I learned what loneliness really meant when I was sent home to work in mid-March 2020. My youngest daughter, sixteen-year-old Abby, less than thrilled with the arrangement, spent most of her day alone in her room, refusing to discuss the virus, or much of anything else. Her response to my good night greeting was barely a grunt. I lamented that I’d been forced into lockdown with the only one of my eight children who refused hugs. At least working at a spirituality center, I’d experienced a semblance of human contact that included daily handshakes, pats on the arm and the occasional hug.
It was sometime in July I read that people in Iceland were hugging trees to alleviate loneliness. Desperate for human contact, I snuck out of the house at dusk for a clandestine meeting with the big tree in front of the school across the street. My arms flung around the trunk of the massive oak, I leaned into the bark and closed my eyes. I felt nothing but embarrassment, looking around furtively before rushing back indoors.
As August approached, I looked forward to the day my newest book would arrive on my doorstep. Despite the challenges of a pandemic launch, it seemed fitting the inspirational book chronicling the legacy of a creative mother would be released ten years after her death. Her handwritten words would appear as epigraphs for each chapter. When the box arrived, I knew immediately where I would open it. Mom had loved her woods. She used to joke that if anyone ever wanted to put her in a nursing home, she’d escape to the woods and live out the rest of her life within the shadows of the trees. My son Michael had purchased the house and land and my children and I had started meeting in his yard for socially-distanced outdoor visits, so it wasn’t unusual to ask my children to meet me there in August.
I arrived first. Pushing a wheeled cart that held the unopened box, I headed directly to the woods area where Mom used to sit, noticing how neatly my son had kept it clear with a mower. He’d even left the metal chair she used to sit in, now rusty with seasons of rain and snow. I moved it in front of a tree, away from the direct sunlight. Then I pointed my phone camera towards my face to host my first ever Facebook Live video. Breathless with excitement, I announced the opening of the box and shared my first look at the pages.
Replaying the video as I relaxed in Mom’s chair, I was surprised to see a look I hadn’t seen on my face since my husband’s death, one of pure, unadulterated joy. Basking in the warmth of the woods, listening to the birds, I sensed the quiet spirit of my mother.
Hearing the voices of my children in the distance, I stood, turning quickly to hug the tree that had served as my video backdrop, feeling a deep peace as I did so. This tree seemed to welcome the embrace. That day was a turning point for me in the pandemic. Wanting to immerse myself in more of the woods experience, I asked Abby to go hiking with me.
Several times a month we’d drive to a nearby park and explore the trails. It was during those walks she began talking to me. By the time I returned to my office seven months into the pandemic, she couldn’t stop talking. Now, we end up on the couch every night, sipping tea and discussing our day. She still doesn’t hug, but I smile every time I open her bedroom door to say good night and get a verbal reply.
It seems I rediscovered both my joy and my daughter in the woods.