A View from the Hill: A touch of normal

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As soon as I stepped aboard my friend Jack’s lobster boat I found myself enveloped in a big bear hug. In normal times that would have been expected. But these are not normal times, and it wasn’t expected at all.

“Whoa!” I said, backing off. “We’re not supposed to do that!” But we had done that, and there was no undoing it. Jack has a way of knowing what people need before they do and acting on it. No question, after more than two months without a single human touch, I needed a hug.

I considered resetting the 14-day Corona clock, but at that point things were starting to open up in Maine so I let it go and we went lobstering. I’d been slowly relaxing my protocols anyway – walking with people, going into a few stores, joining outdoor safely distanced cocktails. This was just part of the reentry, I figured.

Like visiting grandkids who were sufficiently old to self-distance. I had recently latched on to some advice I had seen in The New York Times. “Don’t panic if a child breaches the social distancing barrier and gets close to a grandparent,” the Times advised, based on a discussion with Dr. Linsey Marr, an aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech.

And then the really good news: “If both grandparent and child are wearing a mask,” the Times went on, “a quick hug from a child around the waist or knees, keeping faces as far apart as possible, poses very little risk, Dr. Marr said.”

With that, I began plotting my first grandkid hug, but I would not rush into it. Other than the incident with Jack, I had not been touched by a human being since, I think, March 13. It was now almost June. So hugging was a big deal, and it would no doubt be a big, maybe even uncomfortable, deal for the grandkids.

But I had discovered a separate health issue involved in the equation, and one that worked in my favor.

“Social distancing inhibits touch, especially for single individuals living alone,” Natalie Mica,  a Houston therapist, told The Deseret News in Salt Lake City. That’s not a good thing when our immune systems could be called to the front lines at any moment, she said.

“At a time when we need the immune system the most, we are being asked to distance ourselves from each other, causing us to disengage from a major immune booster and a valuable form of communication,” Mica said.

The story went on to suggest that for those who live alone, it’s not hopeless. Even touching one’s self can have health benefits by releasing oxytocin, which lowers the stress hormone cortisol. So apply skin moisturizer, the story advised.

On the advice of my dermatologist, I do that every day. It’s fine, but believe me, it can’t hold a candle to the real thing.

A few days ago I went to visit my daughter and her kids, who live out in the country. We sat outside in the driveway and talked. The 8-year-old, Frankie, even found a tape and jokingly measured the distance between chairs – 6 feet exactly, she confirmed.

When they got tired of talking, I gave Frankie and her brother, Lewis, who is about to turn 5, a couple of grown-up cameras I had brought and sent them off to take photos of whatever caught their eye. It’s always wonderful and enlightening to see how they view their world.

When that got old, Lewis wandered off and I suggested to Frankie we go exploring in the woods next to their house. We crept slowly from the lawn into the cool, swampy woods, avoiding getting too close to each other. We studied animal tracks and a tree that had fallen. 

I cautioned Frankie about what I thought was poison ivy. She wasn’t concerned.

“Wouldn’t it be worth it to get poison ivy if it meant you could go on an adventure with your grandchild?” she asked. Where did she ever learn the concept of cost-benefit, I wondered. 

At that point the mosquitos found us, so we decided to head back to the house. I led the way through the underbrush, pushing branches aside as Frankie followed.

And then I felt it. 

Through my shirt, I sensed a small hand fall with the softness of a breath on my left rib cage. It was just a moment, the way a child will do from time to time to simply confirm your presence. I’m sure I have been touched this way thousands of times in my life without it registering.

This time it certainly did register. I was stunned. A delicious warmth flooded through me. Time stopped momentarily in this swampy woods on a sunny summer day in the middle of a pandemic. When it started again, we looked at each other.

“Oops,” she said. 

“It’s alright,” I said. “Everything is fine. Everything is fine.”

Andrew Marsters is an award-winning journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.