The Indefinable Power of a Hug
My father died over fourteen years ago. I still miss him, but the pain of his loss is easing. Despite the fact that I cling to my memories of him, desperately trying to keep each colour, scent, and texture of this amazing man clear in my mind, these memories have begun to fade. They linger, still sweet and satisfying like the aromatic tapestry of sugar and butter that clings to the air after baking a batch of cookies, but much like his body did at the end, they are becoming thinner.
One memory in particular refuses to fade. Like my father himself, who clung to life with an outstanding fervor, this memory, to borrow from my favorite poet, Mr. Dylan Thomas, will not go gently into that good night.
My dad, aka my hero, was a loving and joyful man who loved to laugh; his ubiquitous laughter was the soundtrack of my life. He laughed when life was good and filled with joy, but he also laughed when life threw darkness his way, including his diagnosis of cancer. He refused to let unhappiness rule his life or his death.
On a sunny November morning over fourteen years ago, my dad did something that wasn’t anything exciting, or dramatic, or even particularly interesting. It was just kind, epitomizing who he was and how he approached life.
My parents were sitting in the uncomfortable plastic chairs that lined the walls of the Vancouver Cancer Agency’s radiation therapy waiting room. Mom was engrossed in her book; Dad was observing the others in the room. He liked to do that, to take in his surroundings and the people that filled them, trying to determine what they were thinking and then imagine their lives.
On this day there were only three other people in the waiting room—an older man and his wife and a young woman in her thirties, who he assumed must be the couple’s daughter, as he explained to me later. He watched their interaction, the older woman’s distress echoed in the faces of both the man and his daughter.
Dad stood up and approached the family. At this point in his treatment, my once robust father stood five feet nine inches tall and weighed less than a hundred pounds. He was a gaunt scarecrow of a man, but the strength of his smile overshadowed his body’s frailty.
“Excuse me, folks. I was just sitting here thinking to myself, ‘Don, those people over there sure do look like they could use a hug.’ So I decided to come over and see if you do.” He turned first to the mother, who, he had decided, based on her pale, yellowish tingled skin and fragile appearance, was the patient. “How about you my dear, would you like a hug?” Now, I suppose some people might feel this was inappropriate or even a little creepy, but those people haven’t been blessed enough to have known my father.
He followed his question with this statement. “Research has proven that an eleven second hug releases endorphins, those feel good drugs our bodies produce. Now, I don’t know about you, but I can use all the feel good drugs I can get.” He smiled that brilliant smile of his, and after a moment of hesitation, the woman answered, “I suppose you’re right, I think I could use some of those too.”
So Dad wrapped her in one of his all encompassing hugs. My dad’s hugs could chase away bad dreams and sorrow, make the sun shine on a day that was filled with gloom and self doubt, and always, they could set the world right.
Next, he turned to the father, and at the man’s smiling nod, he hugged him too.
Finally, it was the daughter’s turn. Dad sat beside the young woman and took her hands in his own. Dad told me there was something in her chocolate eyes, a sadness that he saw every time he looked into my own hazel ones.
“I know this is hard sweetheart, but everyone is doing their best to take care of your mother, and she’s a fighter. I can tell. You stay strong for her, okay? Now, would you like a hug too?”
Dad said he was surprised when the woman returned his hug with such intensity. She whispered, “Thank you, Don.”
Dad returned to his seat and minutes later, the nurse came to get the woman for her treatment. Dad called after her. “Now, darlin’ just visualize those cancer cells imploding when the radiation hits them. That’s what I do.”
After the door closed behind the mother, a different nurse walked up to the daughter and whispered, “I know this is such a bad time, but if there was anyway you would be willing to sign an autograph for my daughter, I would be so grateful.” The young woman nodded her agreement and signed a small piece of paper for the nurse.
Dad watched the exchange with interest. Mom finally looked up from her book. She told me she couldn’t believe her eyes when she realized who the woman was, but knew my father had no idea.
Dad leaned towards the father and asked quietly; “I couldn’t help but notice the nurse asked for your daughter’s autograph. Is she someone famous?”
The father smiled and said, “She’s a singer songwriter.”
Dad answered, “You must be so proud. I hope things are going well for her. ”
Then he stood up, walked over to the young woman, and sat down beside her again. Mom listened as Dad gave this lovely and very famous young woman words of advice. She decided not to say anything, figuring this young woman would only benefit from my father’s kind words. The young woman, who my dad told to not give up on her dreams, was a woman who most definitely did not need that advice. She was an internationally respected singer songwriter who had sold millions of albums worldwide, and won multiple Grammy and Juno awards.
Both this young woman’s mother and my dad were unable to prevail against the insidious evil that is cancer. They died within weeks of each other.
I like to think she remembers my dad. That she perhaps even cherishes the memory of that crisp November morning when a complete stranger gave her a hug and encouragement, not because she was someone famous, but simply because she was the daughter of a dying woman and was in need of comfort.
Leslie Wibberley is physiotherapist by profession, a slightly maddened mother to two outstanding young women and one slightly insane cocker spaniel, and wife to a loving and extremely tolerant husband. Writing has always been her passion but one she has only recently re-committed her life to. Her article RAISING A CHILD WITH SPECIAL NEEDS, A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE recently won 6th place in Writer’s Digest annual contest, and her creative non-fiction essays can be found in several online literary magazines including MOTHERS ALWAYS WRITE, MAMALODE, and MANIFEST STATION and LITERARY MAMA. Her short story, THAT DAMN PUMPKIN, is published in Devolution Z, a horror magazine.