Keep Your Hands To Yourself

I grew up in a family of big time huggers. That’s right. My family liked to hug.

A lot.

We liked to hug each other. We liked to hug our friends. And quite frankly, if the situation called for it, we had absolutely no problem hugging complete strangers. It’s just what we did. No matter the occasion, chances were, at my house it was going to end with your face smushed awkwardly (albeit lovingly) into someone’s shoulder, neck, cheek, or (God help you) bosom, while they squeezed the holy living heck out of you. It didn’t really seem to matter if it were the celebration of a birthday, getting a good grade on a test, or even something as ridiculous as the successful spearing of the last pea on a dinner plate without sending it flying across the table….either way, a hug was in order. It just was.

Now, knowing full well that not every occasion called for a full on embrace, we also found other ways to display our feelings. In fact, one of the best parts of being a middle school teacher is how close to home I feel when I walk through the hallways between classes. Why? Because middle school boys have a strange way of showing their affection for one another. They replace hugging with jabbing, poking, pinching, squeezing, wrestling, fist bumping, headlocking, and body slamming. I can’t tell you how often I’ve had to give the gentle reminder to Keep your hands to yourself! to a group of unsuspecting boys while walking down the corridor. And while I’ve never actually been engaged in a full on body slam, many behaviors exhibited by middle school boys were always regular occurrences at my house over the years. The bottom line was, come heck or high water, we were going to show our admiration and appreciation for each other even if it meant acting like a group of adolescents.

Having been made aware of my history, is it any wonder, then, that I’ve continued with the family tradition of being openly affectionate in just about any given situation? Well, it’s true. And for the most part, it’s never really been a problem.

But let’s talk about that “most part” shall we?

It was one of the hottest days of the summer and my son and I were craving watermelon. Knowing it would take twice as long if we went to the local grocery store because I would talk to a lot of people, my son begged me to go to a market in a neighboring town. Not expecting to see anyone I recognized, I was absolutely thrilled when I ran into my old friend, Peter Jenkins, who I knew had recently been battling cancer. Peter’s a member of a big family in the town where I live, and over the years, I’ve had the privilege of teaching with his awesome wife, Nona, as well as the chance to teach his two wonderful children and many of his nieces and nephews. He’s a man I’d known for at least fifteen years, although I didn’t see him very often, and at that point in time it had been several years since we’d last run into each other. Even though I’d heard he’d gone into remission and was hopefully over the worst, I was stunned to see him looking so healthy and strong. Not being one to hold back, I latched onto his arm with the same force a parent might use while trying to pull a child out of the path of an eighteen wheeler, and keeping my hand firmly in place, immediately squealed, “Oh my goodness, you look sooooooo great! It’s so nice to see you!”

After talking for a few minutes about our busy summer schedules, without even realizing it, I found myself squeezing Peter’s arm again and saying,”Honestly, you look incredible. I just can’t tell you how thrilled that makes me!” After thanking me politely, the conversation moved on to a discussion of the fact that the summer was going by far too quickly. However, because I still found myself unable to believe my eyes, it wasn’t long before I was gripping his shoulders and blurting, “I’m not kidding, I don’t think you’ve ever looked better!” Once again shrugging off the compliment with a slight laugh, Peter turned the conversation to trips he still hoped to take with his family before school and sports practices started up again.

It was at that point that the conversation came to a natural lull, but rather than saying my goodbyes like most people would have done, I decided, just in case I hadn’t made it clear, to let Peter know one more time just how fantastic I thought he looked. Grabbing his hand and holding on for dear life, I looked right at him, and because I was actually getting emotional, had to compose myself just a bit before sputtering something along the lines of, “Seeing you has made my whole week. It makes my heart happy to see you looking SO amazing!”

Unfortunately, it was that last gesture, the grasp of the hand, that made me realize I’d very unintentionally made Peter uncomfortable. Although he didn’t come right out and say it, nor did he openly react to that final touch, the subtle change in his expression let me know that enough was enough. Thinking it best not to apologize for fear it would make the situation more uncomfortable, I decided to say my goodbyes and I headed off in search of a watermelon.

Minutes later, while standing in line at the register, I looked over and noticed Peter at the service counter. Only I suddenly realized that the man I was looking at wasn’t Peter Jenkins. While it was true that the man standing there was the same one with whom I’d just had a very up close and personal conversation, something in his expression forced me to face the fact that the person I’d been talking to was not at all who I thought it was. Working hard to figure out who I’d actually been speaking with, I immediately began to feel woozy.

And it wasn’t because of the heat.

It was because the realization of just who I’d been talking to had suddenly become crystal clear. For the man I’d been talking to wasn’t my old friend Peter Jenkins at all, but another man named Niles Parker from the town in which I live; a person I’d only really spoken with once, and even then only for a few seconds in a crowded auditorium. A man I’d not actually called by name and who had absolutely no idea that I’d mistaken him for someone else. The very same man who…brace yourself…happened to be the Chairman of the school board in the town in which I teach.

Lord, have mercy on my soul.

Yes. It’s true. The man who held the head position on the school board in the town in which I was, in fact, an educator, was the very same one that only moments before I’d manhandled to my heart’s content…all while staring directly into his eyes and telling him over and over (and over and over and over) that he looked absolutely sensational.

Now, I ask you… does one apologize for something like that?

My first thought, naturally, was to run. To run to my car and try to forget that the whole incident ever occurred, but I knew myself well enough to know that I wouldn’t sleep until I was able to somehow explain myself. Within a few seconds I made the decision to be brave and go apologize for having repeatedly groped him. However, when I turned to get out of the line so I could head over to the service counter, I noticed that he was no longer anywhere in sight.

Fighting off the image of a distraught Niles curled up and rocking back and forth in a corner of the supermarket somewhere after succumbing to the horrors of what I’d just put him through, I spent my time waiting in line considering what my next move should be. I decided the best way to handle the situation was to call my friend Bonnie who I knew was close with both Niles and his wonderful wife. I would explain what had happened, and ask her to let them know I was completely mortified.

Several minutes later I walked out of the store feeling somewhat appeased, but as I made my way into the scorching heat, I saw Niles standing near his car in the parking lot. Throwing my current plan aside, I decided to once again take matters into my own hands (not literally this time if I could absolutely help it) and set things straight. As I scurried across the parking lot calling to him, he noticed me in hot pursuit, and with all the calm and serenity a person being approached by a frenzied Freddy Krueger might display, he was doing his very best to get his car unlocked so he could make his escape.

Moments later, when I finally arrived at his vehicle sweating profusely and panting in a very unladylike fashion like the vixen I am, the poor guy turned to face me. Keeping one hand noticeably on the door handle while the other, no doubt, held his key firmly in place should he need to fend me off, he probably expected me to crack open a bottle of wine right then and there before asking him if he’d meet me for dinner that night. Instead, I just stood there catching my breath and trying to figure out what to say next. Having never been in the position of needing to apologize for fondling a virtual stranger to the point of obvious despair, I wasn’t exactly sure where to begin. I mean, what in the world was I supposed to say? “I’m sorry…I thought you were my friend who has cancer”? Even though it was the truth, it just seemed like the wrong thing to say for so many reasons. And even though I didn’t go through with sharing the exact specifics that led to the case of mistaken identity, I did manage to huff a ridiculous apology and a muttered explanation of the fact that I really did just think he was someone else I knew. After hearing my explanation, he politely accepted my apology, and after we shared a few more moments of painfully awkward laughter during which I continued to pant and slobber (how’s that for sultry?), we went our separate ways.

God love that man.

When all was said and done, and the situation was finally resolved, I was forced to ask myself a few questions. I guess you could say I tried to get a handle on the situation. I found myself wondering if it had been entirely necessary to paw at Niles with the same vigor one might use while trying to warm up Nanook of the North upon his return from the frozen arctic tundra. The very obvious answer was……probably not. And had it been absolutely critical to compliment the poor man on his robustness to the point of making me seem like a world class stalker? No. Not really.

But no worries, because the biggest punishment of all, I assure you, was the fact that even if it were only for a few minutes, Niles Parker, a highly respected family man and pillar of the community in which I live (oh, and let’s not forget Chairman of the school board), potentially thought I was hitting on him right there in the middle of the grocery store. And to add insult to injury, I was doing so while holding the hand of my eight year old son and standing against the backdrop of two enormous displays of Vienna Sausages and B&M Baked Beans rivaled in size only by the Great Pyramids themselves. Does that scream seductress or what?

Looking back on the experience, nearly three years after that ill fated supermarket encounter, I’m happy to report that despite our interesting beginning, I now have the privilege of calling Niles Parker my friend. He and his wife Sonja, and their three wonderful children, are some of the best people I know.

I’m also over the moon to report that my friend Peter Jenkins, who finds this whole debacle to be an absolute riot, has been in remission for the past few years. In fact, it was after having shared this story with him that I decided it might be okay to write about it in a blog one day. Since making the decision to do so, I’ve had the opportunity to ask many questions that I might not have normally asked, and as a result, have had the wonderful opportunity to get to know him better. He’s always so responsive to my inquiries and honest about the experiences that he’s had. The strength he exudes about the particular kind of cancer he had (rectal) is humbling in so many ways, and I’ve been amazed by his sense of humor about the whole situation. In fact, in my most recent communication with him, his question to me was,”Hey, you’re a runner, right? What do you say to starting a Rectal Run? Let’s kick cancer in the butt!” After I stopped laughing, I told him that he should be writing a blog, not me. His response was that it’s a combination of laughter, tears, and a little bit of anger that help him cope with the emotional side of having had cancer.

Peter, like so many of my friends who have proven to be warriors in their unexpected battles against cancer, is a reminder of all that is truly important.There are so many people whose lives have been interrupted by illness, but who have refused to let that illness win. It’s those people that remind me, especially when I’m “sweating the small stuff,” that everything is a matter pf perspective. They’re truly heroes in every sense of the word, and I continue to be inspired by their positivity and resilience..

Finally…I’d like to go ahead and show you just why it was so easy to confuse these two great men. On the left is Peter Jenkins, and on the right is Niles Parker. As you can see, they clearly share some similar features. While I can’t go as far as to say that mistaking them for one another could have happened to anyone, I hope you can see how it might have occurred.

Jenkins             Parker

In my defense, considering my upbringing, I think I should be given a small amount of credit for not pulling the poor, unsuspecting Niles into a bearhug that day and mauling him half to death. I’d also like to point out that I complimented Niles in the store that day using words like incredibleamazing, and fantastic. It’s not like I stood there shooting come-hither looks and showing a little leg while telling him he looked scrumptious, luscious, or delectable for crying out loud. No, I kept it classy…as is my nature. So, as much as it pains me to think about it….the experience I had in the store that day really could’ve been worse. Not much worse. But worse nonetheless.

In closing, I’d like to return to where I began…I’m a hugger, so excuse me for living. I hug. I hug a lot. I hug when I’m happy. I hug when I’m sad. I hug when I’m scared. I even hug when I’m hungry, for the love of God….it’s just something I do. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that if hugging is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

That being said, I’m pretty lucky this story had a happy ending.The bottom line is I made a mistake. A gigantic mistake. But even Ben Franklin himself once said, “Do not fear mistakes. You will know failure. Continue to reach out.” That’s pretty good advice if you ask me, and except for the reaching out part, I think they’re words I should live by. And while I don’t pretend to put myself in rank with great men like Ben Franklin, I do have some advice of my own to offer that goes a little something like this…..”Do not fear being affectionate. You will know failure. Continue to reach out. But not literally. When in doubt, (and even, perhaps, when you’re not), it’s sometimes best to keep your hands to yourself.”