How Do You Say, “I Love You?”

One night a few years ago, I met up with a former professor, the chair of my dissertation committee, for dinner. He had come to Northern Virginia for the funeral of an old high school friend and had reached out to see if we might get a meal while he was in town.

At dinner, we talked mainly about my work and his, the state of the graduate program, the state of our profession, and so on. Along the way, Tony shared a bit about the funeral service he had just come from. I remember him saying how it was clear from the eulogies and conversations throughout the day that there were people who really knew the old friend and then there were people who didn’t.

“You know how it goes,” he said. “The people who were close to him talked about him. The people who weren’t as close talked about what he did for them.”

That conversation stayed with me in a way that only some conversations do.

A few years later, I was sitting in the audience of my daughter’s 3rd grade Thanksgiving celebration. Each of the kids had worked on a letter of thanksgiving to someone in their lives, and, one by one, they stood up and read their sweet messages to the class and visiting parents.

Most letters started off with, “I am thankful for my mom because…” And, most went on to say things like “…she takes me to all my games and practices” and “…she is always there for me when I need help” and “…she takes care of me when I am sick.” Moms were thanked for giving hugs and making dinners and buying stuff and cleaning things and helping with homework and so on. Each letter was touching and sincere and beautifully delivered.

Then, toward the end of the celebration, one classmate with special needs came to the front of the class and read (with some assistance) his letter.

“I love my mom because she has really blue eyes,” he said. “And her smile is so big and happy. I know she isn’t tall, but she can reach the things she needs. She laughs a lot. Sometimes my mom dances in the kitchen…”

There were no dry eyes in the room.

I thought of the conversation with Tony years back.

Without question, this boy’s mom also did all sorts of things for him each day. Yet, all we witnessed from her son that day was how dearly and how tenderly he loved and knew who she was. The specialness of her. Her essence. Her beauty. Her light. Her.

I won’t claim to be so pure in my own approach to loving others. All too often, I catch myself thinking or writing or saying, “I love you because [insert any number of things this person does for me]…”. Even as a mom, as I reflect on and express my love for my children, I know I can default to thinking about how my love for them is — in one way or another — actually about me (e.g. “I love you because you gave me the opportunity to be a mother, to experience pregnancy, to play at the playground again, to feel the joys and the hardaches of parenting, to decorate Christmas cookies, to set new family traditions, to read Where the Wild Things Are, to be responsible for someone other than myself, etc. etc.)

And, of course, spoken or not, we do hold expectations and appreciation for the ones we love and whom love us.

Still, there is something so vital and so healthy (and so challenging!) in this other expression of love. To be able to say, “I know you and I love you for who you are…(even without me).”

And then, to count the ways.

Mom, I see you. I love you. For who you are in this big world. For the little things that make you special. For the sound of your voice when you have found something exciting at a thrift shop. For the pain in your eyes when Grandma died. And for how that pain has never really left you. For the way your internal GPS magically guides you to the best shops and restaurants “off the beaten path.” For the feeling of your arm against mine at mass. For the image of you sleeping out on the couch each year on the night before the Christmas tree comes down. For the way you leave Holy Water bottles in cabinets throughout the house when you visit. For your equal parts: peace and searching. For the sound of your voice as it comes through your published poems and short stories and newspaper articles. For the deep beauty of your face. For the colors you bring to life in your garden each summer. For the way you end phone calls with, “all’s well on the western front” or “carry on, daughter.”

And, Mom, I do also love you for all of the ways you’ve helped me grow along the way. You have taken care of me, completely. And our family. And my children. I am beyond grateful. But please, for me and for you, let your fulfillment of my needs and expectations not be the foundation of my love for you. Let there always be a beautiful you and let me simply be thankful that I have had this time to know you, to enjoy who you are, and to love you for you.