I remarked to someone back in June that if I were offered a pill that would allow me to fall asleep and wake up in 2021, I’d do it.
I stand by that decision, here in late September, and would probably still take that pill today. But maybe I shouldn’t rush to judgement. I would miss moments like yesterday.
A few weeks ago, I was given the go-ahead by my oncologist to attend appointments I’d postponed in the Spring, the usual things like the dentist or a check up that can’t be accomplished via telemedicine. I went to see one of my favorite practitioners. I only see her about once a year, but she has the way of making me feel so comfortable in her presence. Either she has a spectacular memory or takes really good appointment notes- regardless, she always seems to remember me and ask me about specific details of my life.
She walked in yesterday to my appointment, masked but still bearing the hallmarks of a smile in the crinkle in her eyes. She immediately commented on my hair and how much she loves it. When I told her the whole story- drug side effect, etc. – she leaned in closer to part my hair with her fingers, like you’d play with a friend’s hair.
“And how are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m okay.” I replied.
Furrowing her brow, she lowers her chin and looks at me more intently. “Just okay?”
I was open but brief about some of the chaos swirling in my mind, in particular, how the pandemic has exacerbated it all. How careful I’ve needed to be. How it’s been six and a half months with just being poked and prodded by doctors, no real spirit-affirming human touch. She is present the whole time. Listens, looks me in the eyes, shares her care and empathy with me. The appointment gets under way. Before I know it, she’s telling me something about her dog and her husband and we’re both belly laughing.
We wrap things up and she goes to the door to leave. I thank her, and with no warning she pulls me into a tight hug. I managed to choke out an, “oh, thank you,” and I take a deep breath. “One of my first hugs since March,” I manage. She squeezes me tighter. Her sweater is warm and soft, her tiny frame unexpectedly powerful. We smile at each other as she leaves. As soon as the door clicks behind her, I burst into tears.
The only quarantine hug I’d had prior was a surprise hug in August from my best friend’s daughter. We were eating brunch outside on her lawn, when without warning, her three year old enthusiasm could not be contained. With lightning speed, she rolled over the grass several times onto my picnic blanket, and wrapped her tiny arms around my lap. Knowing how careful I’d been, my best friend looked at me in horror. In an opposing response, I felt my body soften. This hug, so unbridled and joyful, sent waves of calm through my body as I tossed back my head and felt a laugh escape. I rubbed her back and looked into her smiling face. I assured both of them it was ok, it was a special treat. This hug from my doctor felt the same. I could sense the impulsive quality in her embrace, the insistence that this was the only right thing to do.
I am absolutely sure that I would have refused the offer of a hug yesterday, just as I would have cautioned my best friend’s beloved enthusiastic toddler. But once it was underway, I during I didn’t think of risk. I didn’t think of particles or statistics. I didn’t even hold my breath. I deeply inhaled and exhaled. Most assuredly for the only two times in about 200 days, I let myself soften.
Back in the exam room, I pulled myself together. I wiped my eyes with a tissue, readjusted my mask. As I walked down the hallway towards the exit, I heard my doctor with her next patient, laughter just dancing on out through the bottom of the door. What a remarkable thing, I think, to know where your doctor is by the sound of joy she creates in her presence.
Medicine is hard. Being a doctor is hard. Being a patient is hard. Being a human is hard.
Ten, twenty, thirty years from now, I will remember that moment when my doctor saw me not as a patient, but as a person. And it is my hope that when I can safely hug people again- with reckless abandon- I can convey the expansive compassion that was shared with me in that one moment of humanity.