I love you.
We’ve all heard these words before. We’ve said them before. We’ve given them out like they were candies wrapped in little blue boxes with silver strings, we’ve imagined them into our desires so we could feel a little less lonely, we’ve ascribed them to the people we are supposed to care about.
We define our worth by how many times we get to hear these words, we hem them into the lining of our lifeline, we seek reassurance in the form of these three words because the continual validation that we are important is far more valuable to us than the love itself.
These are the words we live for.
We are taught to chase an ideal love before we are taught how to love. We spend our lives looking for something that we don’t even understand. We grow up knowing that we want love before we know what it is.
Yet somehow, despite the significance we attribute to the ideal love, every day we love ever so recklessly, taking it for granted.
I used to say I love you to my family and to my friends ever so easily, the words tumbling from of my lips carelessly, absentmindedly. I loved them the way I breathed; I loved them without ever thinking about it.
I never did understand the weight of what I was saying.
I think it’s because my heart was always closed, trapped like a hostage behind a ribcage jail that held it back like a clawed hand. My heartbeat clattered on, shaking blood through my veins and only ever beating within the boundaries of what I allowed myself to feel.
You see, I was scared of how much it might hurt if I was vulnerable, if I let myself love properly. So instead I decided to hide inside my mind, using my intelligence like a shield, using my writing as a mask.
Maybe if I had known what love was back then, I would have done things differently.
This summer, I spent a month in Kenya, tracing my lineage back to my parents’ East Africa and learning to redefine everything I thought I knew. In Limuru, a poor town just outside of Nairobi, every day I would walk through the rusted gate into the Body of Christ Children’s Centre and work with these extraordinary kids who changed my life.
I remember feeling it for the first time when I was reading a book with a beautiful little girl named Selina. I remember what it was like when she took my hand silently, instantly drawn to me because maybe I could give her something she hadn’t been given growing up. I remember her climbing into my lap, her fingers curling around my hair, her eyes wide and wondering.
I remember what it was like when one of our girls picked up a book and began reading out loud to her friends for the first time. I remember Selina sneaking out of class to find me and ask when I was coming back, her smile bigger than anything I could carry in my arms when I told her I would be back the next day to read with her.
I remember what it was like when the guarded eyes of the older children, who had learned to isolate themselves, grew bright with trust and laughter. I remember how these children, when they were all together, were happier than anyone I had ever met. I remember the indescribable joy in the air as I watched them playing and singing and dancing, their smiles sun-bright and impossibly blissful.
I remember my soul telling me that it was at peace.
I remember learning what it meant to be wealthy. I remember understanding just how necessary it is that we close our eyes and open our hearts.
I remember learning how to love. I don’t think I ever truly believed in unconditional love until then, when I was unconditionally loving each and every child there.
I remember holding Selina in my arms, not knowing that it would be the last time I would ever see her. I remember back coming the next day to an almost empty school when the riots in the streets had become dangerous enough for families to leave until the elections were over.
I remember not being able to stop the hurting in my heart when I realized my goodbyes had been stolen from me.
I remember the shock; I knew I was going to have to leave them eventually but I never expected them to leave me first.
I remember the rainfall tears pouring down from our cheeks on the last day. The few remaining kids who didn’t have a place to go home to when things got unsafe were clinging to our waists and clutching our hands as we walked out through the rusted gate for the last time.
I remember what these beautiful children were calling out to us as we drove away, their hands reaching through the gate, our hands pressed against the glass, really believing that we could touch each other one last time if we just tried hard enough. I remember hearing their cries:
I love you!
And for the first time, I said I love you back and meant it with every fiber of my being. There was no question, no fear, no lack of understanding. I was loving wholeheartedly in a way I didn’t know was even possible.
It was the most powerful, beautiful, and devastating thing I have ever experienced in my life.
I guess I’ll never know if they could hear all of this in my voice through the glass as we drove away.
For these children, loving anyone and being loved is a privilege.
They can’t afford the luxury of the irresponsible, vague love we take for granted. They love with everything they have every chance they get. We love carelessly every day without understanding the wonder of what we have; instead, we’re always chasing after an ideal of love, and measuring the number of times these words are tossed to us instead of appreciating what they mean.
I used to do just this and call it love because it was all I knew. But I love you means so much more to me now than it ever could before. My heart has never been so free to feel; never in my life have I gone through each day in so much pain but being so happy at the same time. Never have I been able to see things more clearly.
And it’s all because, in Kenya, I learned how to love.
I love you.
These three words have changed my life. And every night before I sleep, I tell the children at Body of Christ how much I love them.
Some nights, I swear I can hear them calling back to me –
I love you too.