Hugging Lessons

Hugging Lessons


I was waiting for Frank to die and he didn’t. It felt odd. Sitting in my apartment far away from him, waiting for a text or a call or a moment when I would lose my breath out of nowhere and think: this is it. It happened. I felt that when my grandfather died a few years back. Like the air was kicked out of me. I looked at the time and said, it’s happened. I kept going with my dinner, and then my mom called. I asked for the time of death and told her I had felt it. Kind of insane if you think about it. I’ve never been too superstitious. I asked other people in my family, and it seemed like nobody else felt anything, so I felt kind of special because he chose me to invade and knock the air out of when he died, instead of my other cousins. I kept thinking about who would find Frank if he died. He lived by himself, so probably his driver or the woman who comes to do his laundry twice a week. He could drive, but he likes drinking (a lot) so he has a driver. Or maybe he would have died in an exuberantly public way. Frank was never dramatic but he always enjoyed being the center of attention. I am like him in this way, which is not a compliment. Plus, he already died in public once, so he might have wanted to keep with the pattern. When he died the first time, I didn’t pick up my phone because I hated him at the time and was busy. I don’t hate him anymore. Anyway, he died because he was drinking and choked on a piece of meat! It wasn’t even good steak or anything. He was always larger than life to me, my father, and a bit of meat took him out. Or almost took him out. He was resuscitated in the hospital and was alive again when I finally called back to ask what the hell was happening. My brothers were already there because they didn’t hate him as much as I did then, and they have always been nicer than me anyway. They got that from our mom. I take after our dad. 

Ways I am like Frank:

  • I prefer pats on the back over hugs. 
  • I heal everything with Advil and Neosporin and Benadryl.
  • I take vitamin supplements because I have terrible eating habits and don’t get the necessary nutrients. 

Ways I am not like Frank:

  • I have a conscience. 


When I was a kid, my mom made me practice giving hugs. I was not an affectionate child and she was a very affectionate parent. She thought it was her life’s mission to make me more like her—like mother, like daughter and all that. I picture her wanting a baby girl that she could impart her wisdom to and play dolls with and teach to play the guitar, and instead, she got me. I never wanted to not like my mom. I guess it just kind of happened as I grew up. I felt like she wanted me to be her kid and not myself if that makes sense. Like anything I was trying to communicate, she understood through the ears of the mother of the daughter she had wanted and not the daughter she had. Hugging lessons, she called it. They happened spontaneously throughout the year but most insistently during Christmas when she would put silly gifts under the tree for me and make me hug whoever she said they were from. “Heart to heart,” she would say, repositioning my body so that the left side of my chest was in contact with the left side of the other person’s chest. Left cheeks touching. The practice subject was usually my younger brother, who had always been more affectionate and loved to watch me squirm as I hugged him. When I got older, I read a study about the benefits of hugs, and I felt like, okay, whatever? I have never liked hugs and survived? I mean, I’ve enjoyed some hugs. I’m not a monster–judge me if you want. Frank got it. When we hugged, it felt genuine and good, but only after I stopped hating him. When I did hate him, hugging felt wrong, of course.

Frank told me he would possibly die in a very nonchalant way. He called me one day in the morning while I was reading in a coffee shop, and he said, “Hey, how are you?” After a minute of pleasantries and discussing the weather where I was and where he was, he said, “All I want is for you to be close to your brothers.” Frank was not one for this type of talk. I was like, “???,” which on the phone just sounds like stunned silence. So he continued. “I am having a small medical procedure done tomorrow. I just wanted to tell you that. You know… just in case.” More stunned silence on my end, and then I heard myself asking what the hell a small medical procedure meant. He replied that he had been feeling chest pains and was getting a procedure done to see how badly his arteries were clogged up and whether he had to get urgent open heart surgery. This worried me because his father, my grandfather, had died of a heart attack after neglecting his clogged arteries. Like father, like son. I think I wished him luck which, in retrospect, seemed like the wrong thing to say at the time. Like when someone wishes you a happy birthday and you reply, “You too!” He didn’t think it was wrong to say because he thanked me and hung up. I sat there for a minute drinking my coffee and was about to go back to reading my book when some sense kicked into me. I called him back and asked, “Would you like me to come to keep you company?” He said, “That would be nice.” He has never been a great communicator and is the oldest son in a family of eight children, so to say the least, he has trouble asking for help. 

I ran home feeling like everything inside me was shaking and frozen but melting at the same time. I packed a backpack full of underwear, my laptop, and the book I was reading and got in a cab to the airport. All I could think during the ride was, “What am I gonna do with the cows?” Frank worked for his dad, my grandfather, his whole life but loved ranching so much that he bought some land and a bunch of cattle with his first real amount of money. This then became more of an obsession;he had a lot of cows that I tried not to get too attached to, so that I didn’t have to think about their eventual demise and future as steak or leather. I kept thinking how I didn’t know anything about cows, and that if I wanted to sell them, people were going to scam me and underpay because they were going to be able to see, to smell, to feel that I was a kid still and didn’t know how to take care of the cows or what cows were worth. Did Frank have a plan in place for the cows? Would I have to leave the life I’d built and become a rancher? 

I had never been good at ranching activities even though Frank religiously drove us all during our school breaks and had us herd cattle for hours. When we were young children, he would take the long road to the ranch and drive through all of the small towns on the way. It took around two hours longer than the shorter road, but we were kids and didn’t know there was an alternative to the path we were on. To entertain us, he made us memorize the names of the towns, bridges, and rivers we crossed to get there in order. I could never get them right and my younger brother always won. After he and my mom split up, they never worked out a formal custody agreement so I didn’t see Frank much except for those trips, which he was still stubborn about. He had never been the best parent, but the divorce was something else. I can’t say exactly what happened. I feel like my memory became the things I would tell myself to get through the day and the charges on the credit card he gave me because he felt bad. Or I thought he gave it to me because he felt bad, but it was really because he wasn’t planning to pay spousal support, and that credit card was all we had. My ex told me a story about how his grandma lived in a home and she used to bake cookies every Easter and give them to everyone there. After she died, the home would still bake the cookies for the holiday and send some to the family. I wondered if Frank had ever done anything that people would do in his memory and share with me. Maybe we would herd cattle in his memory. 

All this thinking about Frank dying led to the idea that he would probably want a Catholic funeral. I hadn’t been to mass in a while, so I decided I should re-familiarize myself with what mass entails so the priest wouldn’t go on a rant about some god-awful gospel that made no sense. Until then, I had only been to my grandparents’ funerals, which were awful. The priest read the gospel and talked about Jesus being kind to lepers and prostitutes, and I don’t think I would be able to survive that during my own father’s funeral. Maybe I would delegate the church portion to one of my brothers, but did I trust them enough to do this? We were well suited as siblings because each of us knew our role within the family. I was the boss who would delegate tasks for both of them and get the Christmas presents because I had the best taste and the credit card. My older brother was head of logistics because he always knew a guy who knew a guy who could do whatever it was you needed. My younger brother was chief of PR because he was the nicest and the youngest so no one ever thought he was being rude or short when talking to them, and whatever mistake he made, they justified it as youth naivete or poor guidance on my older brother and my behalf.

Frank had given the eulogy at his father’s funeral and would probably want me to speak at his. I wasn’t his oldest kid, but I was his favorite (everyone knew this, his email password was my name and birthday), so I would probably be giving the speech. Was it awful to write a eulogy in a cab on the way to a small medical procedure that can become a big thing, a.k.a. death? I opened the notes app on my phone. I closed it. Too soon. In my head, though, I was thinking of things to say and if I would be one of those people who have to be escorted off the pulpit for crying too much. I pictured my older brother carrying me off and my extended family hugging me afterward, saying I did a great job with tears in their eyes. I imagined the many hugs I would have to endure that day. 

“Miss, we’re here.” I got out of the cab and go straight to the security line. Somehow, in the middle of my thinking of cattle and eulogies, I booked a one way flight home—all reflex. I put it on the credit card I had gotten from Frank during the divorce. I went through security with some time to spare. I lined up at McDonalds because regardless of what was happening, I was still at the airport and would be having a quarter pounder with cheese, no onions, no pickles, and medium fries like always. I got a call from my brother. In the middle of all my mental gymnastics and funeral planning, I hadn’t found time to contact Frank’s other children. I picked up and say, “I’m on my way.” He said that was good because he was too far to come if it wasn’t as bad as it might be. Not as bad as it might be? Had Frank not told him “it would be nice” if he came? Did he not know how big a deal that was? Was he not thinking about the eulogy and the cows and baking cookies, or were his words a coping mechanism of someone who is logistically too far away to do anything about it? None of us could really do anything, but traveling to be with him somehow made me feel like I could undo the genetic history or the years of fried foods and drinks and zero exercise.

I hung up and saw a text from my mom saying she was happy to help with anything I needed. My younger brother must have told her. They were the family huggers, so they got along really well and told each other everything. One time, when my mother was away on vacation with her sisters, my younger brother said to my face, “I can’t wait for mom to come back, you and dad always pat me on the back instead of hugging me.” Excuse me for being the family disappointment! My mother hadn’t spoken to Frank in months, and I am sure she meant happy to help with the funeral arrangements and the backpay of the spousal support she had been suing him for. I didn’t respond. “Number 53!” I grabbed the tray, sat, put my phone away, and took a bite of my burger. I tasted pickles. Hadn’t I said no pickles? I have always hated pickles and have always ordered the same thing, so it was hard to believe that I hadn’t been specific, but I was so out of it that I couldn’t remember. Tears welled in my eyes as I removed the pickles from the bun with a french fry, but it was useless because the pickle taste had already spread everywhere. I didn’t want to cry, so I pressed a Mcdonald’s napkin into my tear duct and started blinking really quickly (a trick I’d learned from lining my waterline during my Tumblr teenage days) and tried to think of things like why people chose impractical outfits for travel and ranking the best carry-on suitcases compared to the one I had left at home.

I couldn’t stop the tears when I finally got on the plane, though. There was nothing to distract me, so I cried. I wasn’t thinking of cows and funerals anymore. I was just scared and sad and hoping that Frank didn’t have a fatal heart attack in the four hours it took for my plane to land. I thought of when my mom asked me to reorganize her bookshelf because her books didn’t fit, and it was just because she had too many saint figurines on the shelves. “Why do you need all of these?” I asked. “You never know,” she responded. You never know until you know. 


Now I think of death often and see cadavers everywhere. On my dining room table: the empty cup of morning coffee, the bottle of tequila I didn’t throw out, and the scrap paper I wrote down ideas on, which were all bad ideas. I don’t follow the Marina Abramovic method of only working from bad ideas. If you are unfamiliar, she had her students sit for hours next to a trash can and throw out all of their bad ideas. Afterward, she would throw out their good ideas and have them work from those in the bin. Hard disagree–bad ideas are bad ideas, period. Marina’s bad ideas are good because she won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale at fifty-one (very young for Biennale award winners) and can do no wrong in the eyes of the art world. In my bag: a recipe card I got from a friend (who does paper recipe cards anymore?), a pencil, and a straw wrapper. On my body: the scars from the mosquito bites that I scratched way too hard and got infected. On my nightstand: my mom’s old book on learning the guitar that I promised I would use to teach myself on the guitar she got me for Christmas. In my closet: the jeans that I got two summers ago when I was only eating once a day and lost twenty pounds and was miserable, so I started eating lasagna every day, and they no longer fit me. On my kitchen counter: the pot I washed that has been sitting on the drying rack for over a week. 

Frank, my father, is fine and I’m still waiting for him to die. That part hasn’t gone away. 

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