The Hug Goodnight

For a big chunk of my childhood, my mother stopped in my room to give me a hug and turn out the light before I went to sleep. It was a sweet, if generic ritual which probably shouldn’t stand out as much as it does in my mind, but for it being an oddity. We didn’t say I love you much, if at all in our house growing up. Mom worked long days, and I had a stay-at-home dad whom, in retrospect, I look back as particularly ill-equipped for the role. He’s more of a social creature than I ever realized as a kid, when he mostly closed himself off and seemed to locked in a state of arrested development from my and my sister’s early childhood, and a need to micromanage behavior and penny pinch--sensations that outlived their real-world necessity. Our home was a cold one—in the emotional sense I’m alluding to, sure, but also because my father insisted thermostats never reach over sixty degrees, and during the waking hours of the day insisted we stay in uncomfortably close quarters so as to only heat the house to that degree in just one room, with the door shut and a towel stuffed at the bottom for insulation.

When other people in my life talk about warmer childhood memories, I tend to come back to this nightly routine of the hug good night that went on longer than I thought normal, particularly for a boy, into some point in middle school. There was a period when it involved reading, too. There was a school program that involved parents and kids reading to one another, and I remember Mom reading the first few chapters of Jurassic Park to me under that premise. More so, I remember that I would read to myself, or sometimes write my own stories by hand on grid paper Mom brought home for work, until she came to my door.

Most of all, though, I remember when things shifted. I don’t recall the precise context, though I expect I was writing something, or reading something I was really invested in, or maybe I’d gotten in an argument with my father. More than likely, for whatever combination of circumstances, it was tinged with my pre-teen angst and feeling more tired than I would have admitted in the moment.

Mom came into my room earlier than I’d expected her to, and I lashed out. You know, you don’t have to come in here every night.

I regretted the words as soon as I’d said them. Even as my stubborn pride meant I couldn’t begin to take them back in the moment, I immediately felt the sensation of having given up something important. The closest experiences I can liken it to from adult life was the immediate pit in my stomach those times I broke off romantic relationships. Each time I did so, the decision was overdue, and I wouldn’t regret it in the long term. But in that moment? More so than wanting to avoid confrontation or a feeling of guilt at hurting my partner was a sense that maybe I was giving up on something I’d later wish I had back.

That next day, I told Mom that it was OK if she wanted to come to say good night sometimes. I thought myself logical, clarifying a matter of complicated wording. And though I should not have been surprised, Mom did come to my room that night around my standard bedtime, saying I’d made an offer that was too good to pass up on.

Mom came to my room more nights that not in those days to follow. I’m not sure when she stopped, though by high school I was staying up later for homework or to watch TV; the occasional later night phone call. Like so many pieces of childhood—like sleeping with my My Pet Monster, Honk; like playing with my wrestling action figures; like drawing for fun—goodnight hugs fell by the wayside without my noticing in the moment it had happened, and never to return.

I remember all of this while holding my son to my chest, bouncing seated on an exercise ball--a rhythm that soothes him when little else will. This practice, something I do every day now, will fade as he gets too big for it, doesn’t respond to the motion, or doesn’t need soothing in the same way anymore. He’s too little to remember these moments, but I know soon, there will be those memories does carry with him. A foundation for how he understands family and love and good in this world.

I promise myself I’ll hug him tight.