My father’s skin was jaundiced as he lay hooked up to monitors and intravenous tubes in the intensive care unit of the hospital. Normally a well-built man, he had lost more than 30 pounds.
My father’s illness had been diagnosed as cancer of the pancreas, one of the most malignant forms of the disease. The doctors were doing what they could but told us that he had only three to six months to live. Cancer of the pancreas does not lend itself to radiation therapy or chemotherapy, so they could offer little hope.
A few days later, when my father was sitting up in bed, I approached him and said, "Dad, I feel deeply for what’s happened to you. It’s helped me to look at the ways I’ve kept my distance
and to feel how much I really love you." I leaned over to give him a hug, but his shoulders and arms became tense.
"C’mon, Dad, I really want to give you a hug."
For a moment he looked shocked. Showing affection was not our usual way of relating. I asked him to sit up some more so I could get my arms around him. Then I tried again. This time, however, he was even more tense. I could feel the old resentment starting to build up, and I began to think "I don’t need this. If you want to die and leave me with the same coldness as always, go right ahead."
For years I had used every instance of my father’s resistance and raggedness to blame him, to resent him and to say to myself, "See, he doesn’t care." This time, however, I thought again and realized the hug was for my benefit as well as my father’s. I wanted to express how much I cared for him no matter how hard it was for him to let me in. My father had always been very Germanic and duty-oriented; in his childhood, his parents must have taught him how to shut off his feelings in order to be a man.
Letting go of my long-held desire to blame him for our distance, I was actually looking forward to the challenge of giving him more love. I said, "C’mon, Dad, put your arms around me." I leaned up close to him at the edge of the bed with his arms around me. "Now squeeze. That’s it. Now again, squeeze. Very good!"
In a sense I was showing my father how to hug, and as he squeezed, something happened. For an instant, a feeling of "I love you" bubbled through. For years our greeting had been a cold and formal handshake that said, "Hello, how are you?" Now, both he and I waited for that momentary closeness to happen again.
Yet, just at the moment when he would begin to enjoy the feelings of love, something would tighten in his upper torso and our hug would become awkward and strange. It took months before his
rigidness gave way and he was able to let the emotions inside him pass through his arms to encircle me.
It was up to me to be the source of many hugs before my father initiated a hug on his own. I was not blaming him, but supporting him; after all, he was changing the habits of an entire lifetime - and that takes time. I knew we were succeeding because more and more we were relating out of care and affection.
Around the two-hundredth hug, he spontaneously said out loud, for the first time I could ever recall, "I love you."