These Terms of Endearment

I’ve been trying for six months to get my 13-year-old son to say “I love you.” Apparently, the only thing worse than this request is giving him a big bear hug in front of his entire football team. I must admit we don’t come from an “I love you” family—I didn’t grow up saying it regularly to my parents or siblings. I knew they loved me by how closely they monitored my report cards, how they’d shower me with birthday gifts, and by how hard my brother punched me in the arm when I teased him. There was affection in my family, just not of the verbal variety. So it’s not surprising that my son is a bit stingy with his feelings (although he might be saying “I love you” to that Abercrombie-outfitted blond with braces Facebook-friend named Jessi and I just don’t know it).

Sometimes, when my son is at his dad’s, I’ll say, “I love you!” just as we hang up the phone. And he’ll reply, “Good night!” So I say again, “I love you!!!”, zealously this time (thinking sheer enthusiasm will do it). But instead, he’ll say again, “Good night!!!” And thus it goes three or four times before I finally make him say it, by riddling him with guilt or just telling him he has to. Why do we have such difficulty with these three words?

I noticed years ago that every time I went to visit my father, he’d say, “How’s your car running?” It used to irritate me. He never asked me about my friends, my love, or my poetry. Just the damn car. So I’d reply abruptly, “FINE.” I didn’t understand why he asked me that, especially when he asked the same thing the week before and the week before that too. But then one winter, my father fell in his icy driveway, hit his head, and ended up with a subdural hematoma. He was suddenly stuck in a wheelchair and became really, really quiet. For two and a half years, he didn’t ask me once about my car. He didn’t ask many questions at all. Lately, we’ve been noticing he’s getting some of his verbal acuity back. He actually introduced me to one of his nurses and asked how football was going. And the other day, out of the blue, he asked, “How’s your Volvo running?” He remembers I have a Volvo? “It’s great, Dad,” I told him. “I just got some new all-season tires and an alignment, and it’s running just fine.” He smiled. And I knew he loved me.