Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, Dave Cary and the rest of his family have kept their distance from their 86-year-old mother in an effort to keep her safe from a virus that has killed so many.

There have been video chats with Carolyn Miller, daily phone calls and even a few outdoor visits spent 10 feet apart, smiles obscured by masks. But always there was a longing to hold her, caress a hand, put a great-grandchild on her lap.

"There's nothing like a real hug," Cary said.

So after 10 months and an abundance of caution, Cary surprised his mother Thursday at her St. Louis Park assisted living facility. For a long moment, she burrowed into his chest as they both held tightly in a hug to make up for so many that had been missed.

It was a moment, captured in a selfie and posted to social media, that has caused many to celebrate and others to yearn for the same.

"It breaks my heart to think what it's been like for so many families," said one post on Cary's Facebook page. "It speaks volumes about the pandemic," said another. "I miss my momma," wrote another.

The touching selfie struck a chord, Cary said: "It was a wonderful moment."

Miller had been living at Parkwood Shores in St. Louis Park for about seven months when the pandemic hit Minnesota last spring. Contracting the virus can be devastating for someone her age and with her pulmonary health issues, so her family has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep their distance.

Cary might have been able to visit his mother sooner in her apartment except for the fact that he and his wife, until recently, were providing day care for their grandchildren and couldn't completely quarantine.

"It's a real fine balancing act," he said. "Many families have to strike the right balance in being responsible and careful for their families, society and especially for the health care system."

That meant Miller spent her August birthday, Thanksgiving and the holidays out of physical reach from so many she loves. Yet through it all, she is quick to remind everyone: "We're going to focus on what we have and not focus on what we don't have," according to Cary.

So they've found contentment in simple rituals. Cary calls his mother each day on the phone while Cary's grown son Rob connects via video chat to let her peek in while he reads a story to her great-grandchildren. "She loves that," Cary said.

As COVID-19 infections and deaths have surged and fallen, the family has adjusted to changing restrictions. There's light at the end of the tunnel with a vaccine, Cary said, noting that Miller is scheduled to receive her first dose in a couple of weeks.

In the meantime, Cary's grandchildren have returned to day care, giving him the opportunity to drop in to see his mom. After he self-quarantined for two weeks and got a COVID-19 test to ensure he was virus-free, Cary knocked on her door before lunch on Thursday.

Even before he took off his coat, the two leaned into a hug, holding each other tight.

Then she told him to stand up. "Let me look at you," she insisted. She needed to soak in more than her son's face, which was all she had been seeing on a video screen.

"Wow, you're tall," she said.

He laughed as he recalled that moment. "I'm 60 years old and I haven't changed my height in 40 years," he said. "But I guess it's because she hasn't seen me in a while."

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788