It’s nothing about the hugger, nothing that anyone should take personally. I just don’t like hugging.
I don’t think most people appreciate how much interpersonal skill goes into giving and receiving hugs. What if one of you is sweaty? What if one of you is stinky? How long is a hug supposed to last? What if the hug is misunderstood as a gesture of sexual interest? What if I’m hugging a man and he gets an erection? Am I allowed to notice? Where do the arms go? Do I put them around the neck if someone is taller? Do I wrap them around the back and do a full frontal? Most importantly, consider what I look like. I’m a short woman with larger-than-most boobs. This is really the crux of the situation.
In the event of a hug, what do I do with boobs?
If I’m hugging someone shorter, what do I do if the huggee’s head lands at breast height? (Hey, it’s happened and more than once.) If I put my arms around someone’s neck and shoulders, the boobs are squashed against the chest. That’s uncomfortable for me and arguably inappropriate if I’m hugging a man or a relative. The natural preference, then, would be to do the side hug, beloved of manly bros everywhere. So should I make sure the huggee’s arm lands in the center so my boobs create an arm-and-boob sandwich? Yeah, that’s not weird at all.
More than anything, why do I have to hug and when did hugging take the place of the time-honored handshake? I often lead multi-day sessions at work where I could have 20 or 30 people attending. These are professionals in their field, many in their late 40s or older. Some are in information technology, a field not known for attracting touchy feely people. And yet, at the end of the 3-day meeting, people hug in farewell. Why? Only this professional need brought us together and only for a couple days. Must we hug? Can’t we shake hands in professional appreciation or part ways with a little wave from across the room? If we must be familiar, how about patting each other on the back or giving each other knuckles?
This isn’t to say I don’t hug at all. I freely demand hugs from my children like a hungry shopper demands food on sample day at CostCo. But otherwise, if someone approaches me with that hug glint in their eye, my lizard brain speedily tries to gracefully block it with some kind of non-verbal motion. My favorite is to pretend my cell is vibrating or I’ve dropped something until the moment passes. But if I’m not quick enough to handle the situation smoothly and politely, I’ll give into the hug gracefully and wait it out. I’m not a freak, after all.
Fortunately, word has been passed that I’m not a hugger. It’s a joke amongst my circle of acquaintances, and I laugh at myself with them. Early in knowing one person, she gave me a hug for a picture. She’s since said it was like hugging a log. I can’t remember the last time I initiated a hug with someone not my child. My mother tries every time I see her. She hugs like I imagine most mothers hug. Long, full body hugs with arms wrapped around me and sometimes her face buried in my shoulder as she tries to not cry when I leave. Several times I’ve felt my shirt become damp with what I suspect are her tears. These hugs last for eternity and I avoid meeting her eyes afterward. I don’t do emotion.
My dad always seemed to understand though. Whereas my sisters or children would lean in for big, full hugs, he would give me the same kind of awkward handshake side hug that he’d give my brothers. Even in his final years, when we knew every visit could be “the last one,” the most he’d do is muss my hair. “Call me when you get home,” he’d command while grabbing my shoulder and giving it a two-pulse squeeze. “Okay, Dad. I always do.” And then I’d go.
The last time I saw my dad standing was Monday, February 13, 2012. My sister, sons, and I made an impromptu long weekend visit to Montana. She had a new internet beau to visit in the area and my boys wanted to see some snow. Every day we arrived and left, my boys would go in for the long hug with Grandpa, the kind where the force of their 45-pound strong bodies could easily knock over his now 110-pound emaciated frame. It always required I coach them. “Be gentle,” I would plead, hoping their heads would avoid coming into contact with my dad’s chest or stomach or, god help him, groin. There was nothing wrong with my dad’s groin area but no man deserves to feel the force of a 6-year-old running at full speed slamming his head against the family jewels.
Our last night there was a good night. My mother stayed home but my dad and I went to dinner at one of his favorite restaurants with my sons and a couple of my brother’s kids. He ordered a large salad with bleu cheese dressing and some onion rings with an iced coffee and a Beck’s non-alcoholic beer. This was dining with the “Looking Glass” version of my dad. Since his disease, he couldn’t handle beef, heavy meals, or alcohol any longer so he went as light as he could, while still enjoying foods he loved. The kids were well-behaved. It was a good meal.
We left at 8:52 pm. I remember this because I wanted to rush into ShopKo on the way to my dad’s house to buy my mother some living room furniture for her birthday in a couple of days. “Where are you going to put it?” my dad asked, gesturing at the cramped Honda CRV already filled with 6-people (in a 5-seater). “Well, that’s not my problem. I’m just buying it.” I smiled, parked illegally, and rushed inside the store where, in six minutes, I spent $1400 buying two leather reclining chairs and a coffee table for pick-up the next day. I left the store and handed Dad the receipt. “You’re definitely my daughter,” he laughed, calling to mind the countless times he drove at breakneck speeds to conduct business one minute before the establishment closed.
Back at the house, I told the boys to say good-bye to Grandpa because we were leaving the next morning. They gave him their special hugs, full of unfiltered enthusiasm and love. I pried them away and nudged them to the car. Dad leaned into me, a little uncharacteristically. There was that moment, that pause, when I tried to figure out what to do. Do I wait for the hug from my dying father and suffer through or move along like normal? I pivoted and walked to the door, him following close behind with his hand on my shoulder.
“Give me a call when you get home tomorrow, kiddo.” Squeeze.
“Okay, Dad, I will.”
We drove away, my dad peering at us through the small window as we went down the driveway. I saw the light click off.
Two weeks later, my family and I were in church when my mother called. “Your father is dying,” she cried. “You need to come here and stop him.”
I called my siblings: My sister who lives nearby me and another who lives two hours away, my brother who was on a business trip in Egypt, and my oldest siblings in California who were ‘poised’ to receive such a call. We went home.
I found a skeleton in the hospital bed that moved only slightly. It had a large head with a big nose and no hair, so it could be my dad, but the skin was waxy, the cheeks were sunken, and the breath was putrid. This was not the man I know, but yet I believed it was him.
For days I sat in the room watching him beg for water, listening to him moan, hearing him talk as a child to his mother who died more than 20 years before. It’s probably the typical death scene we’ve imagined or heard about, if not seen ourselves. Family loiters, not knowing what to do but helpless to go elsewhere. Occasionally someone pulls out a deck of cards or gets a Starbucks or to go food or leaves for a shower. Nurses come in and out.
As the days progressed, I moved my chair closer to my father’s bed until finally I’m at his left hand. I worked on corporate e-mail while he worked on dying. In a very loose and poetic way, the activities aren’t entirely dissimilar.
Occasionally I reached out my hand near his, not touching just near. When I was a child, my grandmother said I had my father’s hands. She was so wrong. Dad’s hands were oval with long, elegant fingers and perfect almond nails that he keeps well-groomed. My hands look like sand dollars with stubby fingers and occasionally chewed cuticles. I tried to touch his hand but it feels odd, not because he’s dying and cold but because it’s an invasion of privacy. It’s like a hug.
A few hours later, around 3 am, the male nurse nudged my shoulder. “Miss? I’m sorry to awaken you but it’s time. He’s leaving you soon.”
I was immediately clear-headed, like when one of my children has a nightmare or the cat vomits. I called my siblings at the hotel. “He’s dying. Come here fast. Get Mom.” I wondered if I was trying to get them here in time to be with him in those final moments or to try and stop him from leaving.
Over at the bed my youngest sister is crying. In just those few moments, he had gone.
She’s my baby sister whose diapers I changed and owiees I soothed. This seemed like a time when I should do something. It occurred to me that maybe I should hug her. But that would be too weird. I patted her on the shoulder. “It’s okay,” I murmur, but I know it’s not.
A few days later my father was in a coffin. He looked more like himself then than he did in the hospital but even still I had the funeral attendant stuff his shirt with padding so he didn’t look so thin. I would’ve liked to take a picture of my dad before he was buried but he’d find that gross, tacky, and I can’t offend him in these final moments he’s above ground.
I leaned down. The edge of the coffin pressed uncomfortably against my chest, squishing those damn boobs. I brought my arms up, tucking one hand under his farthest shoulder, and my face close to his. I gave him a hug, entirely one-sided and sincere, perhaps the most uncomfortable hug I’ve ever given or received.
“I’ll give you a call when I get home, Dad.”