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first person

Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

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“What do you miss most these days?” I’ve been asked that question several times. For me, it’s easy – human touch, specifically hugs. As someone who’s not particularly “touchy feely” it may seem ironic – incongruous even to myself. Some people scoff, but living alone makes me long for some real physical connection.

When I was little, I endured hugs and kisses from various elderly “aunties” and reluctantly gave hugs and kisses when prompted. But, in general, hugging was reserved for family members and special occasions. Mine wasn’t a demonstrative family.

As I got older, social mores changed. I would be taken aback when a new acquaintance came in for a bear hug – I’d respond, but woodenly. Why is this person I hardly knew, and have no affection for, wanting to hug me? In retrospect, I realized that some of these new, exuberant friends were American. Did that make me an uptight, repressed Canadian unable to embrace (literally) new social connections? Not wanting to seem standoffish, I reciprocated – maybe a beat later than they did, – but still, I was playing the part of an outgoing, fun person.

At some point I realized I wasn’t playing a part any longer – I enjoyed the brief physical connection and embraced the custom! In my 60s, I’m an enthusiastic aficionado of hugging. Like a handshake, but more personal, a hug tells a lot about a person – and their connection to me. As my life evolved and I’m now single, I appreciate my friendships even more and enter into hugging hello and goodbye wholeheartedly with genuine affection. I revel in feeling, if just for a few moments, the warmth and joy of communicating feelings of love. I appreciate the feel of the friends who are taller than me, reaching down to find and hold me briefly as I stretch to find them, the diminutive friends I stoop to embrace, being careful not to topple them in my exuberance, those whose rail-thin frames are easy to envelope and those whose generous arms envelope me in soft warmth. Just for a moment we share the rise and fall of our breath, resting our heads on each other’s shoulder. Firm, intentional, meaningful hugs are the best.

And yet, when I would meet an online date for the first time, I’d try not to cringe if he wanted to hug me. I’d try to lead with my right for a solid handshake, but am sometimes pre-empted and submit stoically to a hug. If we meet more often, they’ll come to know that I’m really a demonstrative, hand-holding, embraceable, responsive human being.

The worst hug is the one-armed looking-over-your-shoulder with minimum contact – the embrace version of an air kiss. Admittedly, in the past, this was likely my modus operandi when confronted with an unwanted hug. Like most things in life, it cuts both ways.

I miss the regenerative feeling a hug can convey. In these days of physical distancing and isolation, public displays of affection are few and far between. Our personal zone is a two-metre bubble surrounding us at all times when in public. Even handshakes with strangers have become a quaint custom from an earlier, freer time. The last time I was able to hug a friend – easy to remember – was not so long ago, really, March 5. But even then, fear was settling in around us and it was a hasty face-averted embrace – not quite an “air hug” but close.

Instead of being an easy, common currency, maybe human touch will become more valuable and rare. Full of sincere meaning and a mark of acceptance, love and respect, the hug will be elevated. Not a cheap, careless ending to a night of clubbing or a hasty goodbye, but a rare thing to be sought and savoured. Being able to interlace fingers, holding hands with a caress and a kiss will be even more precious.

I feel terrible when I think of the gravely ill and their families desperate for one last touch, which is not possible these days. I think of their caregivers bravely helping them in every aspect of their lives – touching, holding and even caressing at great danger to themselves. That many people’s last human connection will be felt through latex, gowns and masks hardly bears contemplation.

If a soothing hug isn’t possible for many of us, we can still smile. As a child I was told to “smile with my eyes.” And as an adult, I’m often complimented on my smile – it’s open and unreserved. For now, though, it’s also often masked, especially when shopping. In the grocery store, while weaving and bobbing my way down the aisles to keep a respectful distance, I try to make eye contact. I know that those smile lines radiating from my eyes can convey a world of meaning – a virtual hug. The best reward is to feel that flash of fellow feeling returned from a stranger’s eyes.

The day will come when I’ll be able to embrace again, but for now I’ll do my best to continue to “hug" with my eyes.

Deborah Tilley lives in Victoria.

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