Before you go on, I should warn you that this might get a little mushy. If that makes you uncomfortable or leads you to roll your eyes, you’d best bail out now.
I don’t know if it’s because my wife is in New York and I’m in Budapest, or because I’ve been thinking about my father (who passed away a couple of years ago) lately, or if the city’s simmering summer heat has simply cooked my brain, but I do know that what I’m about to write was in part inspired by something I saw on Soul Pancake, called Street Compliments.
They had set up a booth with a mic, and at a little distance away a massive set of headphones. The idea was simply to get people to express what they liked about the people they loved to the people they loved – friends, children, siblings, partners, whatever. I stopped watching at about 3:15 because I could no longer see the screen, such was the mistiness of my eyes.
And it got me thinking. Compliments are sometimes hard to give, and sometimes even more awkward to receive. I’m not talking about the “Your hair looks good” or the “I like that shirt” kind of compliments. Those are easy. I’m talking about that ones that touch upon personality, character, self, the “I really admire how you handle yourself in stressful situations” or the “I really appreciate that you listen to me” kind of ones. When you think about it, those are the ones that matter, but they’re the ones we share the least. Saying those kinds of things face to face can be difficult though, even with people we love and are extremely close to. But writing them for hundreds of relative strangers to read, well, that’s another matter. So here goes.
To G, my 3-year-old son:
You are, as your mother likes to say, “a ray of sunshine.” You are a supremely sweet, caring, and empathetic little boy. You say ‘sorry’ when you hurt someone and ‘thank you’ when someones does you a kindness, even without prompting of any kind. You honestly care about how other people – classmates, teachers, friends – are feeling, and you try to comfort them when they’re sad or hurt. You say ‘I love you’ at every opportunity, which is just about all the time.
I’m sorry that I get angry at you for stupid things. I’m sorry for every time I’ve pushed you off of my lap with a “G, just get off of me for a bit,” for every time that you’ve looked up at me and held out your arms and I didn’t pick you up and hug you.
You’re smart, and funny, and fun, and I love your manic madness, your penchant for stripping off your clothes and shaking your bum, your incessant questions. I love how you come over to me and lay your cheek on my chest, or climb onto my belly for a snuggle, or take my cheeks in both hands and deliver a sloppy kiss. Never stop asking questions. Never stop being funny. Never stop giving me kisses. And never stop taking your clothes off and shaking your bum.
I love you.
To D, my 7-year-old son:
I’ve watched you grow into the sweetest, most sensitive kid I know. You’ve learned to face challenges with grace, patience, and courage. You can’t imagine the pride with which I’ve watched you learn to read or the joy I take in seeing you lie on your bed, nose deep in a book. You are an amazing builder and engineer; the things you create are splendid, inventive, sometimes astonishing. I treasure your imagination – the way you put it to use it when you are knee-deep in Legos or when you tell a story.
The other day I saw something that said “A lot of parents would do anything for their children but let them be themselves.” I’m sorry for the times I’ve tried to turn you into my own version of who I think you should be. You should be yourself, follow your own interests, pursue your own goals. I’m sorry for every single time I’ve lost my patience with you, when I’ve raised my voice when there was no real reason to, when I’ve ignored or belittled things that are important to you.
You’re bright, you’re receptive, and you’re very, very funny. I love your sense of humor, your sarcastic wit, your clever turn of phrase. I love when you take my hand when we’re walking down the street, or rest your head on my shoulder when we’re sitting on the sofa. I love your interest in the natural world, in telling me things you’ve seen on NatGeo Wild, in relating obscure tidbits you’ve learned about natural history.
In short, my lovely, loving boy, I love you.
To my wife:
After 17 years together, what could I possibly tell you about how I feel that you don’t already know? I’m immensely proud of you. I’m proud of the way you’ve decided what you wanted to do, taken the steps necessary to achieve that goal, and made it happen. You’re a gentle, caring person, passionate about the issues that affect the disadvantaged, the vulnerable, the forgotten. I cherish your optimism, which acts as a perfect counterbalance to my own tendency toward pessimism. I love watching you handle the kids, how much you obviously adore them but don’t smother them, pamper them, or overprotect them.
I’m sorry that sometimes I’m not as romantic as I once was. I’m sorry I don’t bring you flowers more often, don’t remind you enough of how much you mean to me. I’m sorry that I don’t take as much time as I should for us to be alone together. I’m sorry that I often spend evenings with my face in my laptop. I’ll try to do better.
You’re an incredibly smart woman, and that comes through in everything that you do. I love that despite being a girl of the city streets – no, wait, that makes you sound like a hooker – despite being a city girl, you’ve always been game to come along on our outdoor adventures, been happy to camp and hike and, most importantly, fish with me. I admire the way in which you work so hard to keep yourself fit, but are happy to dive into a plate of grilled sausages or gobble up a crème brûlée. The way you are able to keep everything in balance amazes me.
After 17 years, you’re still my friend, my travel-buddy, my editor, my companion, my lover, my love.
I love you.
And that’s all I have to say about that. Told you it was going to get maudlin. I suppose that’s inevitable when you undertake an exercise of this kind. But the thought of leaving these things unspoken is, well, inexpressibly sad.