In praise of hugs

Growing up at a distance � geographical and emotional � from her chilly father meant Katherine Burdett always doubted his feelings for her. Until his final few days…

In praise of hugs 父亲的拥抱
Photo: CORBIS(telegraph.co.uk)

By Katherine Burdett

I grew up bereft of hugs. Neither of my parents was the cuddly type. Greetings involving kissing caused me to wince, and hugging generally just made me feel awkward.

Then one hug changed all that. One month before my 40th birthday my dad had heart surgery. As he came round, days later, he grabbed me and hugged me so hard I had to push with all my might to keep my head from pressing down on his newly stitched torso.

It was a hug to make up for all those we had never had. Days later as he slowly started to gain strength he told me for the first time ever that he loved me, and through my tears I told him I loved him too.

I began planning how to bake him better � with carrot cakes, victoria sponges, jelly and ice cream. My maternal streak kicked in and I fantasised about wheeling him through the park and feeding him home-made goodies. Then he died.

I felt cheated. All my life I had wondered whether my dad cared for me and loved me � I doubted it. Just as I got proof that he did, he passed away.

My parents split up when I was two years old and, while I had monthly contact with my dad, my bitter stepmother and my father's old-fashioned stiff upper lip meant we never became close. In fact, I used to dread the visits to see him and count the hours until I could go home again.

When I was very little the weekends at my father's house felt cold and unfriendly. During my teens the trips to a hostile house became a dread on the horizon for weeks beforehand. Each stay culminated in an uncomfortable peck on the cheek from Dad as he said goodbye � a moment I cringed about for hours in advance.

And yet standing beside the hospital bed watching the life ebb from my sleeping father was painful. I felt like a little girl at his bedside, unable to talk to him yet again. I became fixated with his fingers � fat and soft, lying gently curled beside him. Slowly they transformed from plump sausages to stone � white and immovable. It was his fingers that told me he had gone from this life, not the bleeping of monitors or the bustling of nursing staff.

Losing a father whom you have no recollection of ever living with is difficult. Grieving is tricky; I didn't have any obvious close father-daughter memories to cling to and mull and cry over. Most of my memories were of stilted meetings and uncomfortable times together. But I desperately missed him being alive.

As time moved on my grief and anger at his untimely death began to recede. I realised that his affirmation of me from his deathbed had filled a gaping hole of insecurity I had constantly carried around.

To a child a hug says so many things. It tells you that the person hugging you loves you, cares for you. A hug also confirms that you are a lovable being. Months after Dad's death I realised with a jolt that his lack of hugs said more about him than me. My father was not a demonstrative man and I was, therefore, perhaps, a lovable being.

Once I digested this insight my feelings changed from those of a needy child to ones of a very proud daughter. Looking at my father more objectively allowed me to view him clearly: he was a man of few words; he was intelligent, kind and extremely modest. Ironically I began to feel closer to him in death than I had while he was alive.

With this new-found wisdom came the freedom to give up trying so very hard to gain the affections of others and to concentrate on finding me. I shattered the family taboo of silence about the break-up of my parents' marriage. I also felt the need to speak out about the detrimental effect I felt my step-parents had had on my life.

In some ways the consequences have been quite dire and I no longer have contact with my mother. However, Dad's hug had a profound effect on me. It carried me along a path from childhood to adulthood. At last I am my own woman and one who loves nothing better than a good old-fashioned hug.


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