I said it in the general direction of my distended belly, certain she could hear through the stretched dermal layers that separated my words from her ears.
I whispered it into the spongy, uncalcified surface of her head, certain the words would be absorbed into the delicate folds of her gray matter.
I assured her of its truth as I rocked her from tears to sleep, when her eyes first met mine in the morning, when she smiled with recognition at my face, when she crawled towards me babbling mama, the earliest of her words.
I love you.
Long before she could understand the sentiment, I sensed she understood the emotion. She did not yet love; not in the way that I loved her. She was dependent on me. She felt comforted by me. But she did not know where she ended and I began. She didn’t understand me as separate, let alone as an object of love.
No matter. I could live with this intense unrequited passion. I did not love her to be loved. I loved her because she was. I loved her with primal ferocity and maternal tenderness. With deep gratitude and a bit of disbelief.
It’s crazy love, one of my friends tried to explain what it was like, before Sophia was born. There’s nothing like it.
But like all lovers, I eventually began to wonder when I would hear those three words directed towards me.
The words came in stages. For about six months it was said as a ritual, something she parroted when Kevin and I put her to bed or whenever we parted. She clearly felt deep affection for us, and she was expressing that affection, but it was rote. Any words could have replaced, “I love you,” and they would have held the same meaning.
I determined that, unlike the understanding of other feelings (look at my eyes, they are filled with tears, I feel sad), love could not be taught. The ability to say the words and mean it is something quite magical. Almost everyone has the capacity to love, but it is the most ineffable of emotions.
I would have to wait until she had her epiphany. It came one night, under the most quotidian of circumstances. We were sitting together at dinner, Sophia, Kevin and I eating something unmemorable, talking, listening, laughing. She suddenly looked at us with a new light in her eyes.
“I love daddy; I love mommy; and I love me. We are a whole family,” she observed.
Even now, I am awash with the simple truth of it. She learned to express love through the experience of being loved. And hearing it over and over and over again.