Daddy? I Love You.
On most days, my daughter does not wake up like a pleasant person. She stumbles out of her bedroom, trailing a heavy cloud of sleep like a hangover, rubbing her puffy eyes and generally not speaking to anyone. Occasionally, there are whimpers. There is almost always a grumpy frown worn like a caution sign: “Keep your distance or else.” Any attempt to engage her before her system is fully restarted is an exercise in risk, and one must be prepared to face the ugly consequences. She’s three. Clearly, mornings do not agree with her. I can respect that. Mornings never agreed with me as a young person either.
On weekdays, I rise early. I never recover well from mornings where I have to hit the ground running. Like my morning-resistant daughter, I also need time to warm up to my day. I rise about a 45 minutes before the kids wake, make coffee, get breakfast ready, pack my gym bag if it is a Y day, and in the time remaining I enjoy a few moments of early morning silence and pseudo-solitude; two things that at-home parents never … ever get to enjoy. It usually ends up being about ten minutes of this elusive kind of bliss, but I’ll take it.
On this particular morning, after preparing the oatmeal and gathering things for the day, I grabbed my cup of coffee, sat down at my computer to browse some blogs. It would only be a matter of time before my sleep-grumpy daughter and her brother (who is, in fact, a morning person) rise for the day. Sadly, only a few minutes passed before I heard the gentle shush of the girl’s bedroom door sliding across the carpet as she opened it. I looked over my shoulder and she padded over to me. Gently, and somewhat out of character, she wrapped her little arms around my bicep, laid her tousled head on my shoulder and gently hugged. I kissed the top of her head, and she looked up at me and smiled the sweet, close-mouthed, squinty-eyed smile that is completely her own. “Morning,” she said. Delighted at her cheerfulness and her willingness to be affectionate before breakfast, I looked at her.
And there it was. That little rush of emotion that often accompanies such moments with one’s children. Some kind of flutter akin to love, but it is different somehow; richer, more complex and nearly impossible to describe to the uninitiated. But as I looked down at that beautiful face, I felt it whisper through me. And it’s not like this is an occasional feeling. It manifests nearly every day, but when it does, it always leaves me a little breathless and disoriented.
All morning, she was a pleasant delight. As she sat in the tall chair next to our kitchen island and watched me dice apples to garnish our oatmeal, she looks at me and smiles and she says “Daddy? I love you.” Just a statement.
There’s that feeling again. Stronger this time. “Oh, honey, I love you too,” I say as I kiss the blush on her cheek and give her a tiny sliver of red apple. I love her very much. I love her even when she is a grump. I love her even when I have had enough of her and I want to be very far away from her.
Because love is confusing. Love is a very small word that we use to describe something very big and indescribable. What we experience as “love” is an extraordinarily complex set of neurological stimulations and emotional responses that occur when we find ourselves in the presence of certain people. Why we “love” someone and how we experience that love is as mysterious and varied as the universe itself. And yet, we profess this love many times to many, many people throughout the course of our human lives. It is more than a bit baffling to realize that something so evanescent and undefinable is also so deeply universal that it affects nearly every human being on earth in one form or another. Mystery lives here. The great prophets of the world have attempted to unlock that great mystery for us. We are still listening to them to this day.
And looking into the eyes of my children elicits a brand of love that is wholly distinct from the sharp, befuddling kind of love that I felt when I was falling for my wife while we were in our twenties, or the still, warm kind of love that I feel for her now. Being alive in the world with my children has shown me that love is something that I will never understand with any rational part of my human self. Love escapes definition and somehow manages to be both utterly essential and perfectly meaningless.
When my children say “Daddy, I love you,” do they understand this? Can my daughter define what she means, or is she just parroting a phase and a facial expression that she has seen so many times on the faces of those of who care for her? When my growing son holds me close, what is he listening for when he places his head on my chest? Language? Silence? The tonality of love?
I remember when my son was an infant. He was a new human and we were new parents. He did not sleep for the first six months of his life, so neither did we. We were all exhausted beyond description. We were all three of us entangled in this chaotic web of responsibility and attachment. Holding him was the closest thing to magic we had ever experienced in our lives, and sometimes all we wanted to do was put him down, and when we did put him down we ached for him. We loved him fiercely and we sometimes wanted to not be parents anymore and it was a kind of madness that we lived in for a while. One night, we decided to get out of the house and go to a concert. We packed him up in his car carrier and he cried the whole way there. We arrived at the park and spread our blanket in the grass beneath the fading daylight and he cried some more. The music started and he calmed. Eventually he seemed content, especially if we held him. And we slowly started to enjoy ourselves. The stars flashed trough the branches above us. There was candlelight and the sound of summer night. There was music. And beneath it all, in one tiny pinhole of the universe, was my son in my arms, his wide eyes gazing upon my face as I held him. The song was “Beautiful Child,” and I regarded him deeply, for what felt like the very first time, and something remarkable passed between us, like a warm wind through the trees. Something ancient and full of mystery lit up the night sky and I felt my life shift in that moment. I felt as if he and I had somehow become connected to the legacy of the sons and fathers who came before us and to those who will come after us. I felt present and alive and connected to an astonishing process of life, and in this moment, I learned to be less afraid of how that process would end.
“Daddy, I love you,” says my daughter this morning. Does she get it? Do I? All I know is that it hits me where I live. It always does.
“Only the soul knows what love is. This moment in time and space is an eggshell with an embryo crumpled inside, soaked in spirit-yolk, under the wing of grace, until it breaks free of mind to become the song of birds and their breathing.”