My father rarely says “I love you.” We have worked around his fumbling of this phrase. Each night, before he leaves for work or at the end of each phone call, I say “I love you.” And he always replies “Me too.” This has been tradition for as long as I can recall. At this point, when he doesn’t respond immediately with the saying — one that he has probably spoken more times than his own name — I grow playfully angry. “I said I love you.” He then replies, “Yeah, yeah, me too!”
My father rarely cries. I have only seen him do so twice: once when his cousin passed away from breast cancer and the other when his father faded fast after a fall left him fighting on the floor. When his cousin passed away, my father sat sobbing on the taupe leather couch in our living room. I sat beside him. I was young and at an age when I didn’t quite understand death or grief. What I could understand — at a basic level — was sadness. And I knew that my father was sad. My father rarely expresses his feelings. So, in a minimalistic way — almost as if to comfort me from the show of his vulnerability — he said “Daddy is just a little sad right now, but he’s okay.” I, too, stumbled over the only phrase I desperately needed to say in attempts to console him. If aversion to the word “love” was inheritable, I had gained this from my father.
Years later, I sat on the same taupe leather couch and cried. This happened during the summer I trained myself not to sleep. The summer during which I struggled with a debilitating anxiety disorder that left me writhing inward on myself like a salted slug. I cried with an intenseness that I have never known before, clutching my jaw closed as the tint of my face became a mixture of red and blue hues. My father agreed to take me to the doctor’s office. When we arrived, he sensed my unwillingness to head this alone regardless of that fact that I had not uttered a word. He followed the doctor and I into the consultation room and spoke with the doctor in a calmness that I had clawed at longingly. I somehow always fell just out of reach. At the end of the visit, the doctor prescribed me the lowest dosage of Xanax — 10 milligrams to take as needed.
By the time we returned home, my breathing had steadied. In the kitchen, my father embraced me in a warm hug, the kind that needs no accompanying words. Despite that, and true to his character, he spoke simply: “I don’t like to see you sad. I want you to get better.” But, what happened next was entirely unexpected. My father said “I love you.” In that moment, after I had just managed to wipe the excess tears from the morning away from my eyes, I began to cry again. Only this time, I was crying for a different reason. Not because I was thinking about all the ways my anxiety was eating at my insides, but because for the first time, I heard my father say the phrase that he had always floundered over. And as his daughter, I choked on the only other words I wanted and needed to say: “Thank you.”
In the following months, my paralyzing panic became less frequent. However, one night while away at school, I slipped back into an unmanageable anxiety attack. I had been in a lecture and felt a brush of fear envelop me. I choked back tears as they formed in the back of my throat, stinging and sharp like tacks. I needed to call my father, but I couldn’t find the capability to speak. Instead, I hurried from the classroom and into the crisp, autumn air. I found a stone bench under a streetlamp that had dimly illuminated the main concourse of campus. I sat there and composed a text message. Without stopping, I typed a meandering message that read along the lines of this: “Do you remember that morning in the kitchen? When you told me you loved me? I never thanked you, but it meant more to me than I could ever express. So, thank you.” My father responded quickly and in an anticipatory way. Before I could send another message, one that said “I love you,” he replied. And he replied in the only way that made sense and with the only words I had hoped to see on my screen: “Me too.”
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