Looking for photographs, I opened a folder on the computer. The first image I came across had me unexpectedly in tears. I have seen it hundreds of times and simply smiled, if a little wistfully. Yet this time, for some reason, it opened the floodgates.
It is a very ordinary photo of two very young men one spring afternoon. But the young men are not ordinary, they are my sons. Beside them are Nick’s souped-up VW and Alex’s bike… their respective wheels. It was an ordinary spring day… Nick had driven up from Bournemouth to spend the weekend with us. We had talked, laughed and talked some more. It had been a good weekend for a lot of reasons.
I had grabbed the opportunity to get a picture of the lads while I had them both there… a rarity now they were grown. Nick came up again a few weeks later and spent the weekend. We talked through the night, out on the deck, ironing out the inevitable wrinkles in a relationship by then 25 years old. I recall standing on the doorstep as he was leaving. We are not a demonstrative family on the whole; our terms of endearment generally take the form of light-hearted insults that can horrify the uninitiated… and I did something unusual… I told him I loved him.
I was to remember that a couple of weeks later.
The photograph is the last taken of my sons before Nick was attacked; the weekend where we talked the night through was the last that my son walked away from me to his car and smiled as he drove off. Before the world changed for our little family. The next time I saw him he was lying in a coma attached to machines that were keeping him alive… though for how long we did not know. Alex and I at his bedside, holding each other up. The police already treating the attack as murder.
I told him loved him that day too. But he couldn’t hear me anymore.
Seeing that photograph always brings a wistful smile. Tonight it brought tears. These things heal, but the scars remain and can ache sometimes, creeping up on you when you are least expecting it. It is always the small things that trigger the emotions. Thankfully the dog is pretty good about being used as a handkerchief.
Today I spent several hours with my son, then more on the phone which, as he points out, is something of a miracle. Love was expressed in different terms, far less obvious to an observer, perhaps, but clear enough for us. It doesn’t have to be spoken, it simply has to be lived.
There are times when those few small words can mean the world, spoken or heard; times when they can make all the difference. Much of the time, however, they are misused, sometimes abused, used to say things for which they were never meant. They can be the sticking plaster over a wounded relationship or the weapon that causes the wound. They can express need, want and ownership rather than love. They can be the ultimate double-egded sword that can control… or set free.
There are so many forms of love, from friendship to worship… so many differing relationships that have to use those words, and the verb has been appropriated for many lesser, commonplace uses… as well as to express the very essence of the Divine. It is not surprising that we cannot really define the word ‘love’, only know what we mean by it in our heart of hearts when it touches our lives.
Yet one thing is certain, to love is a verb… a doing word. Something to be lived, not simply said. When you live it, you feel and know it. When you give it, others feel and know it. When it is given, words no longer matter. They do not need to be heard or said. Three little words that can change a world; words we will never regret withholding if we do not mean them, but may wish we had expressed when we mean them from the depths of the heart.
On that spring day I followed the promptings of my heart and said three words to my son. The heart is wiser than the mind in such moments. He walked away from me for a last time, head held high, with that almost arrogant stride and I watched him go. It was a long, gut-wrenching time before we knew he would come back to us. I was glad he left with those words in his heart that day.