First Love

It will happen like this: one day you will be hunched under the sink scraping (with your bare hands, because you’ve already placed all the cutlery in the dishwasher) handfuls of uneaten pasta into the garbage and you’ll feel an ache in your lower back that reminds you it’s Friday night and that you’ve had a long week at work and are longing for nothing more than the silence that comes after their bedtime. To remove your socks and lie on the couch, eyes closed, a short respite from the storm. A piece of spaghetti slips through your fingers and falls just short of the bin and splatters the floor and you close your eyes, tight—not out of frustration or anger, but simply of exhaustion, and you hold them closed only long enough to exhale, but not so long anyone sees.

Placing the dish in the sink you hold the cold granite counter with both hands, partially for support but mostly so you don’t inadvertently get sauce on your jeans, and you look across the kitchen to where, beneath a solitary lightbulb which hangs from the ceiling, low in her chair she sits: her cheeks covered with tomato while quietly (and with great care) filling in her colouring book with red crayon. A red tree, a red balloon, a red dog. Red sky. She moves her mouth a little when she concentrates, as you were so often mocked for in grade school. You grin—just you wait, kid.

Torn from the moment — the sink is dripping. That sound, I swear it will be my undoing. It better not be broken, we just paid some guy to come fix it last week. And was the envelope I threw out yesterday from the hydro company a bill or just junk? Did I pay it? Did I send that email I was writing this afternoon? Do I like my job? Uninvited, these are the questions that flood an empty mind. And what was with that guy at work today, who without even asking decided to—

“Daddy,” she chirps. “I love you.”

The silence returns as quickly as it vanished. Everything is the same, but now… different. She doesn’t look up, but slows her hand, sensing the quiet, sensing her words had landed, somehow knowing you are watching her with a smile on your face, and now, a quickened beat in your heart.

She flicks her eyes up at you ever so quickly and flashes a grin, like, “what?” — then back down to her page. You’d heard her say these words before, as she would parrot you back at bedtime, or as part of a song or game. But not unprompted, of her own volition.

And then this thing happens: it’s happened before but always without occasion or ceremony, coming and going within a breath. The sink is still dripping, but the drops fall now as if sliding down a windowpane, stuttering, almost imperceptibly slow. You see her swaddled in those striped blankets hospitals wrap their newborns in. She’s crying, and for the first time in years, so are you. She’s running through the tall grass, looking back just to see you as she laughs—oh, how you’ll come to cherish that laugh—the wind pulling her hair across her face, her tiny feet carrying her ever onward in the dirt: reckless and wild and free. It’s late, and she’s crying—the smell of vomit permeates her room—and you’re half-asleep but right now all that matters is that she is held, held tightly as she shakes, and you whisper into her ear, “Shhh. It’s ok. It’s ok. Daddy’s here. I’m right here.” You’re at the doctors, and she feels the needle puncture her skin and her eyes shoot to yours, terrified, and you see her questioning why you’d let this happen to her and why you’re just sitting there, staring right back at her, biting your lip and squeezing her hand, and maybe, just maybe she sees that somehow this is hurting you too. She’s painted you something at daycare today. Placed a sticker on your nose. Left a cheerio for you in your shoe. Offered you a Smartie, even when she only has three. Prayed for you. Sung to you. Whispered in your ear. Layered a single colour of marker so heavily that the page has worn through but still, insists you hang it at your desk. And you do.

Love is complex. A multi-faceted construct that can take one’s whole life to fully unravel—but standing there as the sky turns from violet to indigo, you know what she meant.

Words are like magic. Full of power. I’m well aware of the strongly held belief that some portion of communication is all about body language, but one cannot deny the immense and abiding impact the written or spoken word can have on the soul. Words can hurt or heal, nurture and carry, or destroy and devour (as flame to tinder). Words stay with us. Words are our lives, our story. Words are our currency, to bless or to build. We hold on to them, we rehearse them and recite them and sing them and write them down. We shout them aloud or hide them under our breath, and sometimes with our very favourite ones, we keep them to ourselves.

Though it was really just a sound—so mechanical, a variance of air pressure across my tympanic membrane—it was a sound that will shape my life, like those flags in the sand that mark where your heart changed and you felt that, yes, life is good. That even one moment like this is worth all the hard ones. That nothing else really matters and that, above and beyond all doubt, in many shapes, forms and colours and words, there is love.

First published Jun 2016