When You’re Handed a Pandemic

October 1973

Only four years old, to me the chance to play with my friend Daniel Shapiro with my two brothers and his siblings in a bomb shelter while living in a suburb of Jerusalem had its advantages. While my parents were undoubtedly frightened by the sound of rockets outside, I was too young to be afraid of what would be known in History as the Yom Kippur War. An American, my family (and Daniel’s) were living in Israel at the time due to our fathers’ jobs. The coordinated attack against Israel by Egyptian and Syrian forces felt like it came out of nowhere. One day we were playing at a nearby park on the jungle gym and by the next we were in hiding. (And unbeknownst to us both, Daniel would grow up to become the U.S. Ambassador to Israel.)

That day at the park was memorable to me for several reasons, including the fact that I begged Daniel to play tag. There had been a group of kids that had been playing near us and one of them had noticed my physical difference, pointing at my small one-fingered hands and shortened forearms as he spoke and giggled to his friends in Hebrew. My impulse to choose to run away in a game with Daniel was therefore quite intentional.

Fast forward to the bomb shelter, the enclosed area was too small for tag. But to my delight, we managed a game of hide and seek. And most importantly, I felt relieved that we were removed from public eye and any unwelcome scrutiny about my difference. If only I could live like this, stuck inside.

 

 

June 1997

“Meg, meet Lucy.” I had just started a new job in Manhattan at a wall Street bank and on my first day my boss walked me around, introducing me to the people I would be working with. Lucy worked in legal. She was beautiful with raven colored hair and dark almond-shaped eyes. At first sight from behind her desk she offered a friendly wave and approached me with her hand extended. “Meg, it’s so nice to…..agh!!!” The minute I had offered my one-fingered hand, Lucy jumped backward and let out a loud noise in surprise. To say the moment was awkward is an understatement. Collecting herself, embarrassed with her face now turned downward, she began to back away. “Welcome, Meg. Sorry, I just realized I have a conference call that begins now.” As I walked toward the subway to catch the 4 or 5 train to my apartment on the Upper East Side, I made a secret wish. “Maybe one day people won’t feel the need to greet each other with a handshake.” My daily and professional life sure would be better, I believed. (A few years later I heard that Lucy’s first child was born with a limb difference.  Sometimes I wonder if she thinks about that day meeting me and her reaction too.)

 

 

Experiencing a pandemic is a very strange and frightening period. For me, a self-proclaimed former hider turned flaunter, it feels like a huge step backward for several different reasons. First, all the years of effort that it took me to be comfortable in my own skin in public are now meaningless. I mean, the only people that can even stare at me these days are my kids , two of whom share my genetic condition or husband, and they prefer staring at Netflix. And the only one that is actually staring at me constantly is our hungry cat Cisco who doesn’t see fingers but his meal ticket. But I digress.

Originally, the handshake was to indicate you had no weapon and posed no threat. Today, that concept is turned upside down because the very act of shaking the hand of another carries the danger. Recently, I read that Dr. Anthony Fauci said that Americans should never shake hands again for obvious reasons. I found that suggestion personally fascinating, given my own life experience of having people shake my hand with reactions of everything from surprise to fear. For example, when I first met my husband John he invited me to a work event.  When we arrived,  John introduced me to one of the heads of the organization. The man extended his hand to me so I naturally acquiesced. And then suddenly (but not unexpectedly) there it was–The astonished face. The jump back from touching my one-fingered hand. The attempt to leave and brush past the awkwardness.

I recall a girl with Cerebral Palsy who was seeking guidance from me as she was looking for a job. The issue for her was that she didn’t really have much control over her right hand. Her mother suggested that she put a red ribbon on that hand to signal they should shake her left instead. I told her if I were interviewing her, I’m not sure I would understand the cue and would likely compliment her on the color of the ribbon. 

Others, however, can roll with ease. I have met strangers who can feel my (well, lack thereof) grip, but then confidently press firmly into my tiny hand with a smile that effectively reads, “I accept you. I accept anyone.” For those people I used to wonder if this were a window into their soul. Were they the most wonderful, evolved people and the ones who jumped-back from the touch of my hand cold hearted? I took comfort for years in this amateur psychoanalysis believing I had people all figured out. In truth, life is much more complicated then and especially now. 

From the minute Fauci spoke up, the whole notion of the handshake came under scrutiny. More and more people seem perfectly happy to dispense with the test of character or strength that the handshake used to represent. I admit I’m one of them. For years to avoid the risk of an awkward handshake moment, I’ve opted to give someone a hug. But actually, those hugs are often too much too soon. And so, I’ve longed for us all to transition to a new normal, no matter if we have a physical difference or not. The limp, clammy, weak or even different-feeling handshake was never a good way to judge a person. And even worse, it created anxiety in many. Maybe it’s time for a change.

So what are our options?  Tulasi Srinivas is the author of The Cow in the Elevator: An Anthropology of Wonder. When asked in a recent interview on NPR what she suggests replacing a handshake with, Srinivas favors the Namaste greeting— placing your hands near your heart and bowing out of respect.  I love the idea that we can offer a gesture that indicates greeting and respect in whatever way we feel comfortable.

These days, sick or healthy, the lack of human touch and interaction has been excruciating. And, there is such irony for me personally –be careful what you wish for. It never occurred to me that a desire to hide my difference from the public and wishing no more handshakes would also meant I’d lose so much more. And I am well aware how much we’ve all lost.

At the end of the day the handshake might not end completely, but this crisis has birthed other creative ways to greet and acknowledge each other. In doing so, I choose to land on the positive: Something as horrific as COVID-19 has at least caused us to question old assumptions and broaden the conversation of how we can find a common, mutually satisfying way to greet one another when we can finally all come back together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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