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COVID-19's mask and distancing demands aren't new to me. But now everyone else is doing it too.

It used to be that face masks and forced social distance marked me as 'cancer girl.' It turns out that time prepared me to get through this one.
Chicago's Millennium Park Reopens At Limited Capacity
People practice social distancing while relaxing in Millennium Park on June 15, 2020, in Chicago.Scott Olson / Getty Images file

Social distancing might be new to most of you, but I’ve been afraid to hug people since 2010.

That’s because 10 years ago, hugging people put me at risk of contracting an illness I couldn’t fight: I had leukemia — a cancer of the immune system — and chemotherapy wiped out every white blood cell I had, good and bad. I spent a year of my life in rooms with filtered air, marked by rare trips to the outside world; even a decade later, a warm hug triggers a lingering anxiety in me.

That experience informs how I practice social distancing today — especially as a native Texan, a state where the current spike in COVID-19 cases near my loved ones has reminded me that going out just isn’t worth the risk, even in Chicago where I now make my home.

One day in high school, I was a 15-year-old social butterfly — a junior varsity volleyball player and varsity track athlete who hung out with the cheerleaders and was a diligent student. Seemingly the next, I lived on the oncology floor of Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth, and I couldn’t leave my room without wearing a mask. Visitors used hand sanitizer and kept a safe distance from me. Touching — except for my mother, who essentially lived there with me — was not allowed.

Social distancing wasn’t easy; life was busy happening while I lived in that room and received guests who could come no closer than the foot of my bed. My friends were getting their driver's licenses, going to games, having parties — not hanging out at hospitals.

So I scheduled my days around ABC Family’s airing of “That '70s Show” and football games on the weekends. I focused on the idea that, one day soon, if I was careful, I could return to normalcy and I ought to be prepared. I had a tutor to help me catch up on schoolwork. I practiced piano and read books. I went for walks.

So now, just like I waited years ago to be a social butterfly again, I will wait until I know it’s safe to eat at a restaurant or hang out with my friends and family. Because, after all, what is there to miss out on now if I stay home? A few dinners at the price of a virus that could kill me or someone I love later?

Something I learned as a cancer patient was to cherish the moments I do have with people I love so I can conserve that love for later when I need to remember I’m not alone.

That’s why I continue to connect with friends who live thousands of miles apart from me, whether by sharing a glass of wine over Zoom or texting comedic videos or memes to keep sane. If they live close, we meet in a park — masks over our mouths and noses — sitting a safe distance away to enjoy the day in each other’s presence.

It’s not just friends helping friends find ways to get through the loneliness either: My neighbors in this part of Chicago hold stuffed animal safaris and sticky-note rainbow scavenger hunts (for the kids, of course) through the windows of their homes. Chalked messages of hope line the sidewalks, and yard signs expressing support for health care workers still decorate gardens.

Back in high school, a paper mask both was my ticket to interactions with the outside world and an alienating accessory — a signifier marking me as “cancer girl” — made of plain blue paper, every one. Now, they can be a fashion statement, a way to show a bit of your personality even if you have to hide part of your face, and an opportunity to tell people more about yourself. But, more than that, masks signal that we are all part of a community that’s combatting a seemingly omnipresent enemy together.

We all — well, many of us, anyway — protect each other by pushing grocery carts like the aisles are highways, allowing others the right-of-way. We make more room when we pass people on the sidewalks. We let people exit doors before we try to push our way through. While these actions sometimes feel awkward, I see them as acts of community love.

Still, isolation wears on mental health. It can make it difficult to stay motivated to socially distance, forcing us to turn toward our Netflix subscriptions for the illusion of normal socialization, watching our favorite characters transport us to different worlds — possibly ones we might prefer.

But what I learned in the hospital was that the longer I waited for normal, the better it felt when it finally returned.

My return to school nine years ago wasn’t perfect, but I remember in perfect detail the little joys: the availability of Cheez-It bags in the lunch line, freely walking down the hallway from class to class, dragging my then-weaker body through a humbling volleyball or track practice.

The difference between quarantine now and quarantine then is that I’m healthy — even energized — and I am making the decisions about the quarantine, not my doctors. I grab the mask of my choice for a walk down the street to buy a latte. I can bike to the park with picnic supplies in tow, set my camp under my tree and write.

Under the beating summer sunlight, I remember I have my health and want to keep it. I appreciate the people sitting a good distance away from me and smiling, even maybe initiating a casual light-hearted conversation with me from several feet away.

That’s when I think about the hugs that I used to crave before I had leukemia — hugs that I sometimes envy on other people’s Instagrams as they pose together, gathered in warm embraces in different states. But I realize what’s more important to me than hugs right now is that everyone I know and love will still be in this world when this pandemic is over.

Maybe I’ll consider a hug when I see them then.