The public first place I went post bone marrow transplant (besides the hospital) was a coffee shop. That’s exactly how it should have been. Throughout the entire process, I’ve found myself missing that setting most — the simpleness of curling up with a book in a worn down, leather chair and sipping espresso. Only this time around, I’m wearing a mask that makes me look like a duck and I have to Lysol wipe down the entire surface first; hoping and praying that someone else’s snotty child hadn’t been sitting in that same chair 15 minutes earlier, but that is a risk that I am willing to take. I’m going to get sick eventually anyway. If this is how I die, then I die happy and caffeinated.
I didn’t quite realize how much I love to hate people until I was deprived of public space. I also didn’t realize how much the people around me are constantly coughing and sputtering; sneezing and chocking on themselves. I’ve never been so aware of children in my whole life — just the sight of one makes me cringe (I’m not allowed to be around children because they’re the equivalent of small, bacterial sponges and I am also a small, bacterial sponge). I think to myself constantly that I now understand why mothers are so protective of babies. The world is a place full of people who never wash their hands and all of them are staring at you, thinking to themselves about how fuzzy your head might be or whispering things under their breath (that you can most certainly hear).
Do you think it’s cancer? Might be; looks like it (it’s not; never has been).
Bone marrow transplant world is a land of slow, extreme deprivation and then careful reintroduction. One day, you walk into a hospital and all of the nice nurses tell you that you can’t leave the floor. Then, about a week or two later, you can’t leave the room. You stay in the room for about two weeks; you get sicker then better. Then, suddenly, you can leave the room again. Then, suddenly you get to leave the floor. This is exciting and terrifying. You’re not quite sure you want to. You do, of course, want to leave, but at the same time, there are people out there. There are lights and sounds. Germs. And you are suddenly a lot less prepared the deal with all of it than you were 30 days beforehand. Then, there’s human touch. Hugs are a dangerous game, but you play anyway because they’re important to you. How do you touch another person again? How do you learn to be okay with a brush of the shoulder or a hand on your own? When does it become natural?
There are times when touching another person feels like a choreographed routine; dancing around germs and hand sanitizer. Sometimes I wish it could just be spontaneous again — a hug without Lysol or walking in public without a mask (mask sweat is the absolute worst). I wish that I could kiss my partner without asking, “have you had any coughing, vomiting, or diarrhea in the last 2–3 days?” We don’t realize that spontaneity is a privilege until it is one.
Reckless touch and existence is more complicated than I ever imagined. We touch people and objects every day without thinking of the consequences because we don’t have too. We don’t think about the way our actions affect others — people don’t vaccinate their children — because we’re privileged enough to think that our world only affects us. Yet, assimilating back into public space has shown me all of the ways that we are connected to each other — aware of every brush against my shoulder or a cough in my direction. You cannot go out into the world without affecting the lives of other people. We breathe on other people. We sit where they sat. We think about them; judge them. We impact each other in little ways throughout our days. People are connected to each other by sheer passing; whether we like it or not. This is where empathy comes into play as a vital part of existence. We become so wrapped up in our apparent non-effect on other people that we forget that we very much do. Not just with germs and vaccines, but with actions and words too. Learning how to touch again has been all about trusting that other people maintain their part of the bargain; as is most of life. We must trust that other people are good and have good intentions or society falls apart and so do we. Every day, we put our lives in the hands of other people and we trust that they are responsible enough to hold it. From driving a car on the highway to sending our children to school, and, in my case, vaccinating your children. Going out into the world is an extreme trust fall; catch me if you can and please don’t cough in my direction.
Perhaps the question never was how to touch again, but rather how to trust.