The Last, the First, and the Waiting in Between
The last person I hugged, was a stranger. He was a 20-something, 30 years my junior (about the same age as my daughter), just out of college and volunteering for the Bernie Sanders campaign. He stayed with me for a few days in the run-up to Super Tuesday. I hardly saw him during his stay, he was so busy working up to the very last minute.
But on Wednesday evening, the night after Bernie’s disappointing Super Tuesday showing, the volunteer came home early, dejected. We sat at my kitchen table, had a beer, and talked for a few hours about politics, from our different vantage points and places in life. We both pretty much knew the losses would mean that Bernie’s run was over, and we were depressed by that.
When our conversation wound down, I stood up and said good night and goodbye, since I’d be leaving for work in the morning before he was awake, and he would be moving on to whatever was next. He stood up too, gave me a vibrant hug, and then gently, politely, and very sweetly inquired if I were interested in more than a hug. I was amused and flattered — even thought about it for a split second before chuckling to myself — then thanked him for the kind offer, but said I would pass. That was March 4th. I went to my bedroom and closed the door, and when I came home from work the next day, he was gone.
I haven’t hugged anyone since then, and no one has been in my house. The following week was my last time in someone else’s home.
Within just a few days of my Bernie bro leaving, one of my actual brothers arrived in the area. He had flown into Boston on March 11th, from Los Angeles, after spending a tense week wondering if he should cancel his annual, two-week stint of concert dates in Massachusetts that coincide with St. Patrick’s Day. COVID-19 had begun popping up in a few states around the country, Massachusetts being one of them. He ultimately decided to come, wearing an N-95 mask on the flight, even though very few people were wearing masks of any kind at that time.
The advice then was to bump elbows instead of shake hands or hug, stay at least three feet apart from other people, wash your hands, and avoid touching your face.
I picked him up at the airport shuttle bus stop, and even though it had been a year since we’d seen each other, we dutifully bumped elbows instead of hugging. We collected his instruments and luggage, got in my car, and he took off his mask. I didn’t even own masks at that time — they weren’t being recommended for “civilians,” and in fact, there was an intense shortage for health care workers in the state.
A few days later, as live music venues all shut down in Massachusetts and around the country, his shows — including the house concert I was preparing to host at my home — were all canceled due to COVID-19. Instead, we decided to livestream the show in one of the band members’ kitchens, with the musicians, unmasked, three feet apart, as per the guidelines at that time.
Afterwards I drove my brother back to where he was staying, bumped elbows one last time, and said, “Take care, see ya,” knowing that the next time would almost certainly be at least a year from then. I cried as I pulled out of the driveway. It was March 15th, and that was the last time I was in someone else’s home.
Some time in February was the last time I danced with someone. I had spent the previous year re-kindling my old love of swing, two-step and other social (partner) dance styles. Shaking the rust off my unpracticed, out-of-shape self, I had begun to dance regularly during the months leading up to then, and it was joyful. Being spun across a dance floor can feel like flying.
I saw live music in a crowded, indoor venue for the last time, on February 29th, at a bluegrass festival in an historic theater in Northampton, MA. The goodnight hug my friend and I exchanged at the end of that show, was probably my second to last. And certainly, sitting elbow to elbow, sharing an armrest with people, has not happened since then.
The last time I touched my daughter, my favorite person in the world, was on January 20th. It was the end of my week visiting her in her new home in Washington state, far, far from our home where she was raised, in Massachusetts. We stayed together in a cozy AirBnB while Western Washington experienced its one blast of winter weather for the season. Her partner was there, too.
We dined out, visited breweries, listened to records on the vintage stereo, and though she’s grown, shared constant hugs and cuddles, hand-holding and giggles. On the final morning of my trip, I embraced her for the last time before getting on the shuttle to the airport. And as I often do, I rested my cheek on her silky soft one and held it there for awhile, savoring that physical connection, knowing it would be months before I’d see her in person again.
I have not touched a cheek, or held a hand, since that day.
As I watched CNN at the Seattle-Tacoma airport waiting for my flight home, there was a story announcing that this new virus that had been plaguing Wuhan, China, now had a confirmed case in the U.S — in one of the towns where my shuttle had stopped, and I had disembarked to use the restroom, while more passengers loaded. I didn’t think too much about that, only that it was a strange coincidence that I had been in that town an hour or two earlier.
Little did I know that just two months later, my workplace — as with all non-essential businesses in Massachusetts— would be ordered closed and all employees who were able to do so, would be working remotely, along with all colleges and municipal schools. Like a national board of dominoes toppling, major league sports stadiums and Broadway theaters would all be shuttered, all gigs for touring musicians, cancelled. Stay-at-home orders in place, virus cases raging out of control in Massachusetts, New York City, and New Jersey. Infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, all skyrocketing.
Some time in late March, I stepped into a grocery store for the last time — a small, locally owned one that I prefer to patronize over the big chains. I asked if they were thinking about offering online or phone ordering and curbside pickup, and they said, “no.” Few employees were wearing masks. I vowed not to go back there during the COVID crisis, and instead, began ordering from stores near me that were willing to do contactless pickup. At least I don’t miss spending time in grocery stores.
In July, I collected my last paycheck, after quitting my job because of complicated personal and professional fallout from COVID-19. I miss the paychecks, for sure, though not the actual office, nor the daily commute, short as it was.
I’ve been mostly staying home, and always strictly social distancing, since mid-March. My last time at my beloved, weekly pub trivia night, whispering with my teammates and shouting good-natured trash talk at the host and the competition in the crowded bar, was also on Super Tuesday. By the following week, the world around me had changed dramatically, and I had started social distancing.
Dancing solo in my living room to livestreaming music by an artist friend who’s just said, into his screen, “This one’s for Amber, I know she likes to waltz,” just leaves me sad. I miss swaying hand in hand with a partner, touching their shoulder, hip, or back, embracing as we move together to the music, one leading, one following.
But more than anything, I miss the hugs.
I miss being able to hug the performers, my production team, and my tiny handful of guests spread far apart in my yard, who’ve been enjoying the safe, socially distant, outdoor concerts I’ve produced on my porch this summer.
It feels like a chain with a link missing, a glaring empty spot, when occasions arise that allow me to safely connect friends in person for joyful interactions, which have to conclude with a simple wave at each other from behind our masks, and a turning away.
I already anticipate missing the hugs that won’t happen after my father’s annual, end-of-summer visit from his home on the West Coast, to friends and family in the Northeast, is inevitably postponed.
I miss the hugs I can’t get from my mother because she lives outside the U.S. and travel won’t be possible, indefinitely.
I miss showing my concern to my college student niece with a hug when she visits for a BYO, socially distant picnic in my yard, and tells me she’s forced to choose between living lonely or living scared this academic year.
It’s devastating to not jump in the car and drive a few hours, to wrap my arms around a sobbing friend whose family is imploding in the most heartbreaking of ways. It feels dreadful to not deliver a hug to another friend whose mother died suddenly at a point in the pandemic when there couldn’t even be in-person funerals.
And I long so deeply to feel the softness of my daughter’s cheek on mine, and to caress her chocolate curls as she rests her head on my shoulder. Even envisioning it quickly brings the tears that seem to be always lurking just at the corners of my eyes since March. Needless to say, her annual summer visit back to New England, to work at an overnight camp in Vermont, did not happen.
There have been so many heart crushing “lasts” since COVID-19 submerged us in its tidal wave of chaos and destruction. But I’m working hard to envision all the firsts that are in my future as the flood recedes and the wreckage gets sorted:
First guest in my home and my first visit in someone else’s.
First time back in a supermarket. First paycheck from a new job.
First time touching another person’s hand on purpose, or sitting in a movie theater with knees bumping, sharing popcorn. First dance, first kiss, first hug, first of many more physical connections with other people. These things will happen again, I know it. But until then, I miss them. So. Much.
The waiting is the hardest part, according to Tom Petty. That might be true. Or maybe what’s the most difficult, is actually the fact that we don’t know when the wait to touch each other again, will be over (or how we’ll even know it when that’s the case), nor when the many firsts that will occur as we rebuild physical re-connections to our fellow humans, will begin. Maybe it’s the not hugging, the not dancing, the not touching, and the not knowing, that’s the hardest part.