Encountering God at the Gas Station

Happy Memorial Day. Yesterday I had a chance encounter with a veteran. And God.

Yesterday I pulled in to a gas station, silently remarking to myself how strange it is to be grateful to find gas for $3.95 a gallon. I pulled up to a pump and immediately noticed that my gas tank was going to be several feet away from the fuel hose because the person parked at the next pump had pulled his vehicle forward so far it was essentially taking up two spaces.

I felt a moment of annoyance and thought of pulling around to another pump, but all appeared to be occupied. I sighed, mildly frustrated, and recognized that the annoyance and frustration were signs that I was in my “controlling and managing” mode, and so I tried to let it go and just eased forward as far as I could. I cut the engine.

After I started pumping my oh-so-cheap gas, I had a thought to wash my windshield. The day before I noticed it was rather filthy and tried cleaning it with the car’s washers, but the wipers weren’t strong enough to completely remove some of the larger bits of smashed bug that dotted the glass. These would only be erased by some serious manual scrubbing.

I thought about how you used to be able to get actual cleaning solution in the water to wash your windshield at service stations, but nowadays it seems gas stations will only supply a receptacle of dirty water, and I again recognized the lack of serenity in my thinking. I let forth another sigh, and mentally said a quick prayer for acceptance and courage and wisdom.

I received all three instantly.

 When I turned to retrieve the squeegee, I saw that it was already being retrieved by a man. A very old man. The man whose car was parked in two spaces was now taking the tool I needed to clean my windshield. But instead of annoyance, I felt curious. I watched him.

He walked with a cane, slowly and with great effort, and he leaned upon it as he bent down to retrieve the long handled squeegee. He wore baggy shorts that billowed around his skinny legs, and what appeared to be wool socks with sandals on his feet.

It took him a few moments to get the squeegee out of the water and return to a standing position. His hair was white and his skin was covered in liver spots, the badges of old age. It seemed to take him forever to move from the water receptacle to his car, the water from the sponge-side of the squeegee dripping down onto the pavement, some of it splashing on his sandaled feet. All the while, he leaned heavily on his cane. This was a difficult task for him.

Without really thinking what I was doing, I walked over to him, giving him a wide berth so that I did not startle him by sneaking up directly behind him.

“Sir?” I called as I approached. He did not hear me, and so I moved a little closer and called louder, “Sir? Can I help you with that?”

He was taking the squeegee to the hood of his car instead of the windshield, rubbing it against the surface slowly, awkwardly. He heard me and turned to look at me, his face a mask that I could not read. “What?” he said, in a voice that did not sound as old as he looked.

I gave him a friendly smile and said, “Can I wash that for you, sir?”

He looked at me and I could see by his face that he was tired. His blue eyes were milky and I briefly wondered about his vision and the fact that he was driving, yet he wore no glasses.  He did not smile back at me, but he did respond. “Can you wash this for me?” he said, more to himself than to me. “Can you wash this for me” he said again – more a statement than a question.

He sounded mad, and for a moment I wondered if I’d made a mistake in offering to help.

“Yes, I’d be happy to do that for–” I started, but he continued talking.

“I need the exercise,” he said to me. “My doctor says I need to exercise as much as possible. Every little bit helps, he says, so I need to exercise wherever I can”, he said.

I smiled, trying not to look as awkward as I felt. I glanced at his vehicle and noticed that the dash board was covered – and the backseat filled – with belongings. Personal care items, clothes, a blanket, medication, papers…

I had a strong suspicion that the man lived in this car.

I looked back at the man, and he was looking at me. “I hate to exercise,” he said to me.

I smiled again, and it felt genuine this time. “Well, I hate to exercise too,” I replied. “I’m with you on that one.”

He said, “My doctor tells me that I need to exercise to keep my strength, but the truth is, I just want to be done. I’m ninety-five and a V.A. outpatient, and my doctor tells me that I need to exercise but I’m tired.”

He looked back at his car and said again, “I’m tired. I just want to be done.”

I did not know how to respond to that. I glanced again at the interior of his car, then back at his weathered, tired, face with the milky eyes that still seemed to see me clearly, and wondered about this man’s life. I wondered if he had any family. I wondered if he had any friends. I wondered if he did, in fact, live in that car.

“I’ve got arthritis and my bones ache, and my leg is bum so its hard to get around,” he continued. “But I just keep going.” He turned back to look at me. “What else can I do, right?”

I glanced back at my own car, with my children in the back seat completely unaware of the encounter I was having, and felt an urge to climb back there and just hold them tight. I was suddenly very aware of how precious human connection is. As I stood before this tired man who had reached a point where he had seen enough, I felt a sense of overwhelming gratitude. In that moment, I realized that there is nothing in the universe I want more than the life I have and the people I hold in my heart. In that moment, I felt young and vibrant and full of love.

“But you asked if you could wash this for me,” the man went on, “and here I go on and on about myself. No, thank you for offering, but I can do this.” He looked me in the eye and gave me an appreciative nod, then turned back to his car.

I wanted to help this man, and heard a voice in my head say, “Help is what we ask for; service is what we render.” I reminded myself that I can not help anyone, but I can be of service to them, willingly and lovingly. I had offered to be of service to this man, and he declined. Still, I tried once more.

“Are you sure I can’t clean that for you, sir?” I asked, sensing the answer before I received it. “I would be happy to do it.”

He touched the squeegee to the hood of his vehicle and said without looking at me, “No, thank you, I’m just going to get this spot off the hood. Its a –” and he mumbled a few comments about whatever it was that he was cleaning off his car, which I could not hear or understand. Then he glanced back at me and said, “Thank you, though.”

I smiled at him one more time. “No problem. You have a good day, sir.”

He did not say anything further and turned back to his car. I walked back to my own car and returned the hose to the pump, collected my receipt, and got in my car.

As I drove away, it occurred to me what a gorgeously beautiful day it was, and I breathed deeply. I turned up the music for the kids and we sang. I looked out at the sun and the clouds and the trees and felt joy. I thought about my interaction with the man at the gas station and felt sadness. Mostly, I felt a deep appreciation for all of it. Everything.

Especially for my dirty windshield.


The Sandwich Graveyard

As a kid, I was never told “clean your plate” – there were no really solid rules about finishing every bit of food we were given in my house. We were fed, and when we felt we were done, we were done. I don’t recall ever being told to “eat it or else” – never smacked with the guilt of “all the starving children in Africa” or any of that. Food was served, and we ate it, without much concern for how much we finished. So it is a mystery to me why I felt that I had to hide the evidence of my dislike for sandwich crusts.

But hide it, I did.

My mom would fix me a sandwich – PB&J was the favorite, but every once in a while, bologna or cheese sandwiches were served – and I would eat it happily. I ate almost anything happily (although I nearly made my grandfather apoplectic in my refusal to eat gravy on my mashed potatoes – but that’s a story for another day). My mom is a pretty good cook, and the sandwiches she made never disappointed.

But I did not like the crusts. Well, more specifically, I did not like the bottom crusts – I ate the top and side crusts of the sandwiches with no complaint. But those bottom crusts were unpleasant to me. They were usually stiff and dry and rather cardboard-like in their texture, and I did not like to eat them.

I don’t remember ever asking my mom to trim the crusts off the bread. My own kids insist I do this before they’ll even consider eating any bread, and on the rare occasion I forget to trim the crust, one would think I had served them a dead rat on a stick, the way they freak out on me. But I can not recall ever asking to have the crust from my sandwiches removed.

So I would be given a sandwich and I would eat it happily – up until I got down to that stiff, dry, cardboard-y bottom crust. At that point, I had in my hand two pieces of dry bread with an adhesive layer of peanut butter holding them together. I could not eat them. They repulsed me.

But for some reason I don’t understand, I did not just take them back to my mom to dispose of them. And what’s even more bizarre – I did not just take them to the trash and dispose of them myself. Somehow, I believed returning to the kitchen with the crusts in hand would be trouble.

So I hid the crusts instead.

In the family room of the house I grew up in, there was a massive piece of furniture in the corner. This thing was huge, nearly floor-to-ceiling high, it seemed mountainous to me as a little boy. It was made of wood and was a deep brown, the wood stain so dark it seemed to remove light from the room. It had two long glass cabinet doors above two small wood cabinet doors below. In the center of the wood framing the glass doors was a brass key hole.

This giant piece of furniture was always referred to in our house as simply “The Gun Cabinet”.

My father kept hunting rifles in The Gun Cabinet, and that is all he kept in there, as far as I know. He was not a gun nut; not a rabid card-carrying NRA member; not a zombie-apocalypse survivor type; not a postal worker. He kept rifles for sane reasons: to stalk and shoot wild, harmless animals.

I don’t remember ever seeing The Gun Cabinet opened, and in fact, if I had I would likely have been surprised that it did. It was not used often. I never saw anyone put anything in it, or take anything out of it. And – most relevant to this story – I never saw anyone move it.

As long as I could remember, The Gun Cabinet never moved from the space in the corner. It sat there, a hulking sentinel in our family room, untouched, unmoving, year after year. It might as well have been built into the side of the house, for it never changed positions.

So it was understandable that, when I was looking for a place to hide the crusts of my sandwiches, I decided that the one- or two-inch space between The Gun Cabinet and the wall would be the most logical place.

I would eat my sandwich, get down to the stiff, dry, tasteless bottom crusts, and then I would casually saunter over to the corner of the family room where The Gun Cabinet stood as the silent arsenal in the War on Deer, and I would pitch the sandwich crust behind it.

Once it left my hand, it was in darkness, for The Gun Cabinet was so large that the space behind it was just a black void. The discarded crusts were literally out of sight, and thus, out of mind.

I hid sandwich crusts behind The Gun Cabinet for years.

How many years? I don’t know – not many. And not all of the crusts went there, I’m sure. If I were eating a sandwich outside, I might take the crust and feed it to birds, or pitch it into the creek to feed ducks or fish. But if I were indoors, eating it in the family room, and I didn’t want to be observed throwing the crust in the trash… behind The Gun Cabinet it went.

Eventually, I stopped doing this. I don’t know why I did, but somehow I just stopped tossing the crust behind furniture and would put them in the garbage like a normal person. I may have even started to eat them, I’m not sure. Maybe I grew up a bit. All I know is that, at some point, I did stop hiding the crusts behind The Gun Cabinet.

One day, I came home from school and walked into the family room to see a scene of chaos: the couch was on the opposite side of the room from where it used to be, chairs and end tables moved to new spaces, pictures removed from walls and set aside, and my mother was vacuuming the floor where the couch had been. Furniture polish and window cleaner were near the door.

My mother was re-arranging the family room. This was nothing new; she did this all the time. But something struck me as odd this time around. There was a space against the wall by the back door that had previously held pictures and a floor lamp – this space was now empty. It was a large space. It looked vacuumed and clean. It looked as though it was “prepared” for something.

I looked around the room. She looked like she was almost finished with the job of moving furniture. But that empty space by the back door… It looked ominous to me. It looked like trouble.

“How come this big space is empty?” I asked her.

My mom was preparing to hang a painting in a new location, and as she finished tapping the nail into the wall she turned to see what I was referring to. “Oh. The Gun Cabinet is gonna go there,” she said, and picked up the painting to hang on the newly inserted nail.

Memories flooded through my brain, pushed by the adrenaline every kid experiences when he realizes that he’s about to be busted. How many sandwich crusts were buried in that giant bread graveyard? Dozens? Hundreds? Thousands? I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t think straight. Icy horror crept down my neck and into my chest, encasing my heart and seizing my lungs. I suddenly had to pee. I turned to flee, wondering if I could make the state line by nightfall.

I heard her call after me, “Tell your father to come in here, I need him to help me move this!”

Fat chance, I thought to myself as I ran. Why don’t I just put the knot in my own noose while I’m at it?

I escaped the house and got on my bike, pedaling furiously down the driveway without a thought of where I was going. In my head I clearly had a vision:

Mom hires movers to come and move The Gun Cabinet because Dad’s passed out and won’t help. The movers are wearing coveralls with the moving company’s logo on the back. One wears a baseball cap, the other is bald and fat. The one in the cap is missing teeth and the bald fat one has a cigar in his mouth and tawks lyke dis. Mom directs them to the corner where The Gun Cabinet sits – the bulky, silent observer of all my bread crimes. She tells them to “Move that over there” and points to where she wants it to go. The movers – Baseball Cap and Fat Cigar – bend their knees and lift with their legs as all good movers do, and they heave The Gun Cabinet out of its seemingly permanent space for the first time since Noah built the Ark. Dust descends as it must have when King Tut’s tomb was opened. As it clears away, the only thing I see is the look on my mother’s face when she sees the decayed sandwich corpses that were buried there, only now she is not my mother but instead Ms. Gulch from the Wizard of Oz, and Baseball Cap and Fat Cigar are the flying monkeys that do the bidding of the Wicked Witch, and my mom cackles to them: “Count them! Count how many crusts there are! He shall get a beating for every one of them! Find him! Find him!”

I returned home at some point, walked into the house, and I went straight to my room to hang out while awaiting my fate. At some point, when the flying monkeys failed to appear, nor the cops, nor the SWAT team, I went downstairs and when I entered the family room, it seemed like a new space. All cleaned, re-arranged – it was a big transformation.

And The Gun Cabinet now stood guard over the back door, which somehow seemed fitting. It would be very convenient when we needed to retreat through the back of the house to grab our ammo as we fled the Great Woodland Animal Uprising that was sure to come one day. The Gun Cabinet was dusted, the glass shiny and sparkling – and it was nearly flush with the wall. There was no space for anything behind it.

As it turned out, I don’t think anything was ever said about the sandwich crusts. I was never talked to, no beatings were received, not even a scolding, as I recall. Dinnertime came, and we ate, and nobody spoke of The Gun Cabinet or any sort of decomposed surprises of the day. It was never mentioned, then or ever. We tended to sweep a lot of stuff under the rug in that house.

Maybe that explains the whole sandwich crust thing.

haiku for mother’s day


pain, sweet and sacred
a fiercely powerful love
woman for her child


Hugs, Not Rx

“Health Care” – two words that bring to mind calm and peaceful images, like “atomic blast” or “prison riot”. Few subjects seem to have such a polarizing effect on friendly conversation these days. Relax – I have absolutely no interest in weighing in on that hot-button topic. But today I was reminded of a series of health-care-related incidents of an unusual sort – incidents that, although quite simple, utterly amazed me when they occurred. This is a story about three doctors – three men who showed me that my whole view of medical practitioners was very limited, and who –perhaps unknowingly– restored my faith in mankind.

I’ve had a lot of doctors over my lifetime. Some better than others, naturally – doctors are just like any other segment of human society in that you’ll have your really good ones like Heathcliff Huxtable and your really bad ones like Hannibal Lecter. And while those are two fictional examples, there is surely no shortage of evildoing doctors in the history books. But I would imagine that those are the rarities, and that most doctors would be considered at least respectable, if not benevolent.

Some of the doctors I’ve had were flat-out brilliant, and some seemed rather out of touch with modern times and probably started practicing medicine when leeches were still considered a cure-all. Some were wise and instilled instant comfort and confidence, and some seemed young and green — the ink on the medical license probably not even dry yet. Some were very thorough and took their time with me, and some seemed to be working in an HMO medical factory where we patients were herded along like cattle for a seven-minute consultation where no eye contact was made.

Throughout my life, my experiences with doctors all had one consistent theme: I saw doctors as service providers. I never really thought about the human beings they were under the white coats. I never thought about them as regular people who just happened to have a bunch of letters after their name. I went to them when I had a problem, and I expected they would know what to do to fix it. I never really saw them in another light until two years ago.

Two years ago, when my marriage ended, I was a mess. I think anyone who goes through divorce can probably admit to having days where it seemed like the world was crashing down on them, and they were simply at their worst emotionally, mentally, and physically. I was no exception. It was the hardest period of my life, and while the emotional and mental difficulties were expected, I was unprepared for the physical effects the grief would have.

I couldn’t sleep. I was a ball of anxiety as I went through each day spinning on thoughts ranging from fears of financial devastation to forlorn heartbreak to wrathful plots of revenge. It was hard to drift into a peaceful slumber when, just as sleep was about to engulf me, I would think of a new expense to worry about, or I would invent a new scenario of “what really went on behind my back”, or I would come up with a new way of committing murder without getting caught. Sleep just doesn’t enter that kind of neighborhood.

I lost weight – which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for me, and in fact I’ll be the first to say that The Divorce Diet is just about the most effortless form of weight loss there is. [I envision an infomercial about The Divorce Diet in which I give testimony, my broad smile resembling The Joker without make-up, with a “before” photo of a heavier me superimposed in the background; I stare sort of wide-eyed and crazy into the camera, saying “It was effortless! The weight just fell off of me – it simply disappeared! Sort of like my hopes and dreams of retirement, or any sense of who I was as a man!”]

Every time I looked in the mirror, I would see this haunted visage staring back at me. I barely recognized that man (“Hey, I lost my double-chin! Thanks, Divorce Diet!”). I had dark circles under eyes that were perpetually red-rimmed, and though I looked like a wreck, I didn’t care much about that. However, my heartbeat felt irregular and I always seemed short of breath. When I started to notice my hands trembled slightly, I realized that I should probably see a doctor. Not for myself, for at the time I didn’t really care what happened to me; but for my kids, because they needed their Dad.

I made an appointment to see my General Practitioner, a man about my age who I will call Dr. Justin. I had been a patient of Dr. Justin for several years and felt comfortable with him – he embodies all of the “good” qualities that I think a doctor should have: smart, kind, thorough, friendly. I genuinely liked him, and thought he would be able to give me some advice on what to do about the lack of sleep, the shortness of breath, the shakes.

After being checked in and getting weighed and blood-pressure-checked by the nurse, I sat in the examining room in a daze. All my days were spent in a daze back then. After a quick knock, Dr. Justin came in, smiling and a handshake ready. He asked how I was and I said simply, “Okay”.

Maybe it was something in my voice, maybe it was the dark circles and red-rimmed eyes, but he evidently saw that I was not, in fact, “okay”. He frowned slightly and sat on the little wheeled stool and looked at his computer pad that has taken the place of clipboards in twenty-first century doctor’s offices.

“Wow, looks like you’ve lost some weight,” he said, looking at the nurse’s notation. “That’s great.” He looked up at me and again must have seen the dark clouds brimming there, for he then said, “So. What’s going on?” He didn’t say “What are you here for today?” or “What seems to be the problem?” or any of the standard questions. Simply, “What’s going on?” Casual and friendly, it put me at ease.

I let out a deep sigh and told him what was going on with me. He listened. He just listened and waited for me to tell what I had to tell without interrupting. When I was done, he was again simple, casual, and friendly. “Wow, I’m sorry to hear that. I know how hard it must be right now.”

He then went on to talk about what he has seen in men our age, when dealing with stress, crisis, life-changing events. He spoke from his position as a doctor treating men just like me, and I could tell he spoke the truth. His words were not meant to make me feel better, they were just meant to give me awareness, to share experience. I liked that he didn’t treat me as a victim; he just treated me as the wounded man I was. Wounded, but still a man.

We spoke for nearly forty-five minutes (which is an eternity by today’s doctor’s office-visit standards) before he even talked of treatment. He gave suggestions on what I could do to manage and cope with what the conditions of life were presenting me at the time. Eating better will help with sleep. Sleep will help with the shortness of breath and the shaky hands. Exercise will help most of all, he said, and suggested I find a new activity to try.

“Take this opportunity to re-invent yourself,” he said. “Do something you’ve always wanted to do. Try new things. You’ve got a lot of life ahead of you, and you’re healthy for the most part. Think of things that you want to do, and go do them. You’ll get through this.”

I knew our time was at an end, and there was really nothing left to say anyway. I felt tears want to well up at his last few kind words, and I held them back. Too many people had seen me cry lately, I didn’t want to add to the list in my doctor’s office. I took a deep breath, stood up, and said, “Thank you, Doctor.”

He stood as I did, and I reached to shake his hand like I always do. But instead of grasping my hand, he opened his arms and embraced me. My doctor gave me a hug.

I was so stunned by it that I barely had time to register that I was being hugged and thus hug him back before it was over. I had never been hugged by one of my “service providers” before, and I was completely surprised. I felt a lump form in my throat and I didn’t think I’d be able to talk, but as I stepped back I managed to croak another “Thanks” before picking up my paperwork and heading for the door.

“Be well,” he said as I walked away. I looked back with a nod and what felt like a genuine smile. As I checked out and took the elevator down, I marveled over that hug. So unexpected, so out of the ordinary, so appreciated.

The following week, I sat in my therapist’s office, a man I’ll call Dr. Kerry. I had been seeing him for years at this point, so he had counseled me through all the recent months of my marriage disintegrating, but this was my first time seeing him since I’d hit the “emotional bottom” of the separation process.  This was the first time I’d seen him since I learned the truth about what I now simply call “The Betrayal”.

I usually get 45 minutes in his office, and it is always a useful 45 minutes. When I leave Dr. Kerry’s office, I have something I didn’t have when I got there – some new insight or awareness that had not occurred to me before.  He knows me well, and he’s good at what he does: what he does for me is help me to see that I’m really okay.

As he ushered me in to his office and I took my standard place on the couch across from his chair, he could tell by one look at me I was not okay that day.

“What’s going on today?” he asked quietly, speaking in a soothing tone that is like the cool side of a pillow on a hot night. I started talking, then raging, then weeping, then talking some more. I was all over the place in my narration, covering the whole range of the human emotional condition. I could’ve been speaking in tongues for all I know – I only knew that I was in pain and it hurt badly. He mostly listened, and offered comments where comment was needed.

I spent a long time dumping a whole mess of emotion into his office that afternoon, until he eventually said to me –in the gentlest way possible—“We gotta stop there.” I looked at the clock and saw that a full 60 minutes had passed – something that had never happened before. I also saw that I had used up the whole box of tissues that sat on the end table by the couch. I nodded and wiped my eyes with the last tissue I held in my hands, and tossed it into the wastebasket as I stood up.

He, too, stood up at the same time, and once again, as I moved to leave his office, my doctor stepped forward and gave me a hug. I had been seeing this man for several years, but up until that moment I had only ever shook his hand. That day, he apparently saw something that Dr. Justin also saw – a deeply sad man who needed to be embraced by another human being.

I hugged him back briefly, and again managed a “Thanks” as I let go, but as I pulled away, he held me by the shoulders at arms length and looked me in the eye. He spoke clearly, directly, and with a gentle force that was meant to get past all the negative messages I fed myself. “You will be okay,” he said intently, his eyes kind and clear and certain. He half-nodded and raised his eyebrows as if to ask if I understood, continuing to lock me in his gaze. I nodded silently, then turned and headed for the door.

I felt slightly embarrassed, but tremendously grateful. I felt like I was not alone.

About a month later, I had my six-month check-up with my dentist. I’ll call him Dr. Xerxes. This man has been my dentist for nearly fifteen years, and every six months he gets an update on my life. I was nearly four months past-due for this particular check-up, so it had been almost a year since I’d last seen him – a long, dark year. I’d postponed my appointment for months because I just couldn’t get it together to go, I was so stuck in my misery. I finally got to the “Life goes on” stage of progression, and made good on my appointment.

Dr. Xerxes came breezing in to the exam room, all smiles and perfect white teeth, and said “Hey man – wow, you look great! You’ve really lost some weight!” he exclaimed.

“Yeah, I guess I have,” I said, thinking that forty pounds is more than a “guess”.

His eyes widened and he flashed those perfect teeth again, and said, “Well, you look great! How’d you do it?” I noticed that he, too, was looking much slimmer than the last time I’d seen him. “You working out?”

“Well,” I said, and suddenly remembered that my former wife was also his patient, and would likely be seeing him soon if she hadn’t already, and so I chose my words carefully. “I’m – we’re — separated right now, going through a divorce, so it just kinda happened.” I shrugged awkwardly and smiled equally so. “The weight loss, I mean. It just kinda happened.”

His smile faded from his mouth but not from his eyes – they still shone with bright awareness and knowledge. “Ahh,” he said, nodding sagely, “The Grief Diet. I know all about that,” he said, and took a step back and gestured to his body.  “I lost 25 pounds on it,” he said, confirming my suspicion that he was slimmer than I remembered. “My wife and I divorced last year.”

Suddenly the room equalized and I felt completely at ease with Dr. Xerxes, and it occurred to me that he was always good at helping me feel at ease when I’m in his chair. I guess this explains why I’ve been seeing him for fifteen years. He’s also good at what he does.

Instead of having his hygienist do my cleaning that day, he opted to do it himself – a first in all my years as his patient. He cleaned my teeth himself as he talked with me about my situation, his experience, the commonalities we shared. He commiserated with me, he supported me, he made me laugh. He invited me for drinks if I needed to talk. I was moved beyond words at this outpouring of concern and care from my dentist.

And again –perhaps not so surprisingly this time—upon check-out, he stepped toward me, thanking me for coming in, and opened his arms to embrace me, which I did, much less awkwardly than the previous two times with the previous two doctors. This time felt natural, as if it were not unheard of for professional health care providers – even male professional health care providers– to hug their patients.

Three hugs from three doctors. Simple gestures that had an extraordinary effect on me. I have not forgotten them, and my appreciation for these men increased exponentially as a result. Since then, I have discovered that men in all walks of life are not only capable of hugging another man without any sense of awkwardness, but do it regularly, intentionally, as part of who they are. Today I am happy to count myself as one of them – a man who is alive and kicking again, who does not carry the fear and pain and sadness that shuts men down and hardens their hearts.

Everyone, everywhere, at some point or other, needs to be embraced by another human being. And when a person is at his lowest point, that need becomes acute. These three doctors of various disciplines understood this, and when I was at my lowest, they seemed to know exactly what was needed. It was more useful and effective than any pill they could have prescribed. I wonder if they teach this in medical school. If not, maybe they should. 

Today, I hug everyone, warmly and genuinely, because I want to – because I have love and compassion in my heart. When I greet someone, I hug them. When I say goodbye to someone, I hug them. When I congratulate someone, I hug them. When I thank someone, I hug them. I find that I usually hug at least one human being every day – as much for myself as for them.

In terms of health care, one could call it “preventative maintenance”. Hugs are good medicine. No insurance necessary.