for foot washing I likely would need to wrap a towel around my waist and lower myself, getting on my knees, bending down, washing and drying feet in a basin of water, I suppose.
That’s almost too much like what Someone I know did a couple of thousand years ago.
And I’m not sure I’m there yet.
Maybe I’d better just stick to scratching backs.
Dr. David B. Whitlock is a Baptist minister and author of the book "Life Matters." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.