A little piece of me died the other day when I rebuffed a hug from a small child.
I took a walk by myself along the neighborhood lake. The day was hot and sunny, with the still air of a humid summer day in Houston. People were starting to come outside after a long day of working at home. We promenaded solo or in small groups, weaving on and off the sidewalk, each according to her own interpretation and concern for social distancing.
As I rounded a final bend toward home, I encountered a family about 30 yards ahead. The parents wore bandanas, dark triangles covering their nose, mouth, and neck.
The family was huddling, as though deciding which way to go. The father negotiated weakly with a small boy to not run ahead.
The boy, around two years old, was full of impatient energy and curiosity to move along the path. He resisted his father’s hand repeatedly.
It was during one of these wriggly shrugs that the boy spotted me walking toward his family. He became suddenly still.
His father, thinking the boy had given up the struggle, let go of his son’s hand and took a moment to collect his breath.
But the boy was just winding up, as he sprang away from his family and made a beeline to me.
My first thought was “how adorable; he thinks I’m someone else.”
The boy ran toward me with gleeful eyes. He ran with his arms held out wide as if expecting to be swooped up upon contact.
With no pause whatsoever he ran hard into my legs and wrapped me in his tiny little arms.
A part of my heart melted with his hug. A hug! A child’s hug! What a strange and wonderful thing in this pandemic life.
The other part of my heart froze. For as the boy was running toward me, I saw his father, now slightly bent over with his hands on his knees. He had a fitful, phlegmy cough, his bandana flapping in and out with each blast of breath.
The boy’s mother, also masked, was handling a smaller child in a stroller. The toddler was smiling and wiggling to be let free like his brother. The mother, coughing, weakly told him no, no.
COVID, I surmised. It baffled me.
The boy clung to my legs. I didn’t return his hug. Or pat his head. I didn’t bend down to talk to him face-to-face. I froze, thinking only of his infected parents and feebly trying to calculate the odds of my catching COVID from this scenario.
The father finally stepped forward. He gathered his breath and slowly peeled his son off of my legs. He said softly, earnestly “Sorry. Sorry.”
The mother echoed with a soft, head-down, “Sorry. Sorry,” followed by suppressed coughs.
I was not wearing a mask. Once I was freed, I put on a smile and tried to look sympathetic. I said, “what a sweet boy” and “what a sweet hug,” making my way past them, virtually tip-toeing, at a distance much more than six feet.
The better, kinder, more trusting version of myself would have handled this differently. She would have embraced the boy with his same spirit. She would have sympathized with the sick parents: how tired they must be, and yet needing to give their kids fresh air and sun. The human version of me would have asked in a kind voice, “Do you have help? What can I do?”
That person did not show up. She was replaced instead with the bleakest version of myself.
Reflecting on this scene back home, I read a piece by historian Barbara Tuchman, “‘This is the End of the World:’ The Black Death.” I found dismaying parallels how medieval people reacted to evidence of the plague, and my own instinctive reaction to the comparably benign COVID.
Quoting Agnlo di Tura, a chronicler of Siena, Tuchman describes: “..the fear of contagion that froze every other instinct:
‘Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another, for this plague seemed to strike through breath and sight. And so they died. And no one could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship.’”
Tuchman goes on to say,
“There were many to echo his account of inhumanity and few to balance it, for the plague was not the kind of calamity that inspired mutual help. Its loathsomeness and deadliness did not herd people together in mutual distress, but only prompted their desire to escape each other.”
I hope the family I encountered is feeling better.
I hope the parents recover quickly and fully.
I hope the little boy is too young to remember his parents being sick.
I hope he forgets the time his neighbor refused his hug.
Now that I am here, safe at home, I hope for these things more than I hope that I don’t get the COVID.