I was a cruel child. I freely gave myself to pretty much anyone who I thought needed / wanted me, but withheld myself from the one who needed me the most.
My mother survives, but I’m still not sure she’s lived much. After the divorce, we moved north, first to her sister’s, then to a one-bedroom apartment — I don’t remember if we shared a bed, or if we had two mattresses, or if she slept in the living room and I in the bedroom. (I just realized I don’t remember this, which kind of freaks me out.) She worked hard, and I was mortified to be the child always picked up last at day care, especially when the watcher pityingly told me that child protective services would come if my mom weren’t more punctual. I repeated this to my mother, often, but did not note a change in her behavior.
My mother defines nearly everything in terms of strict utility. A pen is a pen, whether a $.20 Bic or a $60 fountain pen. Walking is walking; our street’s sidewalk is equivalent to the bike path behind the house, which is equivalent to a fire trail around the reservoir, a rocky tread up a mountain, or a bright, sterile aquarium at the mall. Food is necessary for survival, and although she is capable of enjoying it, she prefers to stay in the cave (see, e.g., her opening the fridge this weekend and me pseudo-vomiting 20 yards away, due to the rotting seafood she hadn’t realized was unsuitable for consumption).
Love seems to inspire humans more than any other phenomenon. We breed, of course; we devote ourselves to our passions; we are restless, seeking, hungry for something to love. We read and write and sing and work, work, work, all in the name of love. We build cities for love. We clean hospitals for love. We do nearly everything for love. I worry about my mother because I had shut down her love, and today she loves so few that I’m unsure she’s alive.
As a fourth grader, all you want is the boy you adore to like you back. But once you’ve been in love, if not sooner, you realize that, of course, humans love love not because we need someone else to protect us and keep us warm — after all, that isn’t love. Instead, we love love because we love how the act of loving another makes us feel. To be in love is to be most alive and human — to be generous, to be expansive, to try your best, because you decide that is the best way to honor your loved one. Being in love is wonderful, not Love Actually’s “terrible agony” — said agony is that of Florentino Ariza, not the actual manifested love of the hundreds of miracles we see every day, or, in fiction, of Tami and Eric Taylor.
Especially after the divorce, my mother needed to love. She picked me up for bear hugs, smothered me with kisses, told me she loved me again and again, and begged for me to kiss her back. I squirmed, I turned my cheek, I kicked her, I told her I didn’t want to kiss her, I wanted to watch Power Rangers and read books and get a dog and play the clarinet and be an astronomer and climb trees and love my friends and miss my dad. I rebuffed her, refusing to let her fully manifest her love, her humanity.
It seems to me that we do not need others to love us so much as we need others not to shut down our love. Maybe I’m just more callous than most, or refuse to recognize my needs, but it seems that we think we need to be loved, not because we necessarily need other people to luxuriate in loving us — after all, we, personally, don’t get to feel those feelings — but because we need others not to shut down our love. We want to love, and we don’t want anyone taking that high away from us. We think that those most likely to let us fully manifest love are those who love us, in turn — this might be true. But the millions who love Justin Bieber certainly don’t expect him to love them back, individually. Instead, it is enough to give, and give, and love, because the act of loving is so self-renewing that one may sustain — may exhilarate — in it as long as one wants.