The Last Time I Hugged My Father

It was a bright, brilliant Thursday afternoon in June outside the Syracuse airport.

As the car came to rest next to the curb, my wife and my kids and I all spilled out of the car and began hurriedly collecting our things. I clicked up the handle on my suitcase and turned to my father, and he wrapped his arms around me and said he loved me. After a final round of warm goodbyes, my family and I headed into the terminal as he stood by the car waving. Eventually he disappeared from view.

That was the last time I saw my father.  

A few months later he died very suddenly, and when I traveled back to the airport for his funeral a couple of weeks later, it hit me like a sledgehammer, breaking through the sedative haze of my grief: This was the very spot where he and I last had physical contact. We would never hug again.

I fell against a wall and wept, as it had now become holy ground. There, in front of dozens of people saying their ordinary goodbyes, I sobbed and trembled.

I rewound through a lifetime of memories of our physical connection: sitting on his lap at family gatherings, him tossing an 8-year old me in the air in our backyard pool, him rubbing my head as a teenager as he asked me how my day was, him grabbing my face and beaming with pride on the day I got married—and that final embrace there on that piece of concrete.

I’d been fortunate to have had 44 years of these moments, but I still felt robbed. I didn’t want that to be the end. 

The last moments with people we love, almost never tell us they’re the last moments while they’re happening. They rarely broadcast their gravity and finality at the time; usually disguising themselves as ordinary exchanges in the kitchen or at the bus stop or at the airport.

Maybe that’s a good thing, as our hearts probably couldn’t bear the weight of such moments in real-time. The desire to freeze life or to hold on or to change the story, would likely be too much to bear. Still, I wish I’d known at the time that this airport farewell hug our last one. I’d have held on a little longer.

Death always comes as an interruption. It always leaves things unfinished. It always creates too many lasts that we’re not ready for: last embraces, last kisses, last head strokes, last tickle fights, last airport hugs.

We can’t prepare for these abrupt and permanent disconnections, all we can do is to try and be as present as we can in every moment with the people we love; to give affection lavishly, to do it without reservation or embarrassment, to say our hellos and our goodbyes well.

As I looked up through tear-swollen eyes, at all the dozens of strangers hugging each other another outside their cars, I wanted to run up to them all and make sure they said goodbye well; that they understood just how fragile life is and how this patch of concrete could easily become for them, an unlikely memorial.

But I knew that would be jarring and awkward and weird—and I knew they probably wouldn’t believe me anyway.

Hugging my father that day beside his car, now four years ago—I wouldn’t have believed it either.

Embrace and touch and kiss and fiercely hug the people you love while you can.

You’ll never be ready for the moment that you can’t.



22 thoughts on “The Last Time I Hugged My Father

  1. Thanks, John. Dad died a couple of years ago and it is his hugs and whispered affections while squeezing me tight that I miss the most. It sounds like both of our perspectives on the world may have been shaped by those embraces.

  2. Through a haze of tears, I have to tell you how much I appreciate your words, the rawness of your pain, the stunningly beautiful portrait of a man who loved with his whole self. Tuesday, March 6th would have been my dad’s 96th birthday. He died 18 years ago and I still feel the chill of the moment his soul left his body. I was in the ICU room with him as he finally let go. I had traveled across the country knowing I might not make it in time. I am so very grateful that I did. You said, “The last moments with people we love, almost never tell us they’re the last moments while they’re happening…Maybe that’s a good thing, as our hearts probably couldn’t bear the weight of such moments in real-time. The desire to freeze life or to hold on or to change the story, would likely be too much to bear.” I am reminded of the play “Our Town” when the main character, Emily, wants just one more ordinary day and finds that it is, indeed, too much to bear. I loved my dad. I didn’t have all of the warm memories as you but I do have some very precious ones. All I can say to you is that I see you. I feel that rawness even today. I hope that those beautiful, warm, precious memories of your dad will help that a little. Much love and thanks.

  3. Lost my incredibly loving father when I was thirty-five. Like you, our family was hugs-and-I-love-yous all the time. When Daddy died suddenly, I had no regrets as so may do. Your advice is spot-on. Tell somebody you love them and give lots of hugs. I never go a day without telling each in my immediate family I love them…and others close to me as well.

  4. {{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{John}}}}}}}}}}}}}}

    Thank you for sharing these words. My mom is 93 now and for most of my life, it was very very hard between us. The last 10 years, though, there has been healing, and I realize I could lose her at any moment.”So thank you for writing this.

  5. You have put to words exactly what I know I will feel – and already feel when I allow myself to think about it – when this day comes with my parents. And husband. And God forbid, my children. This is the hard stuff and it is hard born knowing that these days come. I am so sorry for your sorrow. And so appreciative that God gives us this capacity to love until it hurts.

  6. Your posting had me sobbing with tears running down my face. My heart was open wide as I read this to my husband, age 73. I was resent the day my father died, and he know my head caresses and cheek and forehead kisses. So also did my mother as I payed her across the veil as she took her last gasping breath. My throat constricted with emotion several times as I read your reflections to my husband, and I had tp pause to continue. Then we did hug and hold one another and expressed our appreciation for one another. We are both grateful for your heartfelt sharing!

  7. Wonderful. I have come to the realization that every goodbye could be the last, so make it count. It is terrible to feel like they left you mid sentence. Peace and Love,

  8. Beautiful, John. And for the moment when they can’t hug and embrace us: Some years back I wrote a letter to each of my children, telling them how much I loved them, what it meant to me to be their mother, and how proud I am of them. I would have loved to have had such a letter from my mother.

  9. The last time I hugged my Dad was Valentine’s Day, 2006, less than an hour before he passed away.

    His death still hurts and probably always will.

    Losing a parent is hard, but I would rather lose my parents than my son. Burying our parents, if we live long enough, is inescapable, a cruel way of things. Burying a child is a more cruel violation of these cruel way of things.

  10. My father passed away in June of 2016, and I still miss him terribly. I knew that day would come. His health problems were unrelenting. He was hospitalized for 2 weeks in May. I convinced his doctors he needed to come home. He had always said he wanted to die at home and not in “some damn hospital with tubes hanging out.” I knew it was time. He was gone less than 2 weeks later.

    No matter how much you try to prepare for a loved one’s demise, it still catches you off-guard. It still hurts. In those last few years, I made it a point to hug my father frequently and tell him how much he meant to me. I touch the urn holding his ashes every day and tell him I love him. It’s gotten a little easier in the time since. But I still miss him, and it still hurts.

  11. John, I shed tears reading this. I lost my Dad five years ago, my Mom less than two years ago, and my sister and best friend just 10 months ago. Too much loss and the grief lingers, sometimes catching me entirely off guard and reducing me to those trembling tears you describe at the airport. Unlike you, I was able to be with each of my loved ones in the many days leading up to their death, and with all three, I had the profound experience of helping them die. I wasn’t propelled into that state of shock when somebody dies unexpectedly. Nobody can know each other’s depth of loss or experience, but I can say that knowing death is imminent can bring with it the opportunity for healing, expression, and peace when that inevitable moment separates us.

    Thank you for all you share. I find your writing inspiring and authentic.

    May your beloved Dad rest in peace. And may your heart continue to heal.

  12. …I wanted to run up to them all and make sure they said goodbye well; that they understood just how fragile life is…

    My husband died 11 years ago leaving me a widow at 45. I have many, many times had to stop myself from the very same thing as you.

    Hug someone you love today. Or maybe just hug someone.

  13. What a beautiful testament to the love shared between you and your dad.
    Without going into the details, although sad, my own dad’s passing was one of the happiest days of my life. It occurred shortly after my 15th birthday.
    I carried so much anger towards my mom due to my perception that she failed to provide me protection from my dad. I held on to that anger until, at age 43, I gave birth to a child of my own. Only then were my eyes opened and I realized that mothers are fallible humans, too. Once I was able to forgive her, my mom and I developed a very close relationship.
    I am blessed that God allowed me the honor to wrap my arms around her, and hold her hand, as she took her last breath and made her final transition.

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