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The Hug: In Memory of a Father

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June 2007
The Hug: In Memory of a  Father

The Hug—that's all I remember in the end, but I am so glad that I do. I remember it so vividly that I feel it. It happened at the Sahara airport as I was leaving India. The surroundings and circumstances are fuzzy and they really do not matter. All I remember is the embrace between two persons. It wasn't meant to be remembered so vividly, yet it was—perhaps because it was the last: the last time my father hugged me, as I said good-bye. What I didn't realize then is that, in fact, he was saying good-bye in more ways than one.

It happened when I moved gently towards him to say good-bye by placing my hands over his—that's the maximum we do as adults, to show our immense affection. As such, hugging doesn't come naturally to us South Indians, at least not in our families. There may be tears, but even they are usually subdued. These encounters are typically characterized by an absence of any serious words, heavy sentences, or overt expressions. All the love and longing is usually expressed in long silences and meaningless small talk.

Then why did he do that? Did he know what was coming? Did he have a premonition? It was a warm one. It was a strong one. I felt his arms and chest pressed intensely, as if it was meant to be remembered. Even though he was already somewhat frail, having survived a severe heart attack and a resulting nervous failure twelve years ago, he was quite powerful in his expression. I remember all of my body embraced and pressed with all his strength of love.

That was the last one. After a year, in 1993, I got the call. He died in his sleep, and everyone said he was blessed to pass away so peacefully. I could not see him one last time. The distance was too much. He had three more sons, all elder, to do the last rights. My visa status didn't help me either. As I wept in a parking lot, in the middle of that night, I remembered his hug. Ever since, I remember it quite often. It helps me keep the memory alive, with the same intensity, even after so many years.

In our family we often wondered whether we were unfortunate to have lost him early at the age of sixty-one or fortunate to have had him for thirteen more years after his miraculous survival from his first stroke. His first heart attack was so severe that his heart stopped for thirty seconds, the doctors said, and was revived—thanks to that British lady doctor who did everything to bring him back—but enough damage was already done. He went into a coma for 23 days. When he came back from it gradually, his brain was so damaged that he couldn't even remember how many children he had. Sometimes he said three, sometimes four, five. It should be of amazing interest to the neurologists as well as the psychiatrists that he recognized my mother first and then his mother, and then everybody else. After few months, he remembered everything else.

He took an early retirement and lived on to see all his four sons graduate, settle in jobs, and all the four weddings. He also played with three grandchildren. And then he went away, quietly. In Telugu, my native language, they say "poyinollandaru Manchollu" (All the gone are good ones). Everyone I met during those days said "He was a good man." I knew they were not merely making a cursory remark at the time of death. I was wise enough to identify their sincerity. They truly meant it.

He wasn't a great man; he had his share of weaknesses. But, there was one quality that encompassed his entire personality—to be genuinely warm and nice to others. Everyone who came in contact with him remembered that. He always sported a smiling face to match his all-white dress. Nobody remembers him wearing any colored clothes. White suited him well, in all respects. He was pure at heart.

Although I could not get the last glimpse, I went to India as soon as I could get my visa papers arranged, in a week. I stayed in India for three months, mainly to be of support to my mother. During that time, I thought a lot about him. His warmth became an inspiration for me. Maybe that's what he was trying to pass on with his hug. He succeeded in rubbing it onto me, I hope. My daughter will be the judge.

By Vijay Vemulapalli


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