The “I Love You” Challenge


Dedicated to the memory of Elsie.


The phone rang at 11:30 p.m.  I had been in bed for a half hour and was startled out of a deep sleep.  Trembling with surprise, heart beating fast, I answered with a quiet hello.

“Tam.  I need you to pray for my mom,” she said, her voice low and urgent and scared.  “The ambulance is here and she’s not responding.”

Hardly understanding if this was dream or reality, I agreed to pray.  And then, emotionally shaken, I said something I’d never said to her:  “Love you guys.”

“Love you too.”  And she hung up.

Later, in a house filled with running, shrieking children and teary adults in the wake of her mother’s death, my girlfriends and I sat in the cozy living room and talked about life, death, and love.

You see, in the wake of my friend’s mom’s passing, people were coming out of the woodwork to say what a special lady she had been.  I, too, had been thinking about all of the lady’s (many) attributes.  And it had me wondering:  did I take enough time when she was alive to say those nice things to her?  Did I humble myself to compliment her?  Or, as we humans so often do, had I withheld — out of my own discomfort and pride — what certainly she would have benefited from hearing?  Things like this:  Her smile sparkled.  Her feistiness was endearing.  Her cooking was iconic.

And, I also wondered, who was still alive and needing to hear kind words from me right now?  Who might I never get another chance to be honest with?

In our visit that night, my friend talked about a video clip she had watched of National Reined Cow Horse Association hall-of-famer Tommy Sondgroth in which he talks about challenging himself to close conversations with “Love ya” instead of “Goodbye.”  The clip is linked below:

Later, at home, I watched the video of this loving old cowboy and wondered.  Certainly the death of my friend’s mom had rocked me into considering the value of saying “I love you” more often to people who might benefit from hearing it.  And wouldn’t I benefit from saying it, also?

My husband and I and our kids — we have always been an “I love you” kind of family.  And a few years ago, I started telling my one surviving grandparent that I love her, too.

But the house I grew up in… it’s not so easy.  Yes, it’s always been a stable home.  A solid home.  But a reserved one.  And “I love you” was just not something that was ever said between my parents, my sister, and myself.

There came a time in my twenties when I desperately needed to hear my parents say “I love you” to me.  It all culminated in one big, messy, uncomfortable family counseling session where the minister charged with our case seemed confused over why my dad and I appeared to be arguing over a ranch which neither of us owned and by which I didn’t even appear to be employed.  We all slunk out the door that day licking our wounds, with little resolved, and trudged on with life.  I think my parents were completely stumped over why I needed to hear it:  hadn’t they been showing me all these years — through providing for me, through attending my ball games and taking me to church, through the greeting cards they signed each birthday — that I was loved?

Well, I was confused, too.  What I didn’t understand at the time, but what I think I’ve now come to realize, is that I associate love with the ranch where my folks raised me.  It has always been clear that my dad loves the ranch where he has worked for almost 50 years, and sharing the ranch with us — by involving us in his work — was how he loved his family, too.  It was a good way to grow up.  Then came the time that it seemed it would be healthiest for me to fly out of my folks’ nest at the ranch we never have owned and never will own.  But I just couldn’t bring myself to abandon the love that I was connected to emotionally.

(You know, a lot of folks believe adult children are greedy in their desire to inherit their folks’ property, but I would argue that in many cases monetary greed has less to do with it than a desire for approval.  As in:  See, I’ve learned good, Dad.  I’ve tried so hard.  Do I pass the test?)

So what I am charged with, now that I am (almost) an adult, is to separate the ranch from my family.  For me, that means love has to be presented in some way other than the ranch.  So why not just say it out loud?  We all know I love words.  And the recent funeral of our longtime family friend bolstered me to just buck up and say it lest tomorrow never comes.

With my mom and sister it has been easier.  We ladies have been able to talk a few things out in the last few years.

But with my dad I struggle.  You see, he comes from a time when the prevalent thinking was that children ought not speak unless spoken to and that a child might be ruined by compliments; a tradition in which spoken love was empty but love in action — through providing for your family, through kindness toward strangers, through attending church — was what had true value.

Dad never has put a lot of value in words.  And here I am, born into his family and literally overflowing with words.  The differences between us have glistened sharply at times.  And at the end of the day, I am still packing some hurts around in my relationship with him — nothing big, mostly just things left unsaid.  Trouble is, I can’t honestly tell him “I love you” if in the same moment I am holding onto a hurt.  To say “I love you” out loud to him is a big deal, and to mean it, it’s necessary for me to forgive past shortcomings and hurts (imagined or otherwise) in our relationship.

So, forgiveness is the first order.  And I’m working on it.  But stubborn human that I am, forgiveness continues to be a day-by-day test for me.  Only a couple times have I found myself so clear of conscience that I have been able to tell him I love him.

Because you know I do.

Does he know?  Does he care?  My mom claims his mind just doesn’t work that way.  And there is always, always the fear that he won’t say it back.  And I wonder:  If I force myself into saying it more often, will it start to come easier?

Because I ask you this:  Even if he can’t return the favor… what good am I doing myself by withholding three words that could make a difference?  Who gains from not hearing “I love you”?  Who gains from not saying it?  Especially if we are claiming to be Christians, and we are, then we should be tasked first and foremost every day with cleaning out our personal closets enough that we can honestly show and profess love.  Even to the unlovable.  And so I challenge myself to do just that.

Dad’ll probably wonder:  Now what the heck is this all about?

Or:  it might usher in an entirely new and improved chapter in our relationship.

And that possibility, I think, is worth saying three little words.

© Tami Blake

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