After having almost no contact with my dad for 10 years, he sent me a text one day asking to talk. That night several years ago, I put on my running shoes. It was already dark. It was a damp, foggy night. I started running. And then I called him. I jogged all over the city for well over an hour. I was guarded. The history was long and complicated. Though I felt maybe I could have some conversation with him after all these years, there was no way I was just going to spill my guts. Where do you even start trying to explain your life now to a person whose memories of you stopped a decade ago. So I mostly listened. There was no earth shattering news, nothing in particular he needed to talk to me about. As we wrapped up the conversation he said “Your dad loves you Katie” and without a thought I just said “Love you too.”
As soon as I hung up the phone I wondered whether that was the truth or a lie. Had I just said I love you too because that’s what you say when someone says it to you first? Or was there something about the relationship between parent and child that just supersedes logic. It’s like some inescapable and unexplainable truth. Even if you despise your parents you love them. One thing was sure: hearing those words from him didn’t bring me any kind of comfort. I believe they were entirely sincere, but it didn’t stir my heart. It was just another thing he said.
On the other hand, memories of my grandfather (pictured above) are only positive. He was a very good man. He and my grandma raised five kids in the small town he grew up in. He fought in World War II and then was a mailman. He was active in the church and seemed to know everyone in town. He walked every day until he couldn’t anymore. He taught me how to twiddle my thumbs and run the Dustbuster. He never yelled and always had a twinkle in his eye. Banter was his specialty. Playful teasing about anything and everything was the norm. “I’ve gotta give you a little crap” he’d say. He loved when you’d give it right back. But he was not affectionate. Hugs seemed to make him uncomfortable so he preferred the spaghetti handshake. He never said I love you. I lived in another state the last years of his life. When I learned he was in his last days I called to talk but really had just one goal in mind. Our conversation was short, probably just a little about what was new with me, but at the end I was very deliberate in saying “Ok Grandpa, we’ll talk later. I love you.” “Ok, talk to you soon,” he replied. I smiled and shook my head as I hung up the phone. He didn’t have the words, but he asked my mom to be sure I was the one who spoke at his funeral.
Growing up, my idea of romantic love came from what I saw in movies. My mom and I watched a lot of chick flicks and she loved Turner Classic Movies. I was raised on Doris Day and Rock Hudson movies. There were also the contemporary classics. Basically every Meg Ryan and Sandra Bullock movie from the 90’s. The torture of unrequited love. The way people always bumped into their soulmate through some serendipitous twist of fate. The way the couple always seemed to hate each other before they realized they loved each other. Men courting women. Women being aloof and standoffish. But always, always the way they always lived happily ever after in the end.
I was never the person who thought life was going to be a fairytale. I certainly was never a princess so the idea of a prince charming was never part of the equation either. I related more to Claire Danes in My So-Called Life, the one season cult classic, about angsty Angela trying to figure out where she fit but lusting after Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto) and being constantly tormented by the way his mixed messages keep her on the hook. So heart wrenching. So reflective of my own teenage heartache. So awkward, so wishing I could wear a flannel tied around my waist so uncaringly, SO wishing I’d be in the middle of a dance floor dancing to Haddaway’s “What is Love”, and so wanting to be liked by a boy. I had desperate crushes and plenty of guy friends but was basically the same person in a younger body which was a *little* too intense for a teenage boy. In middle school I was overweight and awkward and was teased a lot. In high school I couldn’t be cool around older guys for the life of me. I was focused on doing all the sports and activities. I had pretty strong ideas about the way the world worked and spoke up about them all. My junior prom date ditched me ensuring one of my teenage nightmares came true. I didn’t have my first real boyfriend until I was a senior in high school. I married him when I was 19. We divorced when I was 23.
**If you haven’t read the previous installment of my four week Advent series, please catch up HERE**
The second week of Advent another purple candle joins Hope and represents Love. I have a complicated relationship with that word. Love. You can feel it without being able to say the words. You can say the words without feeling it. There’s just one word to describe the love you have for your family and your partner and your friends and your job and everything you own. I wish that in English we had nuanced words to describe love like they have in other languages.
Forelsket – Norwegian
That overwhelming euphoric feeling you experience when you’re falling in love with someone. This is the word to describe that giddy feeling when we haven’t reached the point of “I love you,” but are past the initial crush phase. The way I felt about the first man who seemed to like me just as I was. He was 20. I was 17 years old doing a summer exchange in Italy.
Koi No Yokan – Japanese
The sudden knowledge upon meeting someone that the two of you are destined to fall in love. The way I felt when I saw the man who would become my (now) husband when I saw his picture on Match.com
Gigil – Filipino
The urge to pinch or squeeze something that is irresistibly cute. The way I felt about a law school classmate of mine who I just adored but knew I’d never date.
La douleur exquise – French
The heartbreaking pain of wanting someone you can’t have. The feeling I tried to ignore for years in the relationship with the man I thought I would marry.
Ya’aburnee – Arabic
This phrase translates to “you bury me.” This is the hope that the person you love will outlive you so you can spare the pain of living without them. The way I feel about my sister. I truly do not know what I would do if I had to navigate life without her.
Queesting – Dutch
When you invite someone into your bed for some pillow talk. A man whose kindness and closeness was what I needed most when I was at a low point.
L’esprit de escalier – French
The inescapable feeling you get when you leave a conversation then think about all the things you should have said. The end of my first marriage.
Razbliuto – Russian
The sentimental feeling you can often feel towards someone you used to loved but no longer do. Two people who were my closest friends at one time.
Sobremesa – Spanish
The conversation at the table that continues after a meal is over. The food, the drinks and the laughter can make for great memories. The reason our favorite thing is to host dinner parties.
Ilunga – Bantu
A person who is willing to forgive abuse the first time; tolerate it the second time, but never a third time. This is from a language spoken in a region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It may be one of the hardest words to translate because it has so many layered meanings. This one little word touches on patience, forgiveness and breaking points. It describes a person who will forgive someone for the first offense against them, tolerate it a second time, but will not forgive them for a third time.
Maybe this is the one that best captures it. That feeling I get when my dad says “I love you.”
Complicated, complicated, it all gets complicated, but among different cultures, religious traditions, and literature over decades there is one common theme: love and hate cannot exist in the same space.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.
~Martin Luther King, Jr.
For as ilunga implies love doesn’t come without pain. Sometimes we are the ones in pain and sometimes we are the ones causing it. The only way this love thing works is to forgive. Others. And ourselves. To be forgiven by others. And maybe we get to that “third time,” the breaking point where the relationship needs to be broken. But even then, letting go with love rather than hate is the thing we do for our own heart. It seems as complicated as it gets, love in ALL these forms makes the soul richer. Love is always worth it. Whether it is easy or hard, life will always be better in the light of love.