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Learning to Love

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“It’s our little secret,” I hear grandma say into the black metal telephone handset I’m holding with two hands.

I’m about 5 years old.

I smile.

She and I end our phone calls like this. Always.

I tell her, “Grandma, I have a secret.”

And she says, “I have a secret too. I love you, Tatele.”

“Bye.”

*Tah-teh-le,* which rhymes with “bottle of,” is Yiddish for *little-papa* and is used to refer to a little boy.

I place the phone receiver back on the base to hang up the phone.

Our little secret is her saying, “I love you.”

Sari and I are kids. Maybe 11 and 8.

The Fiddler on the Roof songbook, with its yellow, Chagall-painting-inspired cover, sits atop the living room piano.

We are singing our favorite duet.

She plays and I sing, “Do you love me?”

And she responds, shrilly, just like Golde in the play, “Do I what?”

I repeat, “Do you love me?”

As scripted, she repeats the question as “Do I love you?”

She sings about being busy, mocks the question, and accuses me (Tevye) of having indigestion.

Finally she says, “You’re a fool.”

I respond flatly, knowingly, “I know.”

Were there an audience, it would get a laugh.

I continue, back to the question, “But do you love me?”

She responds, again without answering.

Until, finally, after another set of asking, she relinquishes, “I suppose I do.”

Ava, the therapist, says to my father, “Donald, your daughter expressed that she wants to hear you love her. Can you tell her?”

Sari, on a break from college, is sitting in a repurposed classroom chair in the Upper West Side apartment’s bedroom turned therapy office. She looks forward, eyes wide and unblinking.

Dad chokes back tears as he tries to speak.

His left hand rotates in small circles as though to say, “I’m working on getting the words together to say something.

His right hand navigates over his glasses to position thumb over right eye, pinky over left.

He manages, “Tell her that she knows her father loves her.”

Ava, “Can you tell her directly?”

He cannot.

Senior year of college, shortly after losing my virginity, I tell Stacy F., “I love you.”

It’s a second first for me with her.

“Can you say luve?” I ask my buddy Erik I’ve known since we were two.

We are in our mid-to-late 20s, and we’re at a bar.

He is in a bit of a panic as his girlfriend—soon to be fiance, and later bride—has told him that she loves him. He knows that if he can’t say the same words, the relationship will end.

So we practice.

Luve, like love, but with an *oo* vowel sound,” I coach. “Can you say that? As in, ‘I love you.’ But, ‘I luve you.”

We practice.

He and Pam are still married.

Jane taught me most everything I know about love.

About seeking it.

About enjoying it.

About expressing it.

Dad and I are on our third road trip across the country.  I’m just past 30 years old.

It’s special time together.

We are on a highway near Los Angeles when he starts criticizing.

Without any heat behind the words, I say, “I know you tell me that you only critique me because you love me and if you aren’t going to be honest, who is going to? Enough. That’s not love. Where I live, criticism is criticism, compliments, compliments. Love is love. Not shame.”

“Dad,” I say, holding up three fingers, “I’ve got three things to tell you.”

He can’t respond.

He’s on a ventilator.

But he is responsive.

He looks at me through his thick glasses.

“I’ve got three things to tell you,” I repeat, figuring out exactly what I’m about to say.

I hold up one finger and say, “One, I love you.”

I hold up a second finger and say, “Two, I love you.”

He nods along as I hold up a third and say, “Three, I love you.”

I repeat this refrain at the end of every subsequent call and visit with him.

On a trip I make from LA shortly before his death, one when he isn’t in the hospital, he takes my hand in his.

He looks me in the eyes for a moment, pulls and pushes on my arm caught in his legendary grip. He looks around, and with his other hand, holds up three fingers, thumb holding down pinky.

“I have three three things to say,” he chokes out, eyes welling with tears.

“I know, Dad. I know.”

That’s the best he can do.

So, I say it as I count them out on my fingers.

“I love you, I love you, I love you.”

In writing this article, I phone my sister to ask her about her particular memories related to this story.

And she too remembers dad holding up three fingers.

But not as I did.

She remembered it being a sign from his time in Boy Scouts. That he used it to mean “scout’s honor”—that he was telling the truth.

Alas, I was never able to get dad to say it to her or for her to hear it.

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