It’s a melancholy Valentine’s Day for me. Word from my father’s wife is that he hasn’t had food or water in four days, and isn’t speaking much anymore. Which means it’s likely that one of my favorite days of the year will now have a permanent tint of sadness.
The call could come any time. Anticipation and dread have been ever-present this week, and it’s been difficult to stay fully engaged during a particularly busy run of responsibilities and obligations.
The many hugs offered and received have gone a long way toward helping me keep it together.
I am a hugger. And I’m not talking about half-hearted arm hugs or tepid sideways squeezes. Whether you’re woman or man, a friend or a colleague, if you get a hug from me, it’s a full embrace. My father taught me not to do anything halfway, and hugging is no exception.
When I hug you, you know it. And though the love and affection implied may make you uncomfortable, you won’t question my commitment to being warm and open and honest.
- Whether it’s arms over, arms under, or arms crossed (one over, one under), the key is to bring your hands all the way around to the person’s back and hug with your forearms and chest.
- Stand up straight. There’s no need to grind, of course, but you also shouldn’t contort yourself in such a way as to keep your lower torso bent away from the embrace.
- Give a firm squeeze, but take into account the frailty or strength of the person you’re hugging. The minor crackle of the vertebrae might feel nice to some people, but a solid-but-gentle squeeze will be sufficient for most. You’re not a chiropractor. At least not in this context. A hug is a conversation, so you need to listen to what's being communicated.
- Gauge the appropriate length of time to maintain the embrace. Maybe it’s just a quick squeeze and step back, or maybe it’s a full-on, I’m-going-to-stand-here-and-hold-you-until-you-let-go experience. Sometimes you need the hug more than the other person, so try to respect that and don’t let things get awkward.
- No gentle pats on the back (a good “hey buddy” pound between the shoulders is okay), or clasping your hands; no pressing your pelvis (unless it’s that kind of hug), or lifting the other person into the air. Make it real and complete, but don’t make it uncomfortable.
- Oh, and don’t force it. If you go in for the hug and the response is a step back, a look of fear, or a hand to the chest, respect that boundary. If you’re feeling confident, you can say, “Don’t be silly — bring it in.” But be careful with that.
I’ve noticed that people are hugging more often, in many different contexts. Maybe it’s a generational thing, or just the warmth and geniality of Denver culture, but I’ll give and receive hugs in greeting these days where in the past a handshake would have been sufficient. We run a huggy office, and our clients connect with us in a warm and personal way because of it. There’s nothing contrived or strategic about this approach; it’s just the way I am, and our office culture supports it.
When I was an elementary school teacher, I was warned by the older generation not to hug the kids. And I never did if there wasn’t a crowd of adults and children around me. But when a 9-year-old is so happy to see you that he flings himself into your arms, you don’t deny a loving embrace.
And maybe that’s the point of it all — a hug can convey messages that are simpler and more primal than words. A well-managed hug can demonstrate affection, respect, love, attraction; but just the gesture of giving a hug says something about the person proffering it. There’s an inherent generosity and openness of spirit in hugging freely.
I’m not a fan of those “free hugs” dudes on the street, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in the restorative power of a warm embrace. The more hugs we offer and receive, the more peaceful our world becomes. Hugs are small, everyday gestures that generate enormous energy and goodwill. They help repair the world.
I know I’ll receive lots of hugs in the coming days and weeks. Some will unleash the tears that have been threatening to break free all week, some will elicit smiles and gentle laughter. Others will be given as much to receive comfort as to offer it. Hugs make the heart stronger, enrich the soul, and provide healing to the body. I’m going to need all of that.
Very soon now, my pain and sadness — steadily making my heart heavy, my body ache — will be released from anticipation into reality. I’m not ready for that, at all. I'm not ready for my father's passing to stop being an abstract idea. I'm not ready to know he won't be there anymore. And I know that this time of year will be tough for me from here on out.
But… maybe… someday… I’ll have someone who’ll help me reclaim Valentine’s Day, and we will rebuild it into something special again. The pain will be absorbed by the love, infused and swirled into something beautiful.
That’s my wish for today.