The Dangling “I Love You”

First let me say, wow these posts are getting to be a drag. Someone kick me in the funny bone soon!

My grandmother had a stroke when I was a kid, maybe 10. She lost the use of her right arm and leg. She walked, barely, with a walker, and in later years was confined to a wheelchair. She lived with us for a few years before she bacame too ill for home care.

My mother tells a story of leaving the hospital room one night, having sat by her own mother’s bed for several hours. This was after a full day of work, after coming home for dinner with her family, after changing gears and driving across the river to the hospital. My mother’s heart was breaking; under grief, under the agony of not having the ability to fix this, this big, sad, messy hurt. Grandma wandered in a narcotic haze that relieved some of the pain of bone cancer. My mother said, “I love you, Mom.”

Grandma did not respond. She could not respond. She could not make her mouth work to form the words my mother wanted to, needed to hear.

Mom came home and cried. And cried. And cried. What else can you do with that sort of paucity of hope? With a tidal wave of unanswered words forcing aside reason? She cried the kind of tears that hurt to heave themselves out of your chest.

My mom said, when she told me about it, that she always replies with an “I love you” if she can. She replies with an “I love you” because she didn’t hear it when she most desperately wanted to hear it.

I think of this every time I throw “I love yous” at my kids, hoping they’ll stick in their brains and hearts as they, every day, take one more step away from being just mine. Sometimes, I don’t mind that they barely nod in response. Sometimes I’ll get lucky; they’ll throw their arms around me in that wildly generous way kids have with their hearts. Sometimes, it makes my heart ache when silence is their reply.

And sometimes I push it. When silence hangs in the air, an unwelcome guest, I push the “I loves you.” I unleash a string of “I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you,” until the words become one long garbled mess. I speak faster and faster and start to laugh, and my children gaze at me unimpressed. I keep going and going and going until they crack a smile. And on and on.

Until we dissolve in fits of laughter. Which is the same thing as an I love you.