Saying “I Love You” Without Knowing What It Means

I didn’t have time to write this up on Father’s Day because I was busy playing with my kids. That’s right — that’s how good a dad I am: even on a holiday that’s supposed to give me a break because of all my good fathering, I’m still bringing my patriarchal “A” game.

But this was my first Father’s Day when I had a child, my 2-year-old Graham, that was old enough to say, “Happy Father’s Day!” and “I made you a Father’s Day card!” and a bunch of other heartstring-pulling phrases.

Of course, he didn’t know what any of that stuff meant; he certainly didn’t know how much it meant to me. He was just saying it because his mom told him to. But he said it with feeling, because he knew it meant something. Something important.

When Graham first started saying “I love you,” he said it, of course, because we coaxed him into saying it. But he would only whisper it. And it’s not like he’s a whisperer. It’s been a year and a half since we’ve heard any of the dialogue on any TV show.

He didn’t know what “I love you” meant. He didn’t know what “I” or “you” meant, much less “love.” But he knew it was a big deal. He knew it meant something so big and heavy, so cosmically important, that he only dared to whisper it. He would climb up in his mom’s lap at bedtime and lean in close enough for their noses to touch. He would let the moment hang in air while his mom grinned with anticipation, and then he would smile and breathe a barely-audible “I love you.” And he knew he did it right because mommy laughed big and hugged him so tight and said, “I love you too!”

I wonder if we understand “I love you” as well as he does. And this is not one of those lame pieces where the writer says, “You know, children really are the wise ones and we should learn from them.” If you can dub someone “wise” who is afraid of vacuum cleaners, you should rethink your definition of wisdom.

But it might be good if the rest of us felt the weight of “I love you” like Graham does. It’s more mysterious when you’re two, but maybe that’s good. When we forget about the mystery and the power of it, we start saying it to the wrong people for the wrong reasons. And we don’t say it enough when we should.

Really, we’ll spend our whole lives figuring out what “I love you” means. I hope that we don’t start thinking we understand it, when actually we’ve just forgotten how big it is.

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