Editor’s note: Bobbie Lippman is on a brief hiatus, but will return soon. In the meantime, we have pulled another favorite column from the archives.
Every once in awhile, I write about the importance of a hug. Most of us adults love a hug, often need a hug. It just feels good. But this isn’t about grown-up hugs. This is about the precious hug of a child.
Travel back in time with me to when my daughter, Rocki, was three, and my cousin, Norman, a year younger than me, was diagnosed with Hodgkins Disease, a form of cancer.
In spite of the miles between us — Norman in Seattle, me in Nebraska — we had always been exceptionally close. When our families got together, our mutual mischief drove our mothers crazy. Most of it was pretty innocent, but Norman had a very inquisitive mind. He was the only kid I knew with a chemistry set, and he would hover over it like a pint-sized scientist, often spouting complicated information. I had no idea what he was talking about, but I believed every word.
One day in Seattle, we were exploring a Puget Sound beach while our mothers (who were sisters) walked and chatted about 30 feet behind. Suddenly, Norman picked up an object lying in the sand and held it up to the sunlight for our inspection.
“This,” he announced with great authority, “is the lung of an octopus killed at sea!” We were about eight years old and clueless about the facts of life. As usual, I was terribly impressed with his knowledge.
I can still feel our mothers racing towards us when they saw what Norman was holding. Just as he was about to blow into it to show me how it inflated, either his mother or mine whacked that condom out of Norman's hand — then marched us off to a beach restroom where both of us had our hands, arms and faces scrubbed raw. It was several years before we learned we had not found the lung of an octopus killed at sea.
At the time Norman was diagnosed with cancer, he was living and working in Seattle, and I was living in Los Angeles. In spite of his worsening condition, we managed a few visits back and forth. He was crazy about my little girl, just as she was about him.
Eventually, the awful day came when he was admitted to a Seattle hospital. He said his greatest wish was to see Rocki and me before he died. Funds were short, and the only way to manage the trip was to go by Greyhound bus — a long and tiring journey, but for Rocki, it was an adventure. She spent most of the time going up and down the aisle talking to people, or sitting on my lap playing with a well-loved stuffed critter she called “Bear-Bear.”
I didn’t know how to explain to her how sick Norman was, or that he was in a hospital ward off limits to children. We went straight from the Seattle bus station to the hospital. Fortunately, Rocki took it in stride when I made her sit in the waiting room under the care of a volunteer candy striper.
In those days, I had no experience with cancer patients and was not prepared for how my cousin would look. Gone was the robust boy of my childhood. Gone was the handsome young man he had become over the years, and gone, also, was his hair. The sight of him in that hospital bed was shocking. When I walked into his room, he tried hard to scooch up on the pillows. When I hugged him, there was nothing to feel except bones. We both cried.
“Where’s Rocki?” he asked in a pathetically weak voice while looking past me. “I really want to see her.”
“No children allowed on this floor,” said the nurse, who was in the room adjusting the oxygen. We both caught Norman's look of terrible disappointment.
Then this compassionate nurse motioned for me to step out of the room with her. “Look,” she said, “Norman has so little time left. Why don’t you go get your daughter, and I’ll get a wheelchair. We'll meet you out by the elevator. Sometimes it’s important to bend the rules.”
All the way down to the lobby, I worried about how it was going to be, then decided to let go and let God handle it. Rocki scampered into the elevator, and up we went to the fourth floor. The door opened, but there was no Norman in sight.
“Where is he?” Rocki kept asking, tugging at my hand.
Just then, we saw Norman and the nurse, who was slowly pushing the wheelchair, an IV bottle on a stand rolling along behind. Rocki let go of my hand and skipped toward Norman, dragging her teddy bear. When my cousin saw this little munchkin in the pixie cut, the red tights and red dress, he held out his arms to her.
Oh, oh, I thought, would she stare at those pathetic, bony arms? Would she say something about his bald head? Would she suddenly stop in her tracks because of the wheelchair and the funny-looking bottle hanging in the air?
She did none of those things. She very carefully climbed up on his lap with the help of the nurse, planted a kiss on Norman’s sunken cheek and returned his smile with a dazzling one of her own. Then she gave him a hug and asked him what he thought of “Bear-Bear.” It was a moment I will never forget.
Later that night, Norman died. He was only 26 years old.
Today, if you feel like hugging someone, do it. You might not get the chance tomorrow.
Bobbie Lippman is a professional writer who lives in Seal Rock with her cat, Purrfect. She is the author of “Good Grief: A Collection of Stories As One Woman Journeys From Heartbreak To Healing Through Honesty and Humor.” The book, with all proceeds going to Rotary International Foundation, is available on Amazon, at JC Market in Newport and directly from Bobbie, who can be contacted at [email protected]