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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

My parents are not the type to say I love you. Their love language is action-based, not verbal. My dad has only said it to his three children a handful of times – more often now that we’re all adults – likely because he’s starting to feel his mortality, but my mother? In my four decades of living? Nope.

The unspoken words are instead suspended in the air as she prepares Tupperware containers of food or buys me eye drops in bulk from Costco, placing them on my kitchen counter while stating, in a brusque, spartan tone, that I need to take care of my eyes.

I suppose it bothered me when I was growing up, but like some things in life, you don’t miss what you never had. Having accepted their unspoken contract of communicating affection, I now just pay closer attention to what my parents do for me instead of what they say.

I was watching a TV show once, and the actor on-screen told another she loved him. It came out mechanically, it felt automatic, which made me realize that it’s difficult to say, even for actors.

In my romantic relationships, on many occasions, I found those who said it flawlessly, with a creamy finesse that evoked confidence, were probably the most practiced at saying it – even to those they didn’t love. So it was up to me to listen to my intuition, and ask myself whether they truly meant it.

The ones that stumbled, who said it disjointedly, whose voices shook in a low baritone that I could barely hear, even in a silent car at night after a date with the engine shut off. The words “I love you” were rationed, emerging with the fear that it might not boomerang. They took a risk to hear “I love you, too” back, which makes one’s heart not only blossom into unimaginable joy but breathe a huge emotional sigh of relief. But sometimes those three little words don’t ricochet, and the powerful, vulnerable torpedo that’s been released is felt as a devastating loss accompanied by heavy dust of anxiety.

I often hear people saying “love ‘ya,” lacing the loaded phrase with a blanket of casualty, as if fearing that a flicker of seriousness could expose the desire to establish a deeper connection. I myself, am selectively vulnerable (due to my anxious-avoidant attachment style). I add the cliched “‘darlin’” after I say it to friends and family. I pray they won’t notice how inauthentic I sound. But I learned that even this tactic was failing when a casual acquaintance commented that it was easy to see through my mask, and it was okay. Maybe I’m more like my mother than I thought.

Perhaps one of the bravest “I love you” moments for me came decades ago from an old boyfriend during my teens. Seeing through my inability to meet his intensity, he grabbed my upper arms with his hands, looked me in the eyes with unwavering courage and said it. He was willing to carry both our vulnerabilities, allowing the air to hold the three words. I shook, my heart stopped and as he leaned in to kiss me, I started to see vulnerability as a strength. Those words – said with no hint of dishonesty – were powerful.

My niece – who is six – says it in a playful way to adult ears, but she means it in the only way her young soul knows. Her understanding of love is as deep as her age allows: simple, pure and devoid of conditions. I make it a point to say it back because, at that age, our caregivers cement how we navigate our relationships as adults.

My nephew is two. He will look at me through the video screen with a gleam in his eye and struggle to get the words out, but I wait in anticipation. When he finally opens his mouth: “Ay wav yu.” It is unusual but decipherable. He then stands back and smiles with pride. As a casualty of childhood emotional neglect, I do not wish upon either of them an unresponsive, inconsistent message about worthiness; so I never miss the opportunity to tell them both that I love them back.

I still listen to the intonations of how people say “I love you,” whether it is a woman talking to her husband on the phone on public transit, or a drunk man at 2 a.m. who’s just left a nightclub downtown.

But my favourite delivery comes from my emotionally available partner. He’s nailed that sweet spot, somewhere between being comfortable with his vulnerability and yet understanding my discomfort at hearing the phrase. “I love you,” he says with a tentative, shy smile. He signals that it’s okay to show him how I feel, too, aware they’re three tough words for me to string together. And the message here – that it doesn’t need to come out like a perfectly rehearsed song – is how I was able to slowly open my heart again. My heart had been in hibernation for a long time; it’s been a big leap in my healing.

Yasmeen Tiongson Awadh lives in Toronto.

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