What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

January 16, 2016

I know, I know, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” is already the title of a short story by one of my favorite authors, Raymond Carver, but I just love those words and I love the way they sound and so I am going to borrow them. I discovered Raymond Carver when I was in college and read everything I could find that he wrote. If you have not read his stories, you should. His writing is elegant and rough around the edges all at the same time, and his characters are so imperfect that, back when I was a college kid,  I got the idea that one day I could be an imperfect grown-up, too, and things might still turn out okay. Now that I have achieved an imperfect adulthood, I am going back to reread his work with the expectation that all of the dysfunction of his characters will feel more familiar to me. Consider the words from a character in his story, “What do any of us really know about love?…It seems to me we’re just beginners at love.” That and, “The kind of love I’m talking about, you don’t try to kill people.” Plain and simple truths.

So what do I know about love? I know a lot more than I used to. I’ve learned a lot by being loved and learning how to accept it. It’s something I am still working on. It’s hard for me to write about these lessons without revealing a little about my relationship. Yes, I have a relationship, although I’ve hardly mentioned it here. I don’t even know what to call the object of my relationship, because he will not be comfortable with me writing about him. He doesn’t really get this whole blog thing. He doesn’t understand how I can pour my heart out here, but face to face, I am quite a bit more reticent.

So anyhow, I have a boyfriend. His name is Michael. Don’t tell him I told you that. And he loves me and I love him. I think we are learning a lot about love from each other. Well, I won’t speak for him in terms of what he has learned from me, but I have learned a lot from him. One of the first lessons came very early in our relationship, and it was in the smallest gesture. We were walking together in the woods, and we were going down a small slippery slope to another trail. I was just behind him and he reached for me to help me down the slope so I would not fall. It had been so long since anyone had reached out to steady me, to support me, and I had no expectation that I needed help, or that I would ever get it and so that gesture shocked me. It made me cry. Michael thought it was nothing special, that my expectations were so low, but it obviously mattered a lot, because it was the beginning of my understanding that it might be okay to count on someone, that maybe, just maybe, I did not have to do everything by myself.

I have also learned so much about love in watching how Michael loves and cares for others. For seven years, he devoted himself to caring for his father who had Alzheimer’s. When his father eventually had to live in a nursing home, he visited him several times each week, not just for a few minutes, but for hours each time. While there, he advocated for his father and all residents, demanding that they be treated with dignity, respect, and kindness. While Michael was not always popular with the staff, he was much beloved by the residents, who greeted him as if he were a celebrity, or a family member, or some strange combination of the two. Michael never walked past a resident in need, responding to each person with warmth and gentleness and often an attempt to make them smile. Over the years, Michael made more trips to the ER with his father than I can count and if I could change anything, I would have been there more for him, because he is always there for me, and that is something he has taught me. People who love each other show up for each other.

Some years ago, his father had been admitted into the ICU for pneumonia, one of his many hospital visits. He had been there a few days and appeared, to the nurses and doctors who were in and out of his room, to be unresponsive. They tended to his body, but seemed to think that aside from his beating heart, he was gone. Countless times Michael advocated for his father, telling doctors and nurses and aides that his father was still in there.  One day I joined Michael in the ICU, where his father lay, hooked up to machines, and yes, appearing unresponsive. Michael greeted his father, hugging him, wiping his mouth, repositioning him to be more comfortable and carrying on a conversation throughout it all, as if his father were responding in kind. Then Michael took out his iPhone and laid it on his father’s chest, put on his father’s favorite music and he sang to him. He sang a Nat King Cole song and soon his father began to hum. After some time and several songs, his father opened his eyes and began to sing, and soon he was belting out “Volare” so robustly that people in the hallway could hear, and nurses and doctors walked by and pretended to not be too surprised that this man who they had thought was gone, was in fact very much alive and he was singing.

That moment was beautiful and it has stayed with me because in that hospital room, the love was so palpable, I could bathe in it. That love clung to my skin and invaded my pores. Love like that, you don’t see that every day, but you should. Michael’s devotion to his father never wavered. It cost him a lot. He sacrificed, and after his father passed, his mother got sick and he devoted himself to her care. Sometimes we wonder, was it too much? To give up so much of his life to care for his parents. There is not a right answer. It is simply what he did because when you love someone, you show up. That’s something we should talk about when we talk about love.

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