Kelly Corrigan, author of the new book “Tell Me More: Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say,” reflects on the nuance and complexity of saying “I love you.”
I remember kind of swooning when I learned how the French say it: Je t’adore. I was in high school and the phrase brought to mind kitten heels, martinis, and open-mouth kissing. But really, when you’re a grown-up, I love you is more romantic than the perfumy Je t’adore. Informed love, love that has cut across time and thwarted its pressures, is a two-ton emotion, and the plain, full statement of it often makes my throat clog with feeling.
I love you is not I love your giggle and mysterious expressionsor I love the way your bra matches your panties. It’s Even though your neck dropped into a wattle last year and you burp a lot after you eat Thai food and have not conquered your social insecurities and I heard you yell sharply at our kids again and you still can’t seem to bring yourself to be nicer to my mom or ask for that raise, I love you.
As for the rest of our permanent relationships, where people know each other too well, I find it nearly incomprehensible that, in spite of every offense and oversight, we can still say I love you and mean it. I believe this emotional largesse is sometimes called forgiveness. Immediate, often unsolicited, sometimes undeserved forgiveness—that is what turns the wheel of family life.
We forgive: Our parents, for being wrong about us in so many ways, for seeing some things and not others, for missing the point. Our siblings, for being smarter or more athletic or happier than we are. Our children, for diverging from our expectations, for scaring us with their developmentally appropriate but still dreadful risk taking, for growing up and leaving and forgetting to call. Ourselves, for being less than we planned when we were young and dreamed of outer space and Olympic medals. Such sprawling deficiency—ours, theirs, ever more varieties and degrees as each new day passes—to be acknowledged, to be pardoned. And yet, we do. We love and are loved anyway. Differently, though, than we might have thought.
From parent to teenager, I love you is not I love the way our interactions leave me feeling useful and appreciated and like I am definitely in the top percentile of parents working today.It’s Even though I delivered you at permanent expense to my genitals and you rolled your eyes at me when I tried to hit the dab, and you trapped me in that modern-day torture chamber of club music and olfactory assault, Abercrankie and Filth, then later that day, impatient to be taken to Bridget’s house, you beeped at me from the passenger seat in the driveway, like maybe I worked for you, I love you.
Or from one sibling to another, I love you is not I love the way we instantly make sense to each other and fall into plans effortlessly and always remember each other’s birthdays. It’s Even though we hardly agree about a thing, including who should be president, how often we should call each other, or even where to get cheesesteaks, I love you.
Or from a middle-aged woman to her mother, I love you is not I love how we share clothes and taste in movies and concur on all aspects of raising a girl circa 2017. It’s Even though every time we talk, you tell me Joan Jennings’s hearing is shot and ask me if I saw what Mark Cuban said onShark Tankor if you should get a Roku or why your avatar in Netflix is a purple raccoon and then we pretend you might one day come out to California again even though it’s been five years and we both know you’re never getting on a plane again, I love you.
Or to a dying parent—in this case, a father—I love you is not I love your spot-on career advice or how you always give it to me straight. It’s Even though you said you were feeling better after I smoothed your cornsilk hair and put a pill way back on your tongue and cleaned your dentures under the running water and changed your diaper, even though I begged you not to leave—or if you had to leave, to just open your eyes one more time—and you left anyway, and I can’t find you anywhere except on my answering machine where your boyish voice is asking me if we caught the last play of the Notre Dame game, I love you.
The first time the words pass between two people: electrifying.
Ten thousand times later: cause for marvel.
The last time: the dream you revisit over and over and over again.
From the book TELL ME MORE by Kelly Corrigan. Copyright © 2018 by Kelly Corrigan. Published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Words: Kelly CorriganPhoto: Daria Kobayashi Ritch