Gifts to Equal Love
We were lining up for Sunday school classes. I was nine years old and Aaron was almost eleven. He handed me a note, folded into a one inch square, made out of the morning’s church program then blushed to the tips of his ears and quickly turned away without a word. My name was printed in blue ink, all caps, and there was an arrow pointing to where I should start to unfold the paper. As I clutched the note in my hand I felt that there was something inside. It wasn’t just a note. It was a gift.
I unfolded the paper and a charm fell into my hands: a golden teardrop cage that held a sparkling amber ball inside. I showed my friend, who giggled with me that I got a gift (in church!) from a boy.
It was true love. I was certain.
The damage was done. My young girl heart was trained that gifts meant love – tangible gifts that came in packages to unwrap, even if they weren’t fancy ones. My paternal grandmother, a petite German woman with a heavy accent and short white-blonde hair, was especially guilty of perpetuating this myth in my heart. It took me most of my growing up years to understand that love alone can be given away and received with as much pleasure as a wrapped package.
My parents delighted us each year with thoughtful and often unexpected gifts for Christmas. Even when we were going through our poor years as a family they somehow made it magical on that special morning. I expected the same thing when I was a senior in high school but the bounty under the tree from my parents that year shook up my gifts-equal-love understanding.
I was preparing to go to college and they decided to help me by giving me flannel sheets (green plaid on a cream background), and a giant magenta duffle bag. How could they love me if their gifts said, “please pack your bags and go”? I couldn’t hold back my tears because, in my selfish teenage heart, those gifts meant they were trying to send me away.
My mother assured me that they weren’t ready to see me go – just yet. When my tears dried I had to reevaluate how I knew that I was loved. If receiving these gifts made me feel awful and unloved how could I know they loved me? How did I know anyone loved me if I couldn’t trust presents to let me know?
During this year of life I was at the apex of my high school running career. It had become my goal to break the school record in the 300-meter hurdle race. My dad had a personal interest in my running since in his glory days he had also sprinted around the track. Towards the end of the season he started getting home from work earlier a few days a week so he could be there to watch my progress and offer advice through my training.
His voice of encouragement became a stronghold in my mind. We counted out steps between hurdles together and went through race strategy over and over again. He had full confidence in my ability and so I gained a nervous confidence in myself as well.
All I had to do was get through the preliminary race. There are only eight hurdles in the 300-meter hurdle race. That isn’t very many. The first five are staggered along the track in each lane; the last three hurdles are lined in rows down the home stretch.
When the gun sounded I took off, counting steps in my head. Everything was silent except the sounds of my breathing and counting and footsteps. I had never been in such a running zone before. When I got to the third hurdle I heard my dad. The only sound that penetrated my concentration was his voice as he called my name and words of encouragement as I sprinted by.
It was a good thing I was only listening to him because when I got to the fifth hurdle I fell. I have no idea how it happened. One minute I was flying around the track and the next I was sprawled in the dirt and chalk lines. There was still silence in my head and all I knew was that I had to get up and go again, not because of any rational thought but because my body knew that I wasn’t at the end.
So I got up. And I won the race.
Later I would learn that everyone around me was screaming at me to get up, the bus bringing the softball team home had just rumbled into the parking lot near the track and they all witnessed, and jeered at, my spectacular crash. The baseball team, playing on the field next to the track, wondered what had happened because the commotion was so loud. Yet I didn’t hear any of it. The only thing I heard after the gun went off was my dad’s voice. I was deaf to everything else.
This story would have an awesome ending if I were able to say that two days later I ran the race of my life and beat that school record I had been chasing. It doesn’t end that way though. My right knee was covered with a pulpy scab trying to heal. I was spooked. I didn’t beat the record and I didn’t feel like the champion I wanted to be when I exited the track for the last time that year.
My dad told me different though. He gave me a hug and told me that he thought my efforts were amazing. He let me be disappointed but not downcast as he told me he knew I had wanted to finish faster.
I understood more about love after that race. The gift of an anchoring voice to hear and listen to amid the confusion of life – that is also called the gift of love. Love was the gift my dad had given me, wrapped up in his time, freely given, hard to see.
Do I always listen to that voice in my head telling me that I can win, that I’m made of better stuff than I realize? Do any of us? I wish I could hear that voice all the time because it is the voice that tells me, beyond any material gift, that I am loved and valued. My dad’s patient gift of love to me taught me to be that voice for others. We are all running different races and we all fall unexpectedly. Am I giving the gift of encouragement and speaking with love so that my fellow racers will keep on running?
When our first child was born he had to be intubated immediately and was whisked off to the NICU where he would stay for three weeks. One of his lungs was compressed from a giant cyst that required surgery to be removed. I wanted to hold my dear baby and soothe him but wires and bandages and stitches were in the way. The nurses told me that the most reassuring thing I could do at that time was to rest my hand on his head and tell him I was there.
I remembered how powerful the sound of a voice could be and so I kept talking to him, my hand lightly resting on his fuzzy scalp. I quietly narrated the nothings of the day with the hope that, from the beginning, my voice would mean love and strength in his life. I wanted him know how to finish this race that I had placed him in by giving birth, so I kept talking, telling him to keep fighting so he could wake up and heal and come home.
He’s a healthy boy now. When he can’t sleep he asks me to read aloud to him, even if we’ve already read. Somehow, my voice helps him feel at peace. Is that because I talked to him so much when he was tiny and helpless? I like to hope so.
I still love to get presents. My husband often shows his love through creative gifts that I’m always delighted to receive. Now though, I’m more aware of love given in packages that are hard to see: my children doing their chores without being asked, a phone call in the middle of the day just to say hello, snow scraped off my windshield in the morning, a note in my inbox from a friend.
I kept the trinket that meant true love to me when I was young and I hung it on my charm bracelet. When I see it I smile at the memory and then it reminds me that love itself is a gift to give.