‘They Don’t Understand The Pandemic … But They Still Do Want A Hug’

Northwestern professor Michelle Buck grappled with physical distance from her mother, who has advanced dementia, and her infant granddaughter.

A photo of the author in front of handwriting
Courtesy of Michelle Buck. Illustration by Jessica Martinaitis.
A photo of the author in front of handwriting
Courtesy of Michelle Buck. Illustration by Jessica Martinaitis.

‘They Don’t Understand The Pandemic … But They Still Do Want A Hug’

Northwestern professor Michelle Buck grappled with physical distance from her mother, who has advanced dementia, and her infant granddaughter.

The most poignant moments of this past year for me have been not being able to hug those loved ones who don’t understand why we can’t hug: my now 88-year old mother with advanced dementia, and my now 18-month old step-granddaughter.

My loved ones at the bookends of life, they don’t understand the pandemic or have the language to discuss it. But they do still want to hug.

Before the lockdown began, my husband and I were six months into loving, holding and hugging our granddaughter, little Emiliana. Once the lockdown began, we had masked visits with social distancing. No touching. No hugs.

By summer of 2020, she was crawling and then walking. There were many times she would enthusiastically crawl or walk toward us, and her mom had to scoop her up before she got too close. Although understandable for safety, particularly since Emiliana’s father is a resident at Cook County Hospital, it was heartbreaking.

How did that feel, for her, that she couldn’t come to Abuelo and Mimi?

Since then, we have had visits, with hugs. We’re still masked, and now look forward to a time, hopefully soon, when she will see us, and our smiles, without them.

Then there’s my mother, with whom I have an extraordinary bond. Over the past 19 years of her significant medical issues, I vowed I would always be there for her. And then the pandemic came.

She lives in skilled nursing, so I was not able to see her for a long time. Because of her dementia, she hasn’t used a phone for about four years. We did some video visits in the spring and this past winter, but video is hard for her to grasp. Being in her room for a year, with no social activities or communal dining, has kept her physically safe, but doesn’t help cognitive decline.

Last summer, I had the joy of outdoor visits. Masked, at least 6 feet apart, for 30 minutes. I could be there to see her eyes light up when she saw me. But I couldn’t touch her.

The hardest moments of the whole pandemic were when she stretched out her arms to me and said, “Why won’t you come to me?” Dagger in my heart. The words I said, …“this pandemic … staying safe …” felt hollow, knowing that didn’t make much sense to her.

I could see the confusion and pain on her face, that I would not come to her outstretched arms. I didn’t want her to see me cry, so I held back my tears ‘till I left, and then wept in the privacy of my car.

Just recently, I was able to see Mom in her room, and touch her, for the first time in almost a year. I brought Starbucks lattes and fresh flowers, always our ritual of our times together.

I took her hand in mine, and she put her other hand on top. My mother, who as a journalist was a woman of words, doesn’t talk much these days, but our hands together spoke volumes. Sometimes you don’t need words, if you can be present, and if you can touch.

About the author: Michelle Buck lives in Chicago and works as clinical professor of leadership at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

Mariah Woelfel produced this story for audio. Follow her @MariahWoelfel. Jessica Martinaitis and Mary Hall produced this for digital. Follow them @jess_morgan and @hall_marye.