I was talking with my girlfriends the other day when one of them said, “we never said ‘I love you” growing up in our house”. I sat there and thought, “huh: we kinda never did either.”
It was the sign of the times I suppose– a 70′s kid being raised by someone born in the 1920′s, at least in my house. My assumption is that it was implied: I’m your parent, therefore I love you. And I’m sure I heard it a few times, it’s just that my memory doesn’t remember that far back. I would say it to other people, though– as a kid you do that. Or at least I did that. But in the general family, it wasn’t the norm to leave off a phone call and say “love you.” We just weren’t like that.
What I can remember is bringing the spoken form “I love you” into my life–full force. I was probably 15, and we’d just come back from a Murray Family Reunion. My Dad had 7 kids in his family originally, and I think there were 5 of them there. With their kids…and their kids…it was a mini-family circus under a beautiful sun. I for one had a total blast. When it was over, we headed home to my family’s house about an hour away, bringing my Uncle Phil and Aunt Anne Marie with us. I loved all of my uncles for different reasons. With Uncle Phil it was his amazing humor. He had me laughing a mile a minute. I can still see his blue eyes shining and twinkling as he’d make a joke or pull a stunt on me and my sister. He was pure fun.
The night we came home from the family reunion, we all gathered in the living room to watch old family slides. (Kids: those are stamped-sized photos on film that need to be splashed on a wall with a light and a really good magnifying machine called a projector.) We’d ordered pizza, and we were all laughing and joking, when Uncle Phil made fun of me in one of the photos. I don’t remember what he said, all I know is in my teenaged angst and anger at being made fun of, I simply stood up and stormed out of the room. Everyone called for me to come back, including Uncle Phil, but I tossed my hair and went straight to bed. To Hell with them, I thought, this will teach them. I’ll just leave! And I headed off to bed.
A little time later, I was awoken by rattling sounds coming up the stairwell. I jumped out of bed and looked outside into the bright hallway to see EMTs taking my precious Uncle Phil away on a stretcher. He was alert but breathing hard from an oxygen mask. I was crushed and my parents were trying to keep my in my room until the EMT’s left. It was the worst night of my young life. I have tears in my eyes as I write this—about 3 decades later.
I awoke to the news that Uncle Phil had died of a heart attack overnight. And I knew what I’d done. I had left that group of fun and family frolic: tossed my hair at them all because of something silly. And now Uncle Phil was dead. And his last words he ever heard from me were some fitful stupid teen blather–and now he was gone forever.
About a week after the funeral, I knew I couldn’t get Uncle Phil back, couldn’t change what I’d done…..but I could START doing something new. And from then on, any time I got on a phone with someone in my family and the call ended, I’d say “love you.” I will never forget the awkwardness in speaking those words–and wondering if my parents would think I was a weirdo. The first time I said it to my Dad, to end our phone conversation, there was absolute silence. I almost felt bad for springing it on him. Eventually he murmured an “.uh….okay”. And we hung up.
I’m happy to say I’ve kept up that tradition for more than 30 years of my life–and almost always when I whisper it, or shout it, to someone dear to me I take a moment of thanks and gratitude to my Uncle Phil, who in leaving this life for the next taught me a lesson that has made my life richer and fuller than it ever could have been otherwise.
Thank you, Uncle Phil. I love you.