I remember the first time I got together with a friend once the COVID-19 pandemic had locked us all away from each other. We were technically still under a stay at home order, though “exercise in parks” was considered an essential activity. While my meeting with Bess and her family wasn’t exactly a physical workout, it was a much needed mental health exercise. At least that’s how I justified making the last-minute 20-minute drive to meet up with her, her kids, and her folks, who were attempting a socially-distanced, outside birthday visit.

On the way to the park, I decided I would just stay in the car once I arrived. I didn’t have a mask with me; it was back in the days when the experts were still deciding whether we should wear them or not. I would just talk with my friend across the park lawn, I decided. We could see and hear each other–share a common space–but we’d never breathe the same air.

But as soon as I pulled up, Bess yelled, “Get out and stay a while.”

I felt my body recoil. If I got out of the car, I’d be exposed. One of the kids might hug me. I might stand too close. I might reach out and touch an arm or pat a back, things I used to do without thinking. Tears filled my eyes.

Slowly, I took off my seat belt, opened the door, pivoted around and up, closed the door. I couldn’t stop the tears as I walked closer but not too close. I was shaking by then. Crying and shaking to be in the presence of people I loved. I hadn’t been that close to anyone but my immediate family for weeks.

“It’s so good to see you,” I said, wiping my face and ordering myself not to extend my arms, not to lean in.

“Here, sit,” Bess said, holding out a lawnchair in my direction.

But I sat down where I was, directly on the sidewalk, not trusting myself to even reach out for the chair. Plus, I’d left my hand sanitizer in the car.

I was aware of the loneliness I’d felt for weeks, the pain of not being able to be with the people I love. I knew the emotions would flow freely when I was finally reunited with friends and family. But I was surprised by the recoil, by the shaking, by the tears that represented fear as much as love.

The first time I got together with my sisters and Dad felt equally awkward. We were together, we even shared food from the same containers (which I knew was not advisable), but we’d all agreed: no hugging.  Which meant no picking up nieces, no snuggling nephews, no squeezing my younger sisters like I’d been doing since they were born more than 30 years ago. And also no leaning in to the strong presence of my dad, who’s stood firmly beside me my whole life. I left that day feeling like I hadn’t really been there. At least not all of me.

Why has this physical distance of the COVID-19 pandemic been so hard for us? Why haven’t all the Zoom meetings and FaceTime calls and window visits and care packages and text messages made a difference? And why have the reunions, at least the initial ones, felt so stiff?

Recently, a friend inquired about my mom, who lives in an extended care facility about five minutes from my home. For the past few years, I’ve been there most days, sorting her mail, helping her with bills, picking up toiletries, reading to her, advocating for her. When COVID-19 came, her facility went on lockdown and suddenly I could no longer visit.

But the helping, sorting, reading, and advocating never stopped. I taught Mom how to FaceTime from her iPad. I sent her a video of me reading every day. I dropped off toiletries and snacks and flowers and cards. I texted, called, and emailed staff members when I noticed swelling in her fingers or when she complained of pain over video calls.

When my friend asked about how things are going, I thought of all the ways that I continued to work for my Mom’s good. Though it seemed like so much about life had changed, in some ways, at least as far as my Mom was concerned, nothing had changed except this one thing: presence. And that has made all the difference.

It’s no great revelation that we’re all connected to each other in a complex web of relationships that range from acquaintance to spouse. And just ask anyone who’s made a friend online or kept in touch with a family member across the country: these relationships are about more than being in the same room together. We bring our whole selves into dependent proximity to others. But sometimes it does mean showing up in my body in the same space as the bodies of my family members and friends. And when that can’t happen–when it’s actually outlawed by executive order and talked about continuously on the nightly news–the pain in those bodies is palpable. If you ask me, being together is an essential activity that officials forgot to put on the list.

But if life with a novel coronavirus has shown us anything it’s this: being together also is risky. We’ve seen that physically, with diagrams and descriptions of how our very breath leaves our body and carries with it all kinds of germs and viruses into the space and surfaces around us. But the risk is there in lots of other ways, too. Our words and actions hurt each other sometimes. When we make ourselves vulnerable to the presence of another, we don’t always emerge unscathed. Changed, yes. Encouraged and uplifted and bolstered in our hope, sometimes. But also bruised and wounded, all too often.

It’s been nice to see a few more people lately, to be in their presence in every sense of the word. I’ve had closer visits with my sisters and Dad, visits where we mostly kept socially distant but did share a hug or two. After a negative COVID test and a few forms to fill out, I’m also back to visiting my mom as an essential family caregiver. We both have to wear masks, and I wash my hands about two dozen times during each visit, but we’re present with each other again.

I’m painfully aware that being reunited with friends and family means exposing myself and them to greater risk of COVID-19. It also means exposing ourselves to the other risks of relationships: to vulnerability and truth-telling, to the possibility of being misunderstood or hurting someone’s feelings. But after so many months apart, the risks feel worth it, especially when we can mitigate the COVID exposure with the simple steps of masks and hand-washing, with six feet apart and being outside. The other? The vulnerability and truth telling, the possibility of pain? There’s no mitigation for those, at least not if we want to be truly present with each other.

Mostly I’m soaking up all the time I can with these people I love because with COVID-19 cases surging around the country, I’m afraid we might all be kept from each other again. And regardless of how much things change or how difficult it can be to maintain relationships in a pandemic, the lack of presence feels like the greatest risk we’re facing in these perilous times.