Learning to Hug
My father doesn’t know how to hug. When we embrace, he pulls me towards him so I am off balance and I feel like we are both going to fall down. Or, more typically, he won’t allow a full body embrace, holding me at arm’s length, literally. Given that we never hugged much when I was growing up, this is huge progress!
Now when we hug, which is infrequent, we usually cry. It is an emotion so painful to my father that I don’t think he can stand it. On the brink of losing control and succumbing to gasping body-wracking sobs, he quickly recovers and says something like, “It was good to see you. Call me when you get home safely.”
I learned how to repress from a master.
I caressed his face, marveling at how soft his skin is, willing whatever healing Reiki energy I could muster to offer to him, looked him in the eyes and said, “I love you Daddy.”
Whatever anger I have for my father, and there was a lot of anger – mostly misdirected at my self through depression and anxiety – has dissolved with the passing of my mother. Perhaps it is under wraps, waiting to reemerge in a fury. Perhaps it is being rechanneled as anger toward something easier to be angry about. Like Donald Trump, that cad. Or the godawful trend of building monstrous space-hogging houses on modest lots in my hometown which has sent me into a righteous rage. (Ranting post to come!) Our little triad of a family is now just him and me. Like it or not, I am who I am because of who he is. We are forever connected. With more time and self-awareness and self-compassion has come more understanding and compassion for him.
This weekend was my first visit since the memorial service for my mom. Seven months have passed and he is coping by sticking to his routines. Now we have breakfast. Now we have lunch. We go to this restaurant for dinner. We practice the violin after dinner. We read until midnight. We water the plants on Sundays. We get up and do it over again. Oh yeah, I can relate. I learned the habits of everyday survival from a master.
Sadly, there is no “we.” Linguistic habits die hard after 54 years of marriage. He is very alone. And lonely.
All I feel now is sadness.
I dragged him to the National Gallery yesterday. After all, he dragged me all over art galleries when I was young, it’s the least I can do now that he is old. My dear friend Paul met us there for lunch and a quick viewing of the special exhibits there. Paul, who is bolder and braver than me at asking emotionally probing questions, gently asked my father: “Do you feel her presence in the house? Is she always just around the corner?” No, he said, he doesn’t feel her presence.
He must refuse to feel her presence. Refuse to feel her loss. Immune to it with his routines. Because she is in every crevice. From the needlepoint-covered brick that serves as a doorstop to the placement of the paintings on the walls. From the black and white tile in the front hall that she picked out long ago to the philodendron that sits waiting for her, forlornly, on her dressing table. Her lipsticks are gone. (I checked.) But she is there. Not the 90+-year-old sitting passively and frail in her spot. No, it is my vibrant mother who, along with my father, made me who I am, who permeates my childhood home with her presence.
My father recently told me, when I asked why he never watches movies or reads fiction, that he either finds them silly or he gets so caught up in the drama that it disturbs him. Wow. That was kind of new and interesting information he revealed. I love getting caught up in the drama of a movie. The more intense the emotion the better. I find it cathartic to cry, well, at least when I let myself cry. But he can’t stand the intensity of the emotion. He can’t stand crying. So he devotes himself to his intellectual pursuits or to the practical acts of survival that fill his day. I used to think he was remote and undemonstrative. Now I think no one taught him how to love. How to cope with the joy and the loss that love requires.
I like to think each generation – or maybe each life, if you believe in reincarnation – peels away another layer of the onion to get closer to enlightenment. For me, enlightenment is understanding – to the core of your being – that nothing really matters except for love. Then acting on that understanding. All the time. Try it. It’s hard. Love is hard. It’s easier to plan what to have for dinner or to get up and go to your job, than to love. All The Time. It is my father’s difficult struggle with intimacy that has given birth to my desperate fight for intimacy.
Maybe you need to know how not to hug in order to be able to hug.