‘Not being able to touch people you love hurts the most’
"Oh Mum," I told her down the phone line.
"More than anything I wish we could hug."
There's a lot more I miss: her raspberry coconut slice, the happiness of her garden, the solidity of her kitchen bench where we sit and share our lives.
But, mostly, I yearn for the hugs.
She only just nudges five foot, my mum, but she's always been my touchstone, my place of softness and safety. But for the first time in my life I want to hug her not because of the succour it gives me but because of what it might mean for her. She's 75. She has asthma and has suffered crippling bouts of pneumonia. She's vulnerable. I want to do anything I can to make her feel less so.
But right now we can't touch and many of us are wondering how long it will be until we can again. What a sad irony that at a time when we need the reassurance of another's hand on our shoulder or a stroke of a cheek we can't experience that comfort.
My heart breaks for those in Italy who are dying without a loved one to hold their hand. Likewise, the funerals currently taking place via video with the few mourners spaced two metres apart in the pews. To lose someone you've walked through life with - maybe a brother or a sister - and not be able to hold on to your family and friends must be painful beyond words.
Yet as well as feeling sad, I feel grateful because as a chronic toucher I'm glad I'm missing it. Like Joni Mitchell singing about not knowing what you've got til it's gone, the absence of back slaps and kisses and patting of forearms is a quiet reminder of how soldering those previously insignificant intimacies can be.
Touch is the first sense we develop yet it's arguably the most undervalued. All the others - taste, sight, hearing, smell - demand to be acknowledged, and we engage them as a matter of course. But touch is a choice, an action, something initiated in the most primal part of ourselves. It's optional and only in its absence do we feel its power.
"Oh Ange, I can't hug my dad," says my dear friend Sarah, chatting on Whats App from the UK where the elderly have been told to self-isolate for 12 weeks. Instead she sits in his garden and he opens the kitchen window and they chat from a distance about the world and whether it'll be a good spring for the asparagus and when the primroses might burst into life. "Not hugging my 89-year-old dad yesterday was like a deep physical need, like hunger or the urge to sneeze," she told me.
This inability to reach out, to squeeze, to stroke, to calm will compound the loneliness for many: the elderly who rely on visits from those who love them; the single who will need to abandon many elements of dating in this new reality; friends who rely on each other for support. I know several people who have regular massages not for any pain or stress alleviation but for the pure pleasure of having someone's hands on their skin.
It's a generalisation but I'm noticing men and women are reacting differently to the current crisis. Many men are becoming angry and want to blame someone, doubtless because of the lack of control. Women are simply scared. How much calmer both might be if someone threw an arm around them or offered a shoulder to burrow into.
Yet as we emerge from a decade characterised by the sullying of touch, most notably the exposure of the Catholic Church and the global reckoning prompted by the revelations about Harvey Weinstein, 2020 could well be the year when touch becomes precious and cherished again.
You only have to watch or read dystopian stories like The Handmaid's Tale, The Hunger Games, or Divergent to see how impoverished a community becomes without touch. While the "ceremony" scenes in The Handmaid's Tale were deeply unsettling, it was June's need for closeness and affection which underscored how emotionally isolated we become when robbed of the opportunity to connect. Likewise, Carey Mulligan's character Kathy in Never Let Me Go becomes a carer primarily so she can be beside others as they have their vital organs removed and edge ever closer to death.
But for now we're in this strange netherworld where we're banned from touching. Wars, famines, terrorism, natural disasters - we have always been able to calm each other through them with a hug. What a horrible irony that at a time when we need the feel-good and immune boosting hormones produced by touching - serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin - many can't get their regular dose.
If you can, then I suggest hugging all you can. Last night my teenager lent her head on my shoulder as we watched The Parent Trap. I stroked her hair, synchronised my breath with hers and revelled in the moment. Well, until she farted.
Originally published as 'Not being able to touch people you love hurts the most'