Artwork by Nittaya Saenbut

I froze.  Speechless.  Unable, unwilling to breathe.

It’s been almost a year since I’ve hugged anyone outside my household, specifically my husband.  Hugging – the way Americans and many cultures do – isn’t big where I come from: the Isan Region of Thailand.  But after about a decade of living in the United States, I’ve become accustomed to it as a way to greet and express love and care.

Due to the pandemic, I have made uncomfortable efforts to refrain from hugging or touching anyone else.  I could not even save my 13-months old niece from falling into an eight-feet long fire pit during our socially distanced outdoor hang out.  I hopelessly watched her somersaulting into the fire pit.  I half-way reached out, but my body unexpectedly froze up.  In that moment, I realized my brain has become programmed not to touch others, at any cost.  Thankfully, the section of the pit where she fell was not on fire.  Besides a few scratches, my niece was okay.  I felt sad.

One afternoon in October, I was cleaning up my yard.  A construction company was redoing the sidewalk in front of my home.  They had a giant truck to transport away all the rubble.  I asked if I could dump a few buckets of concrete wreckage from my property in the truck.  They kindly agreed.

With my mask on from interacting with the construction crew, I started to collect the material.  Suddenly, Margaret and Joe (not their real names), who live a few doors down the road, approached me.  I’m still relatively new to the neighborhood, but they have always been friendly.  In the spring and summer, they would greet and briefly chat with me from the sidewalk whenever they saw me working in my garden.  They usually walked up and down the hill to get their exercise and we always had a friendly small talk while keeping our distance.

On that day, though, they came right into the yard and Joe immediately got down on his knees to help me gather the rubble.  He said they wanted to help.  I’ve never been good at guessing people’s ages, but they’re likely in their mid- to-late 80s.  They still look great – strong and energetic, at least socially and spiritually.

“Please don’t worry.  It’s not much.  I can do it myself,” I told Joe, thinking to myself that I do not want anyone to get hurt if there was an accident.

Margaret and Joe insisted they wanted to help, even though I kept telling them every few minutes not to worry.  They ignored me.  Joe kept working faster and faster, while Margaret cheered us on.

With their help, the job was done in no time.  I thanked them.  And before they took off, Margaret pointed to a fully bloomed sunflower, partially broken off from its stem due to a rainstorm the previous night.

“Can I have it?” asked Margaret.

“Of course, please!” I said gladly.  “There might also be some Black-eyed Susans left in the garden.  Let me check,” I said, excited that I could give them something in return for their help.

I came back and handed her several flowers from my garden, which were ready for a vase at the end of their season.  Margaret took the bright yellow flowers, admiring their beauty.  She looked up and suddenly, and with surprising speed, she threw herself at me to give me the biggest hug!

Shocked, my eyes widened, and I froze.  After realizing what was happening, I immediately reminded myself that it could be more dangerous – both physically and mentally – to reject the hug and push her away.  With her head resting right on my chest, I lifted my chin, sealed my mouth, held my breath and let her hug me freely.

When she finally let go, I stepped back, six feet away and exhaled.

And with smiling eyes, I said, “It’s my pleasure and thank you for all your help.  Have a wonderful day!”

A few weeks later, from my front yard, I spotted Margaret and Joe on their regular walk, holding hands as usual.  They were fine.  I was fine.


Author’s Note: This personal essay was written in December 2020.