Credit - Illustration by Gracia Lam for TIME
I’m at the stage of pandemic life when I am still counting the hugs.
The first time I invited a good friend not just over to but into my house, postvaccination, sans masks, I couldn’t even wait until she walked up to my door–I ran outside to greet her, and we tackle-hugged each other in the driveway. We both held on tight, the otherworldly buzz of a thousand cicadas in our ears, as we took turns exclaiming how good it was to see each other. We hadn’t hung out in person since January 2020, and of course I was looking forward to talking, sharing a meal, catching up on all her news–but somehow I’d forgotten that before any of that happened, I would also get to hug her. It was my first hug from a friend in more than a year, and a reminder of just how comforting a good hug can be.
I’ve been a hugger since middle school, when my friends and I would run up to one another in the halls between classes and embrace as though we hadn’t just seen one another the day before and wouldn’t see one another again at lunch. In high school, I volunteered at a Girl Scouts camp every summer, and at the end of each session, many of our campers would seek us out to say goodbye. My fellow counselors and I would typically offer them a choice: Hug, handshake or high five? Most of the kids would choose a hug. But there were always at least a few who would opt for a high five, some slapping hard enough to make my hand sting a little, or a handshake, at times delivered so solemnly I felt like we were going into business together. I always appreciated this ritual, especially the individual ask, because it allowed me to think about and honor each camper’s wishes. As I venture out from my pandemic bubble, I hope to bring the same kind of intentionality to every much anticipated reunion.
In March 2020, when our once far-ranging lives shrank to texts, phone calls and faces on screens, I knew my family and I were going to miss seeing close friends and relatives in person. But over the past year, I’ve also caught myself feeling bereft over the absence of briefer interactions, even those impromptu two-ships-passing moments, with more casual friends. I’ve missed the experience of meeting someone new, striking up a conversation and realizing you might be friends in the making. I’ve missed running into old friends on my travels, or going to a reading or event alone and reconnecting with someone I hadn’t expected to see.
I know I’m very lucky not to have gone without human contact in the last year of relative social isolation. With my spouse and I working from home, our kids attending virtual school and a (now 54-lb.!) puppy zooming from room to room, the house has felt far from empty. Thanks to my family–as well as the dog, who can really hold her ground when tackle-hugged, as she frequently is–I’ve also not had to go without hugs.
I don't remember our final hug itself because I thought I'd be back soon. I didn't know it was the last time I would ever see her.
But just as there are many different kinds of relationships and friendships, there are also many different kinds of hugs, and I’ve missed the satisfying hugs you share with friends you haven’t seen in a while, the quick hugs you exchange with frequent companions when you sit down for coffee, the long hug you might give a favorite relative before you part ways.
Most of all, I am haunted by the hugs I’ll never get to give my mother, who died of cancer early in the pandemic. I have a lifetime of her love and affection to remember. I know the exact day we must have hugged for the last time, weeks before COVID-19 forced shutdowns and stay-at-home orders throughout the country. But I don’t remember our final hug itself–how long we held on, or how tight, or her exact words before I left for the airport–because I thought I’d be back soon. I didn’t know it was the last time I would ever see her.
I’ve spent my entire adult life far from my family and many of the people I’m closest to, so I’ve often had to rely on letters and texts and calls to maintain these important connections, let the people I love know what I’m feeling. I have long been confident in my ability to express myself in words, written or spoken. But when my mother was dying and the pandemic kept me from her, I was constantly aware of just how much couldn’t be expressed in words, especially once she had a harder time speaking or following the conversation.
Although I called nearly every day, it never seemed like enough; by the end, she was mostly listening while I told her that I loved her. How much more, I thought, would it mean to both of us if I could simply sit next to her and hold her hand in silence? How much more might she feel my love if she could feel my arms around her?
After she died, I was incredibly fortunate in the support I had from loved ones near and far. Friends sent food and flowers, cards and video messages. Neighbors wearing masks waved at me through my kitchen window, left bouquets on the front step. But none of them could come into the house, sit beside me and listen to a story or give me a hug, and this felt like its own kind of loss.
Watching my mother’s livestreamed funeral from across the country, I realized that even an on-site gathering could feel lonely absent the embraces and comforting touches we often look for and expect when we mourn. Very few people could attend because of COVID-19 restrictions, and no one hugged anyone else–they all stayed a responsible 6 ft. apart, masks on, their faces and emotions more than half-hidden from one another. Once or twice, I saw friends reaching out to one another from a distance, but they knew they couldn’t come close enough for a real hug.
Lower infection rates and vaccinations came too late for my mom and me–and so many others–to have the last visits, the last hugs we wanted. Still, I’m grateful to be vaccinated now, to find myself looking forward to life in the hopefully not too distant future when my entire family is protected. Slowly, unbelievably, it’s becoming more commonplace to socialize with people outside of our household, to meet a friend for dinner or drinks or have people over to our house. We invited some friends (and their dog!) to a cookout on Memorial Day, greeting them with unmasked grins and open arms, and when the following weekend brought not one but two small get-togethers, one of my kids joked, “It’s just like the old days!” Next month, I’ll finally get to see my sister for the first time since Christmas 2019.
It feels so good to share space with our loved ones, even though I’ll never stop wishing that I could see and hug my mom again. And I know it will be some time before I’m able to travel to see all of my nearest and dearest, who are scattered throughout the country. When I do see them, though, they’ve been warned: I have a lot of hugging to make up for. I expect I’ll never take it for granted again.
Chung is the author of All You Can Ever Know