Love means letting yourself be vulnerable. How is that for opening up a blog post with a cliché phrase? It seems obvious enough, but I haven’t contemplated the meaning of that for me until rather recently. Love was a word that was never uttered in my house when I was a child. At least not in the form of “I love you.” Sure, “I love pistachio ice cream and chicharrones” was an integral part of my vocabulary, but “I love you” was simply never spoken. And, because of that, it’s a word that always made me uncomfortable growing up and into my adulthood. I used to think it was something of a “cultural thing” or an “immigrant thing.” And maybe to some degree it was.
I was just expected to know my parents loved me; they didn’t need to say it. They showed their love by the way they took care of me: dad working so hard, he could barely muster the strength to flop down in the kitchen chair; mom making albondigas, sopa de fideo, and the huevo con bolita, just the way I liked it. I can picture her pouring old oil from the tin can by the stove and the egg swimming, or maybe drowning in it. It would sizzle and crackle and occasionally send a Vesuvius-like oil eruption at me, as if to say, “move pendeja!” Then she always managed to flip it without breaking the yolk. At the same time she’d be heating up a tortilla, flipping that too, with her fingers that flirted with the flame, but never managed to touch it.
And I can’t count the number of times my mom patiently ground up penicillin pills when I would get sick and put them in Bosco so I could take them. I was terrified of swallowing pills; I felt like I would choke. She’d also give me a change purse filled with pennies as an incentive to take that chalky-chocolate elixir.
I still feel guilty about the Vans tennis shoes they bought me. My dad worked overtime for those, I’m sure. Growing up poor in “The O.C.” really messes with you. I can still remember how badly I yearned for those in junior high school, and the ill-placed tremendous joy of getting them. Children don’t think about the hard work and family resources required for the consumerism of “fitting in.”
My dad’s version of saying “I love you” was to call me “dumb bunny.” Don’t get the wrong idea. He was always proud of my smarts and good grades in school. He would say this as a term of endearment to play up the opposite meaning. He would also make up strange cheers that would embarrass me even though he’d only chant them in the house (I would cringe when he’d do it): “Beckita, Beckita, rah, rah, rah!” Yes, he said that. And I wish with everything in me that I had recorded him saying it.
All of these actions sprinkled throughout my childhood were “Love.” The word itself seemed unimportant. You just knew!
But this word is important. “I love you” is important. I’ve guarded that word and phrase throughout my life. I have only said, “I love you” to two romantic partners. The vulnerability that comes along with that was difficult for me the first times it was said. It’s not a phrase that I use lightly, so when I say it I do so with all that I have in my heart.
Fortunately, I have never had a problem telling my kids that I love them. I was determined to not emulate my parents in that way. I tell them all the time and they reciprocate. And I adore that my daughter says, “I love you mom” after every phone call, no matter if it’s just a call to tell me that the dog got all muddy in the creek…again.
Part of my reflection about saying “I love you” has been my reconnection with my cousin from Los Angeles. I was surprised that the phrase rolled easily off my cousin’s tongue even though we hadn’t kept in touch. Before that phone call, I hadn’t been in contact with her for five years and sporadically before that. I could also hear my aunt shouting in the background, “Tell Becky I love her.” I was taken aback at hearing both my cousin and aunt say this to me and felt the warm tears rolling down my face, tasting the salt as some reached the corners of my mouth. I said it back, but it felt awkward, and I’m sure not at all the way I heard it from them…with a level of comfort and ease. My own reaction was confusing me. Why was this phrase so easily released from their lips? Why is it so difficult for me in some instances? I’ve been thinking about these words a lot since then.
The interaction with my cousin and aunt (my dad’s sister), also stirred up something that I try to keep at bay. It’s about the first and only time I said “I love you” to my dad. I regret that it was only when he was being wheeled into open-heart surgery. I was sixteen, and it is a memory that is a part of me in a physical way, like my very skin. He was lying on the gurney, and I was able to walk along side him for a few paces before he passed through the double doors. I leaned over and said, “I love you.” I didn’t know I would say it in the moment, but I felt a compulsion to do so. I think I somehow knew it would be the one and last time that I would say it to him. His response was to look into my eyes and nod his head. He didn’t say it back, but I could tell that he wanted to. I never saw him again. He died in surgery.
And yet, even with that regret, I must confess that I’ve carried around a wound thinking in some mixed up way that if I hadn’t said it maybe he wouldn’t have died. Maybe it helped him feel okay to leave this Earth? Maybe in some twisted way I “caused” his death? No, it makes no sense. I know rationally it’s not the case, and I’ve come to grips with it now…mostly. I tweeted last month that my mom finally says, “I love you” at the end of every phone call. My sister told her she never said it to us growing up and that she really should. My mom took this to heart. She reminds me of that conversation all the time and is now a whiz at saying it! But what I didn’t tweet was that I don’t say it back. I say “yo tambien” (me too). I haven’t said the actual words. I’ve been paralyzed by the experience with my dad and had feared that I would somehow bring upon the same fate with my mother. I know it doesn’t make sense. Thankfully, I’ve learned to think about it differently now. What better words to have said to my dad than “I love you” if those were going to be the last words I said to him and the last ones he heard from me? It seems obvious enough, but it took me some time to get to this space. So, I am now ready to tell my mom that I love her, to say the actual words. I can do this…
I remind myself all the time now that vulnerability is a necessity of life. No one lives a life unscathed, and there is no safety in silence. Words are important and they can make us vulnerable. And that is okay.