I stepped over the threshold. She was ready. Smiling. Her arms stretched out. I stopped, stood, petrified as a Pompei corpse, my grimace in stone behind my face mask. I leaned back, wide-eyed. But she, determined, zeroed in, trapping my torso, wrapping her arms around my rigid body.
I squawked, ‘What!?’
‘It’s called a hug, Jo.’
‘I’ll need to sanitise my whole self!’ I joked (not really), as I pulled away. ‘I don’t go around doing this any more!’
I saw myself racing home, deep-breathing in the car to calm down, stripping and screaming to the bathroom, wiping my naked, shivering self with copious amounts of gummy sanitiser, getting high on the fumes of the alcohol…
In early Corona days, we enjoyed primitive greetings, but the flawed logic showed itself – how can you elbow bump as that crease, the receptacle for sneezes and coughs, harbours and probably grows the deadly virus? And then it seemed ‘The Covid’ lay about on floors too, just waiting for some unsuspecting ‘soul’ to step into the lipid mess and carry it home. I have, on occasion, been required to dip my shoe soles into a tray of sanitiser, and so I abandoned, too, the light-hearted foot-touch.
Now my habit is to do a little dance. I find myself regularly and awkwardly saying, ‘Hey, I’d hug you if I could,’ my arms jiggle, I squeeze the air. Like a feather-weight boxer I keep light on my toes, I duck and dive… All the time enjoying a sense of anticipation at being together, seeing a friend here or there, but also feeling trepidation: how close can we be? Can we remove our masks? To ‘touch’, flesh to flesh, hugging, hand shaking, still seems out of the question.
It was after this ground-breaking encounter, the Big Hug, that I recognised again the value and necessity of touch, and what we’re missing. Hand holding, cuddling, a heart-to-heart body grip, releases the ‘feel good’ hormone Oxytocin. Touching generates feelings of compassion between people, of closeness. We live longer, are more content, says science. Heart rate and blood pressure come down. We feel less anxious and stressed as our levels of dopamine and serotonin (the neurotransmitters that help regulate mood). Just as the primates do it, we too need to pick at knots and fleas, and tug at each others’ fur and feel warmth and comfort.
I thought about how – after losing my husband from the marital bed, over-night – how devastating it was for my body; although intellectually I knew he was dead, gone, my body could not accept it. My body did not understand. My arms, with cell memory so ingrained, the muscle-habit of it, would automatically reach for him in the empty space. My body was the uncontrollable chicken with its head chopped off running around the yard regardless. So used to holding and touching, this is what it was to be physically bereft: I describe it as a sort of phantom-limb pain – missing the habitual human touch, in fact an extension of what had become my own physicality.
I must admit, at last there came a time when I began to enjoy my own space. (The bed didn’t dip in the middle with his weight. A cat won’t tell you to switch off the light, and a hot water bottle doesn’t snore.) I had my daughters for hugs, and my son Al for high-fives and slaps on the back. I would hug friends in greeting, in farewell, as an act of congratulations and compassion. My kids complained, ‘Mom, you’d hug a dodgy car guard. Please, have some discretion.’ Discretion wasn’t/ isn’t my thing.
Even though most of us have got used to this new way of being with each other, the Big Hug brought into focus how difficult it must be for so many. For those living alone, for those unable to be with their friends, children, or parents, what a loss it is not to be able to reach out and hold one body to another. It brought into focus how social distancing might be a terrible thing. All those benefits of touch – connection to another – are no longer part of our taken-for-granted range of greetings. I miss it.
The Big Hug got me thinking just how much I miss seeing my friends, too, being with them, in the care-free way one was able to sit close together on a couch or at a dinner table, and laugh and chat without worrying that their breath (or mine) would carry the bug. I miss hugging hello and hug goodbye, I miss that physically validation. I miss being squeezed, held and appreciated, having my boundaries affirmed (without physical contact I am aware of a sense of free-floating…).
There’s no substitute, either, for meeting face to face (or eyes to eyes, if in masks), as conversations gather momentum and one thing leads to another. Directly after the Big Hug, I whipped off my mask too. Once you’ve touched, you’ve had it! We sat outside, in a cold breeze which no doubt flushed away any nonsense.
One minute we were talking Covid-19 (can it really affect your brain?) and the next we we were talking about how to keep our daughters safe with the pandemic of sexual abuse going strong; then I was asking, ‘What do I do? My boy-man is still obsessed about getting a red and orange monkey tattooed to his left pec! And now he wants a sewing machine and he’d like to be called Sacha (after Sacha Baron Cohen) …what have I bred?’ Over another glass of vino we gossiped and shared, about books and men, and we laughed; it seemed like the old days. I had come to visit for an hour; after two, with no Zoom meeting cut-off, after our heart-to-heart, we hugged again, this time, on my part, less hesitantly, the physical connection worth so much more than holding on to fear.
I’m really not certain of the rules any more. I don’t know how many people can go to a funeral (not that I’ve been to any, I’m so lucky there…); Can we still not go to the beach? (Though we do…) I have no idea if we can visit our families and friends. It seems I may have broken another rule or few. But for The Big Hug, it was worth it.