I spent September 2019 to June 2020 doing a hospital chaplaincy residency in Minnesota, many miles away from my family in New Jersey. I knew that I would miss having their physical presence with me, but in March 2020, being a thousand miles apart became brutal when the reality of a pandemic slammed us all.

Overnight, I lost one of the most important ways I connect with others: physical touch. Putting a hand on a friend’s shoulder or hand when they share something difficult or exciting. Shaking hands when meeting someone new. And far most importantly, hugs.

I work in a hospital. I work with Covid-positive patients. I hold up iPads to the faces of the dying so their families can say goodbye. By public health standards, I am not a safe person to hug these days, and I haven’t been since this first began. In March, I wasn’t living in a small group of people to make a quarantine bubble with – I was living in an adult dorm that had 60 small rooms with private bathrooms, but a shared kitchen. The kitchen had been the highlight of living there – cooking together. Sitting and talking after work. Eating each other’s international cooking and baking because there were people from all over the world. We had a map on the wall that had thumbtacks in the different places we were from. The kitchen and the entire reality of this unique living situation shifted from being a joy to a nightmare overnight.

I went 3 months without touching another person. According to my residency supervisor, we were forbidden to hold patients’ hands, which is one of the most important non-verbal communications of comfort and compassion that we can offer as chaplains. Accidental touch of a housemate while using our communal kitchen felt like fire and danger. My body ached. Touch starvation was setting in.

One day, I went over to the home of a family I’m close to. They have two little girls who I’m basically an aunt to. Scooting away from their touches broke my heart. And then, before I could stop it, one of them hugged my legs, and I realized this was safe enough for me to lean into the moment. It was a moment that was far more than I expected. I knew I was struggling without physical signs of affection, but I was nearly in tears when she was hugging and looking up at me. A piece of my heart and soul fell back into place.

These days, mercifully, I live in New Jersey once again. I get to hug my partner whenever I want – he’s the only one I do, but it is more than enough for now. Amidst my relief, I never forget that surprising moment with my little niece. When she’s older, I’ll sit her down and tell her the story of how she gave me hope during one of the worst years of my (and most everybody’s) life. How she put a piece of my soul back in place. When this is all done, I will hug my family and friends for minutes straight and unabashedly give them twice as much physical affection as I used to. I will never again take the handshakes and hugs I get and give during the passing of the peace at church for granted. I will keep holding my patients’ hands because once I was out of my residency and no longer under constant supervision, I decided that as long as I sanitized my hands well enough, and my patient consented to my touch, the benefits of demonstrating a caring presence in this precious way outweighed the risks.

I will never be the same, and neither will this body of mine. I do not take being alive and not having contracted Covid for granted. Ever. This body has changed. It will keep changing. When this is all over, I think it will love harder and without any abandon. It will be a vessel that remembers the darkest days and does anything it can to create brighter ones. It will be a place of giving.

I think it already is.

Emmie Arnold

Emmie Arnold (she/her/hers) is a palliative care and intensive care hospital chaplain at a children’s hospital in New York; a candidate for ordination in the PC(USA); avid cook; traveler (on hiatus); friend and family member to many; writer; and musician.

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