Do you love your wife? Your husband? Your partner? Your son? Your daughter? What does that mean, you love them?
In November of last year, doctors told my wife and me something we had been expecting for nine years, that our son Nicholas would need heart surgery. He was born with a defective tricuspid valve and a missing pulmonary valve and that caused blood in his heart to leak back after it was pumped; it also caused his right ventricle to expand. We had begun to see him lose stamina and to say more often, "I'm exhausted." We knew after November that surgery would come sometime in 2009 but we weren't sure when.
The news of the impending surgery affected me deeply. I had strong feelings of love for Nicholas, certainly, but the news that he would be operated on made me examine that love more closely. That news terrified me and my imagination ran amok. I thought of every conceivable outcome, many of them tragic. When we were told the date of surgery, I felt caught in a whirlpool of events over which I had no control.
When I thought I could lose someone I deeply loved, I began to question that love. I learned that I could tell Nicholas I love him, I could kiss him, I could hug him and have a catch with him or take him to a movie. But somehow none of that seemed enough. It wasn't until I felt his vulnerability that I struggled with the question of love for him.
Every evening before we went to sleep, Nicholas came to my bedside to visit. Often I was half asleep when he talked to me about my day and his day or his Transformers or Bionicles or the Friday evening episode of Star Wars Animated. I realized one evening that I wasn't really seeing him or listening to him. I wasn't really experiencing him. So, I started to listen deeply, to hear him, to watch him, to see his expressions, his gestures.
Of course, I continued to tell him I love him, to tuck him into bed, to take him to "Groovy" on the South Side to look for Transformers, to take him to see a movie and to do all the other mundane but important things parents should do that mean love.
But, when I watched him and listened deeply to him, experienced him as fully as possible, in the moment, I felt I was really loving him, especially when I knew his surgery was imminent and real. I was attending to him in a way that made the other things seem peripheral.
I now force myself to do that with the people I love, and I have tried to love more people. To notice them, listen to them, experience them in a deep way that makes "Walk a mile in my shoes" seem simplistic.
I don't know who you love, but I know you love someone. I suggest that you go to that person and experience him or her as fully as you can, in the moment. Listen to each word, watch his or her gestures, give that person the best gift you can give, your full and undivided attention. Listen and watch as if that person might be taken from you at any moment. You will, in an interesting way, become that person and you will experience a compassion and empathy unlike anything you have ever felt. Then, you will really know love.