life after life

I Can’t Be Afraid of Touch

My job as a nurse means I had to let go of the fear a lot sooner than everyone else.

Illustration: Jeanne Verdoux
Illustration: Jeanne Verdoux

I was surprised that some of my friends thought I would not go to work. I am an RN in community care with a medically fragile population, and I’m working much more than usual these days. There is risk in this contact — for my clients as well as me — but much of it is necessary, and we get a big reward. We have each other near. I wear gloves, a mask, and a face shield, and sometimes more, but I am still there, real and immediate. Elephants entwine their trunks when meeting; touching is what sentient creatures do. Few of us would choose to avoid the touch of all others, and now many of us must.

My peers are right there with me, too, in the same room. We talk a lot, testing and clarifying our approach. We are doing remote visits when we can. But they are exactly that, remote. My clients are older and chronically ill. They have complicated illnesses, limited mobility, and limited funds. They struggle with confusion and isolation. When Mrs. Wong gets a fever, I can’t assess it by Zoom.

When the pandemic began, I started meeting a group of friends for regular online visits. We meet at midday, because David is marooned in Denmark, nine hours away. Thomas models the pretty fabric mask that Gay made for him. Sally turns her screen to show the view of spring blossoms out the window. None of us have much news. Asking about work doesn’t get far; I’m one of the few in my circle who still has a job.

I suppose a few of my friends think I’m too calm about the whole situation. They think I must be lax because I’m not walking around in fear. My adult daughter came to live with me several weeks ago; she was about to move, but no one wants new housemates for now. We are a small bubble here, and otherwise, I’m vigilant. What my friends don’t see is the 36 years of experience, the deep body memory of how isolation procedures work, the mature and careful team around me. At my job, I get to be a science nerd, talking about R naught and antibody titers, and whether we can get Mr. Castro to stop going to the corner store. I trust our best efforts. None of us like it, not at all, and one of the topics is how much of this — the masks, the shields, the careful daily count of boxes of gloves and disinfectant wipes — will become the new normal, and stay that way.

My friends also forget that I am exposed to all kinds of things and always have been: hepatitis, tuberculosis, and HIV are part of the job. So are bed bugs, lice, scabies, norovirus, and influenza. I have to know how to protect myself. I have to know how to protect my clients, too.

My friends are more scared than me. Gay wants to keep 20 feet away from people, not six. She doesn’t feel safe anywhere. I know there are a lot of unanswered questions, but it’s a privilege to see people and talk about the science. My friends see only their yards and the screen. I read, one person says. I heard, says another. They said. The talk goes in circles, out and back, always returning to I don’t know. We don’t know. No one knows. Every day brings a new version of how the world works. Six feet of distance. Ten feet of distance. Whether to wipe down packages. Whether we can ride elevators or go to the farmers market.

David hasn’t been near another person in more than a month. He writes to me when I’m asleep: “My triggers are when people at the store or walking down paths approach too closely. Really, my trigger is when I see anyone at all. My trigger is any other human being now, known or unknown.” I reply after he’s gone to bed: “Everything I miss is tactile. Swimming. A haircut. I enjoyed having my blood drawn today, because he touched me.”

At work, the clinic is small; we can’t avoid each other entirely. We work as a team, so we’ve developed an intricate dance for passing a client along from one of us to the next, like an English court dance. We used to eat lunch in the garden, in a loose circle, talking the way colleagues often do, about our grandkids and a funny video we saw and fomite-mediated transmission. Now, the rules tighten day by day — new dogmas — and I see their faces less. We sit further apart. Those who can, stay home, voices on a speaker now. I bend over an old woman to listen to her lungs, the stethoscope tight under the face shield and mask. But I am touching her; we are together. Through gloves, but touching.

The buffer of busyness and science has lessened my fears and postponed the grief, but waves of sorrow break. So much is missing. I have Zoom calls with my son’s family in the evenings. They are only a few hours’ drive from here, impossibly far now. My grandson, not quite 4 years old, has only a growing awareness that I am in the computer but out of reach, that he can’t see me right now, right now, the way he wants, knocks me sideways. All at once, I’m sick with longing, a painful hunger. I want to smell him. And just as quickly as the tears rise, the fear follows: If we relax too soon, if we hurry this, I could hurt him. All of us could hurt each other. To be separate now is to be kind.

This tension is going to last, I know. The triggers being built today will surprise us in a few months, in a few years, perhaps forever. David writes, “I have no interest in getting back to normal. I’ve liked this time of isolation and stillness. I’m not ready to give up this liminal existence, this time and space between what we knew and where we’re headed.”

If you surprise a newborn baby, she will open her eyes wide and throw her arms and legs out stiffly with a big shake. Now there is an adult startle reflex. Surprised by a person coming around the corner, we jump back and lift our palms, warding the danger away. We are all motion detectors now. Across the world, our signals of intimacy are gone: the handshake, the hug, the shoulder slap, the kiss, wiped away. I don’t want to jump back from others, so I strive to keep my own reaction a graceful one. I am saddened by the stiff, frowning fear I see in others. I do step back on the sidewalk, at the store, but I try to do it as a soft retreat. A bow.

We will have to let go of the fear in time. Life is a dangerous condition; we are born mortal. To be with others is to be willing to trust. To be willing to plunge into nearness again, into that risk, the danger of being alive. We will return to each other, but with a new awareness. All of us are fomites of mortality; we carry the inevitability of death with us all the time. It can’t be washed off. Our bodies are vessels, of all our joys, our frail few years. Our bodies are vectors. What is the real difference? We live in fragile bags of mostly water, easily broken.

Someday, I will see my grandchildren again. Someday the answer will be yes: Yes, I had the vaccine. Yes, we know it’s safe. I imagine the day when our doors open and we emerge again, with tentative waves. My tall, broad-shouldered son steps forward, holding my eager grandson back for one more moment. There they are, at last. We stand six feet apart. We step back and raise our hands to ward off danger, then we open our hands and our arms and step forward.

I Can’t Be Afraid of Touch