My family consists of my daughter, my son and me. Yes, I have brothers and sisters, but they’re all geographically distant. It tends to “center” one’s focus on one’s family.
I was reminded of this when I saw a commercial. A dad was seeing off his daughter to college. The car starts off, then stops after going about 20 feet. The daughter re-emerges from the car and runs to hug her dad goodbye. As she turns again to leave, the dad says, “Honey [three second pause as the father obviously struggles with words], I love you.” It was obvious that the dad felt awkward saying it. The daughter smiles and goes back to hug her dad again, as she replies, beaming, “I love you too, Dad.” The camera pans around to show the tears in the dad’s eyes.
The entire commercial presents the “I love you” exchange as kind of a breakthrough/milestone for the dad and his daughter, and I couldn’t help thinking of how foreign all that is to my kids and me.
I don’t think my kids have ever experienced a day in which they didn’t hear “I love you” from me. A day where that was possible, that is. My daughter did basic training — no contact with me except from my daily snail-mail letter to her. My son did did a week of a sleepover camp at which contact with his family was strongly discouraged.
Our sign-off with each other on the phone is always some variation of “Love you, bye.” And our last words to each other are always something like “I love you.” Yes, it’s become a bit of a habit, a ritual, a tradition… but if you have to have habits, this one strikes me as an okay one… like praying.
Yes, we’re saps. Big, bad, affectionate, no-bones-about-it saps, and we don’t care who knows it or who sees it.
I’ve observed, with great satisfaction, that my children — now adults, or nearly adults — have adopted the same communications style with each other.
There are, as with all things, reasons for these things. Here’s at least one important reason why I adopted this kind of love-stuffed communications style with my family: Years ago I lost a brother to a car accident. I was 21, he was 19. It hurt in a way that remains indescribable, except maybe to say that the day after, the entire world, and everything in it, looked different… and wrong. The colors were wrong, the wind hurt on my skin, food and drink tasted wrong, and horrible. Daytime was an off-kilter miasma of painful pinprick tortures, and night was just steady, non-stop misery. The desire to break down in sobs was always near the top of my awareness. When I did sleep, it was to re-awaken in my mind to dreams filled with pain, and the visceral understanding of what “loss” means.
One of the things that haunted me was that I couldn’t remember the last thing I’d said to my brother. Still can’t. Was it, “I love you?” Was it, “Good luck?” “See you soon?” Who knows? I don’t.
I don’t need for “I love you” to be the last thing my kids hear from me, but I do want them to know that I love them — as I wish I could be sure my brother knew it! — and I make sure that I tell them, not only in little ceremonials like “I love you” sign-offs, but in other ways too. I tell them why I love them, and that means I have to have thought about it. I tell them what it all means to my mind and heart. It means that I think of them a lot, that I wonder what and how they’re doing, that I love to be around them, that I love the people they’ve become and are still becoming. I tell them of the dumb or wrong things I’ve done, and of the effect those boneheaded things had, and still have, on my life… so they can avoid such nitwitteries, so they can have a bigger, better, nicer, healthier, happier life than the one I’ve had. Because I really, really do love them. And there’s more. I tell them when something has thrilled me, or annoyed me, because I want to tell them. To tell them. I tell them when I’ve done something well — it happens! — so they don’t think of me as a complete clod… since they also know of all the doltish things I’ve done. I don’t want them to think they’re hearing recommendations and advice from a loser, because they’re not. Love ain’t easy, but it is like a round of golf. You fail a lot, you succeed once in a while, you have moments of wonderful triumph, and ignominious, even embarrassing disappointment, and at the end you’re bone tired, and able to look back with great satisfaction at the good shots, consign the bad to forgetfulness… and look forward to more of all of it. I tell them the most important thing of all: that everything, no exceptions, is an opportunity to be closer to God, so everything, even loss or defeat, is a blessing, a gift, sometimes hidden from the first glance, but there nonetheless… because life itself is a blessing and a gift, and everything they live is fully a part of that gift. A part of the structure of the entire universe that’s here to serve as a marvel to our senses, and to give us wonderment, and to display for us the incomprehensibly immense, and to show us that, like everything, it’s all never anything less than an opportunity to be closer to God. I tell them all that, because I want them to understand it and internalize it. Because I love them.
All that and more are the communications part of love. Showing it is also a part of it. They know that no matter what happens, I’m here for them. They know that no matter the time of day, my door is open to them, or I’ll go out and get them, or if I have it, I’ll give them what they need. Those are the basics, but there’s more. I talk with them about my plans. They’ve both told me that they want me to come live with them when I retire, but I know they haven’t really thought that all the way through, so they have the details of my retirement plans, including how I plan to leave them a real bequest to help them on their way when I’m gone. They always protest, “But, Dad, you’re coming to live with me, right?” I reply, “Thank you, and if that’s how we do it, then my savings will be a very nice rental for you.”
This love thing entails just a whole lot of thinking, planning, wondering, what-iffing, discussing, aligning thoughts, ideals and values, and more! It’s why I’ve always said that “daddy” is a verb.
When you love someone, you do it. All of it, and you take real joy in doing it, and you take satisfaction from achieving some of the things that you plan out for yourself, plans that you formulate with their future, their happiness, their lives, loves and souls in mind. Plans that work for you only if they also work for them.
I hope that my example’s a good one for them, and that they take the best from it and run full-speed with it to have long, wonderful, prosperous, healthy, happy lives.
Because I love them. And, we’re a big bunch of saps like that.