Zackary is eleven and has come to the belated realisation that at some point in the distant future he is going to die. Obviously he has known about death for a while, he has lost a dog and a grandparent but for some reason he had never made the connection with himself before. When it dawned on him he took it rather badly as another eighty years or so didn’t seem very much but he is very generous of spirit and quickly turned his attention to a more critical situation. If he only had eighty years left how many did his suddenly decrepit seeming parents have? We might pop our clogs at any moment. We tried to reassure him, but he is very sensitive and kept regarding us with mournful glances as if he was missing us already. He didn’t seem so worried about his mother, she is quite a bit younger than me, which is nice for both of us, but his concern for me was such that I began to wonder if he knew something I didn’t. Perhaps he was like those dogs that can smell imminent mortality, I mean he’s brilliant on an Easter egg hunt, maybe approaching death smells like chocolate. Recently he has taken to patting me on the arm whenever he passes, like a consoling vicar, and sometimes when I am at my desk he just stands behind me, listening to me breathe as if every breath might be my last. It’s a bit creepy but I don’t mind, at least I didn’t, until he started to end everything he said to me with ‘I love you’ in case I should die on the toilet or while popping out for some milk. This has been going on for some months now and it is with regret that I must report I am beginning to experience the accelerated passing of the potency of his declaration.
‘I love you’ is a tricky thing to interpret under any circumstances, being as it is either a statement of absolute sincerity, a thoughtless reflex or the slipperiest of lies. It can be the highest affirmation, a joint surrender to a greater power or it can be empty and utterly baseless. A first ‘I love you’ transforms a previously understood relationship into something completely unknown, proclaiming it meaningful, weight bearing, giving it the official endorsement of a single phrase that once spoken can never be unsaid. ‘I love you’ can be possessive, capricious, it is the optimistic presumption that the recipient will always feel the same way, will always respond with ‘I love you too’. With our children it is different, we don’t hope for their love we simply expect it, unconditionally, and we don’t feel the need for them to continually verify it. I have no doubt that Zackary loves me, none whatsoever, but I very much doubt he is able to express it by saying it. His repeated assertion is more about overcoming a sense of insecurity and isolation, about confirming a connection that challenges the reality of his singularity. This is pretty much the same for all of us, we are alone and ‘I love you’ draws its power from our ceaseless need to be told otherwise, it is a verbal contract and we are often unable to gauge the nature or constancy of another’s feelings without it. We can suspect or trust but unless it is said we cannot be certain, because you wouldn’t say it if you didn’t mean it, would you? By the same token if you never say it then surely that must mean there is no love to express.
My Father was a man of few words, and none of them were love. I am not aware of the word love ever having passed his lips, at least it never did in my presence. When I was a young boy I hardly ever saw him, he was always at work, making new antiques, and if I did manage to greet him on his return he would do little more than place a still palm on my head. I would stand as close as I dared, close enough to catch his scent of mahogany dust and cigarettes and he would look down, drawing a very slow smile from me which he would silently reflect back. My Father worked so hard because he was ambitious, for himself and for his children and his inability to vocalise his feelings for us was not because they were absent it was because they were potentially overwhelming. Despite his apparent hardness he was a kind man but found expressing it difficult, putting his feelings into words, especially just three of them, might create a point of weakness that threatened the integrity of his carefully managed exterior. So he avoided it. Not that I ever felt hard done by because of it, and writing this is not evidence to the contrary, this is not catharsis. ‘I love you’ is not the same thing as love, love is ineffable, beyond words and more importantly love is real.
I am not suggesting for a moment that we shouldn’t declare our feelings. Libby used to say ‘I love you’ to me all the time, now, with three sons vying for her attention, she says it less frequently. I don’t feel that she loves me less, her love is not proportional to the telling of it, but when she does say it now it is always a surprise, to her as much as it is to me, and all the better for it. Zackary will catch on, realise that he is needlessly firing the big gun, all that ammo is wasted on me, I took one to the heart on the day he was born. God I sound ungrateful, there are worse things than having someone care about you and saying so, perhaps I am just being insensitive, after all he does fear for my life. I read him the bit I wrote about him being good at Easter egg hunts and death smelling like chocolate, he looked at me with gentle concern, ‘Death doesn’t smell like chocolate Daddy,’ he said. ‘Love does.’