Friday, May 31, 2019

On Letting Go Too Soon


I come from an affectionate, demonstrative family. We said "I love you" freely - and still do. It is no small blessing to know, always, that you are loved. While I am sure that my husband's parents loved him, he never heard those words. Ever. It took a while, but his heart is open now. Even a little mushy sometimes. Plus, he's a great dad.

He hates it when I tell this story, but it's one of my favorites. When our daughter was three months old, we took her to the state fair. We had a great day and she looked so cute in her hat and sunglasses. As I was pushing her stroller up a hill on our way out at the end of the day, I asked my husband, "Have you ever told her that you love her?"

With a straight face, he replied, "I don't know her that well yet."

He wasn't making a joke - that's just how is brain works. Despite that goofy response, he's thoroughly devoted to her. He overcame the lack of affection in his own upbringing and routinely tucks his daughter into bed. His hugs might be accompanied by a reminder to "turn in that science assignment tomorrow," but he's there for her in body and spirit.

Growing up, I accepted affection from my family but was hesitant to interact with others in that way. I suffered with vitiligo and other visible physical conditions, resulting in a desire not to be seen and certainly not to be touched. It led to a lifetime of chronically low self-esteem.

As I've gotten older (and have grown in some ways more comfortable in my own skin), I've gotten better about receiving and even initiating physical contact with others. A beloved member of my church lost her husband several years ago. She got up to light a candle in his memory, her voice shaking as she spoke about her pain in losing him. Karen was new to our congregation then. I didn't know her. But as she made her way back to her seat, I found myself rising to catch her in a hug. It was out of character for me, but it was genuine.

I try to connect with people when I can, and when I sense that they are open to it. A hand on a shoulder while asking, "How is your dad doing?" seems like the right thing to do. I dole out compliments on the regular - it's amazing how startled people are to receive a compliment sometimes. If you like the cashier's necklace, tell her so. Of course, I've gotten no better at small talk (like, how do you end it? just walk away?), but I'm out there tryin'.

Lately I've been thinking about hugging, perhaps the most human way of all to connect. A couple months ago, my friend Carrie officiated at a memorial service. The service was held at my church so I was standing near the kitchen in case anyone needed help finding the bathroom, coffee, whatever. I greeted Carrie and she hugged me. She is a very warm, genuine person and her hug reflected that. I mean, it was some kind of great hug - long, steady, and sincere. I felt like she was saying, "You matter to me."

Here's where I go wrong with hugs. I assume that people would not want to touch me any longer than necessary, and I always pull away first. Always. I did so with Carrie but nope, she was still in full hug mode. I can't tell you how many times I've done this. I mean, what is wrong with me?

Last weekend, my friend Heidi experienced an unbelievable tragedy. She and her husband, along with their daughter (they also have an adult son), were at their cabin. Chad mentioned some slight nausea and shortly thereafter, he died. If I understand correctly, it was a cardiac issue. Heidi is a nurse and tried to save him, but it was out of her hands. His death happened with a quickness that feels especially cruel. I should mention that Chad was just two months older than I am. It's always particularly startling when you lose a contemporary. Chad was a great guy. I saw him annually at the circus protests that Heidi organizes in our community, and crossed paths with the whole family at other events, too. Heidi and her children are reeling, as you can imagine.

Heidi is not a person who is inclined to ask for help on a personal level. She has a lot on her shoulders now. Obtaining new health insurance, figuring out how to do the chores that Chad used to do, making sure that her children are coping . . . the list goes on and on. The only bright side here is that there are a lot of people who care about this family very much. A GoFundMe campaign already has a pretty healthy balance (enough to ease some immediate worries, anyway). I wanted to help in some small way (in addition to making a donation) so I made a casserole. Heidi is vegan so I knew that I could whip up some comfort food for when she needs it. Another mutual (vegan) friend has been cooking for her as well. I think Pam and I were both worried that well-meaning neighbors might drop off food that Heidi and her family could not eat.

Heidi is someone for whom I've always had a lot of admiration. I've known her for several years. Not only does she organize circus protests and try to educate people about the realities of factory farming, she is very active in TNR (Trap Neuter Return). I'm sure she has saved hundreds of cats. She inspired me to get rid of my dumb excuses and to switch from vegetarian to vegan five years ago. Heidi has a big heart but she's not a mushy person. She has an offbeat sense of humor (which may be why I love her so much). She once posted a meme on Facebook that related to hugging. She was not, from what I gathered, a hugger.

I was prepared to deliver my casserole to her home, but Heidi said she'd be nearby and offered to stop and pick it up. She said she would have her parents with her. I told her that sounded great because I'm currently fostering a puppy and Lexy has been looking for some new flesh to gnaw on with her razor teeth. I told Heidi, "Don't worry, I won't hug you." It's been a running joke between us because I did hug her the first time we met in person.

"I've been hugging. It's okay," she responded. I'm so proud of her for letting people help her. I know it's not easy.

And so, I hugged her when she arrived. I tried not to let go too soon.

I'm going to keep working on this hugging thing. Life, as they say, is short.