Photo of the sign i used, taken in the airplane with my cell phone immediately after

The Time I Accidentally Hugged a Bombing Victim’s Relative at an Airport

I was flying the day of the Boston Marathon bombings. The story below is a slightly revised version of a Facebook post I wrote on my phone that night, with the image above.

I can’t quite pinpoint what compelled me to make my sign and start giving people hugs in the Chicago Midway Airport tonight.

Part of it was how powerless I was feeling all day amidst the chaos of the Boston bombing, and how powerless it seemed a lot of the people in my Facebook and Twitter feeds seemed to be feeling as well.

Part of it was how frustrating it was that every television in the airport was tuned to CNN and CNN felt it necessary to replay the footage of the explosions incessantly, sometimes zoomed in and in super slow motion.

Part of it was how non-stop the senseless violence and hate like this has been on my radar lately; both due to the focus of my work with It’s Pronounced Metrosexual and Gamers Against Bigotry, but also because it’s been tragedy after tragedy in the media this past year.

It was all of that and more.

I read Patton Oswalt’s Facebook status and thought it was fantastic. I saw the Mr. Roger’s quote a dozen times and was similarly moved. And I saw other people bringing up the fact that violence like this happens elsewhere in the world on a daily basis, and (to borrow a phrase from one of my fellow TED talkers (Daniel Schwartzman, here’s his talk) at the conference this weekend) we need to “expand our moral imaginations” and start learning empathy for humans, not just humans we are directly connected to. All of it was so right, amidst the wrong.

But I didn’t know what I could do.

As I found myself sketching out my sign, my heartbeat began to quicken and my hands shook. I’m not sure what compelled me, but it felt right. I knew it was right. But I was incredibly nervous for feeling so right. I’m a decent artist, but I could barely draw legible block letters. As much as folks might assume this type of thing is something I would be totally comfy doing, it’s not. At all. But I didn’t give myself a choice.

I walked to the busiest intersection in the terminal, plopped my bag down, and — before the voice in my head could tell me this isn’t socially acceptable, that I should bail — I opened my notebook, presented my sign, and the next hours passed in an instant.

I gave dozens and dozens of hugs to as many different types of people. I gave double-armers & one-handers, waist-outs and full-embraces, bro-hugs with bros and tiny kid hugs with tiny kids, group hugs, got surprise hugged, crying hugs & laughing hugs & laugh-crying hugs, wheelchair hugs, God-bless-you hugs, lift-you-up-and-twirl-you hugs, one-patters & way-too-longers, and one entire-family-at-once hug.

A lot of people weren’t comfortable with hugs but were generous with smiles. I’ll call those smile-hugs.

A lot of people asked me if I had a friend or family member in Boston, or if I was a member of a church and that’s why I was doing this. When my answer to both was “no” the hugs were extra-real hugs. You can feel it when someone means a hug. It’s like they are hugging your heart.

Staff members at the airport restaurant nearby led cheers for hugs, encouraging more hugs.

A boy who couldn’t have been more than 10 years old walked up to me all by himself. He looked at my sign for a moment, looked at me for a moment, smiled, gave me a hug, then said, “Thank you for caring.” I was amazed.


Mid-hug, an older woman began crying into my shoulder and squeezed me tight. She grabbed my shoulders, pushed me back, looked me in the eyes, and explained, barely audible:

She was on her way to Boston, flying alone, on a flight that she wasn’t expecting she’d be on — a flight she never thought she’d have to take. Her [god-?] son was one of the victims of the bombings.

That rocked me. It’s currently rocking me again. I’m being re-rocked.

I’m crying right now, on the flight I almost missed because I was too busy hugging strangers to hear them calling my name over the airport PA, tears in my eyes as I’m five miles above some quiet midwestern town typing this note.

I couldn’t have possibly expected that would happen; I wouldn’t have dared.

But now I know why I did this.

I did this for her. I did this for every other person I hugged, or who I smile-hugged, who took a photo of me or who rolled their eyes when they saw my sign. I did this for myself.

I did it to remind us all, like Patton and Mr. Rodgers reminded us, that there is more light in this world than there is darkness.

We are only as powerless as we are silent.

[here’s a link to the original Facebook post]