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The Ties That Bind

My father stares into the bowl, holding the spoon mid-air. It hovers there, suspended in space, like a hummingbird eyeing a feeder. Tears stream down his face. I’ve never seen my father cry. I look away in embarrassment.

“In all the years we were married,” he says, “I never once told your mother I loved her.” He stares into the soup bowl as though he expects her to rise out of it any moment to say—what? I always knew you loved me. It’s okay. You’re forgiven.

My sister had just placed the bowl of chicken soup in front of him, prepared the way my mother used to make it. My sister makes all her dishes like my mother does . They share many traits, though my sister refuses to acknowledge it. “I’ll never forgive her,” she says, though she won’t tell me why or for what. She doesn’t share feelings and rarely talks about our childhood. When she does, it’s as though we were raised in different households. My sister carries anger, doesn’t trust kindness. She always lets my father back into her life, no matter how demanding and dismissive he is or how often he’s threatened to disown her. I don’t share their intimate connection. And I’ve often wondered if this is how she defines love. When he disowned me for not bending to his will, I walked away. I’m back for my mother’s funeral.

The word “love” was never used to express affection when I was a child. They only used it for comparisons. I love chocolate. I hate Wheatina. I love Wonder Woman. I hate Donald Duck. I love reading. I hate cleaning my room. And sad to say, I used the word “hate” far more often than love.

What I hated defined me, gave me distance from hurt, and armored me against an uncertain world. Love was a word people only said in movies or a secret word I’d keep to myself for an adolescent attraction. I cared for my dogs—all of them from Brownie to Spotty and finally Sooner. But the connection was felt as need, as comfort, as companionship. I cried when each one died, but I didn’t associate the emotion with love. I saw them as soft pillows for my sadness. I knew what it felt like to be sad. I was often sad. And my dogs were always happy to let me hang out with them with no judgment.

Valentine’s Day meant candy and a counting of cards handed out in the classroom to know how many kids liked you. You always got at least one from the teacher to save you from the humiliation of none. And mostly it was about silly verses written on cards where love was more a joke than an emotion. No one actually used the word love as an expression of caring—not my parents, not my grandparents, not my aunts or uncles or family friends. You were a good girl or a bad girl. A pretty girl or a plain girl. A talented girl or a slow-witted girl. You were always a description—never a feeling.

It took me almost a lifetime to acknowledge I had never used the word to express the feeling to someone. I’d tell a third party I love so and so, or I’d say I love my children. But it was never a word I conveyed to a person I cared for. It shared an emotional range with how I felt about ice cream or turkey stuffing or swimming.

I adored my boys. I held them close to my heart in a Japanese Obi when they were born, so they could feel my heart beat. I nursed them so they’d spend time being held in my arms—something I taught myself to do because I had never been held or hugged, but had read in Ashley Montagu’s book titled Touching about how important it was to be touched. I wanted my children to know the comfort of being held, to carry it forward to when they had their own families. It was my desire to break the cycle of feeling erased carried from one generation to the next.

Yet, I couldn’t say “I love you” to my children or my mate. It seemed too charged a word, too frightening—like something akin to a swear word one did not dare use in polite company. The word froze on my tongue. I felt I’d be held to a punishment beyond my control or the vulnerability of such a confession would dissolve me to a fine powder, and I’d crumble into the wind.

After some initial childhood discomfort, I had no problem using swear words. Everyone I knew used swear words to express a dislike of something or a frustration with someone. But love expressed to another person? That was in novels or poetry. The spoken word stayed in the closet. The first time I heard the word used by a family member was that day when my father, over a bowl of soup, expressed regret for having never used it with my mother.

I have broken through the fear. Life is fragile. We are vulnerable creatures. When we are separated from one another, we are bereft and derailed. The pandemic has brought home how precarious and fleeting life is. I have no idea how long I’ll be on this planet, but I don’t want to leave it without saying to my loved ones, “I love you.” There is a showing of love in taking care of another. But there is a greater power in the word spoken. It says I stand before you open and vulnerable with no agenda or expectation.

When I first started to say “I love you” to my family, it was awkward. But it’s now always on my lips and makes me feel connected to life beyond my family. It reinforces in me that love is the glue that holds our planet together, and we have not given it enough space in our cluttered world.

Love is the whole thing. We are only pieces. -Rumi

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