Here’s to hope, and hugging my grown son this year

icicles in a blue sky

By Kathi Valeii

I read about how to hug through shower curtains. I read about how to hug safely if you absolutely must: wear a mask, make it brief, turn heads in the opposite direction. Don’t talk, don’t laugh, don’t do anything that would cause extra droplets to escape.

Don’t cry.

I guess my son and I will continue not hugging. Not even on Christmas. He graduated from high school and moved out during the pandemic. Virtual prom from his room, drive-by grad party, skipped graduation, a new job, a new city, a move. All ceremony erased, every transition in 2020 feels like grief.

I haven’t touched my son in five months.

When he was a teen, I used to worry if I was hugging him enough. I wondered how to fit in enough squeezes a day when each morning he rolled out of bed too late for school and stayed holed up in his room most of the rest of the time. Physical touch is a human need but the pandemic has turned those we love into seeming pariahs that we aren’t allowed to touch.

Months ago, a single friend tweeted that they step out into the rain just to feel something touch their skin. It knocked the wind out of me. When I think of my son, I think of that tweet and break.

On Christmas, my youngest, teen, partner, and I open our gifts in the living room. Later, my oldest joins us outside, masked, in 20 degrees. The snow comes down in thick flakes. Ordinarily it would be pretty. It would be a “Christmas miracle!” which is what my nine-year-old exclaims it is. This year, though, it’s a Christmas nightmare. It covers us like living snow people; like Jack Nicolson in The Shining.

I brush my body off every few minutes. My coat turns from silver to deep ash. I pull down my mask to take sips of coffee that turns ice cold in minutes.

Huddled around a fire we can’t get close enough to or we’ll break the six-foot barrier, his long hair turns to a snow doily. We complain about the timing of the cold and snow, but not too loud or not too long. My teen and grown sons both think we should break and rules and be inside. It’s one of many things I’m not sure I’m doing right.

Their discomfort reminds me of when they were small and we’d go sledding and they’d complain about their feet getting too cold. My partner would sit on a bench and peel off their boots and socks, one at a time. He’d hand them hot chocolate from the thermos, take off his gloves and shove their ice-cold feet into his furnace hands until they smiled. He’d tell them stories about winter camping and how they used to keep warm: of laying out straw under their tents and large fires that burned all day and night. He’d talk until they could feel their toes, until they were ready to take the hills again and again.

My son digs through the large sack we’ve piled all of his gifts into. Doesn’t bother to pull each one out. Where would he put them, on the wet cement? I don’t get the satisfaction of watching his face as he looks at the card I made him—the one with Nat Geo goats that I’ve cut apart and mounted on each other to make him laugh.

Everything is distracting—the food and coffee I feed to him, the dog jumping around, his bored sister, who is now sledding. He opens her gift as her head disappears over the hill. 

His plate and mug sit outside, accumulating layers of ice for a week.

On New Year’s Eve, our household, now just the four of us again, squeeze out the last free Netflix moments of The Office. We eat the lobster tail my partner splurged on and saved for today. We drink hot chocolate. Play Exploding Kittens and laser tag. We talk around the empty fireplace, the one we didn’t have cleaned this year. We reflect on the past year—how hard it’s been, what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost. We name our hopes for 2021.

My nine-year-old stays up until midnight for the first time. She holds her eyeballs open with effort to watch the ball in Times Square drop in silence. It’s apocalyptic and eerie. I feel my oldest son’s absence like the cold draft where a fire should be. I think of him playing video games with friends. I think of him sleeping. I hope he’s not lonely.

On New Year’s Day, a winter storm comes through. The ground is covered in ice. Branches are covered in icicles that sparkle like 1970’s tree tinsel. I pick up the plate and mug my son used on Christmas. The ice sits in a solid mound in the center. It’s heavy like a bowling ball. It burns my hand.

The next morning, fuzzy snow that fell on top of the ice overnight covers the branches like fur. It’s beautiful and hideous at the same time. His blue Adirondack chair is dripping icicles. I think about those funny memes: the ones that show caricatures of frozen people and say, “why do I live where I can’t feel my face?” Now, I wonder why I live where it’s too cold to see my son.

I wonder if this is the year I’ll get to invite my son inside. I think of the vaccine, the one developed and manufactured just up the road. It’s the only thing that gives me hope.

“Hope is a dangerous thing” my partner said to me around the time of the election. I didn’t allow it then, but I allow it now in metered portions. In between gulps of news about the slow vaccine rollout, of gatherings of maskless people, and conspiracy theorists, I take small sips, of this dangerous thing called hope. 

Kathi Valeii is a writer, covering the intersection of parenting and social justice. She lives in Michigan.

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