It is a cool summer morning in Manitou Springs, Colorado. I’m wearing running shorts and a jacket, walking the dusty red stretch of ground between Cabin 4 and Cabin 5, both of which are occupied with Kuehns for this one week of the summer. Josiah, my nephew, is shuffling beside me, a hooded red sweatshirt draped over his head, a baseball cap topping it off. This is his favorite fashion statement of all time. He is humming the song we were singing this morning, making up words as he goes.
Josiah reaches for my hand and I take it in an instant. He looks up at me and smiles, scrunching his eyes into little black slits.
I am smitten.
“I just love you so much!” I say.
It’s been nearly six months since I last saw Josiah, and at three-and-a-half years old, he is bursting with energy—the sort of energy that has landed him in the E.R. three times and counting. In the past few years, Josiah’s body has been so busy moving his limbs and learning to be a Jedi that his speech patterns haven’t caught up. You can tell that the wheels of his mind are spinning, the words are just muffled and slow to come out.
Josiah’s most common statements are “Me too” and “Why?” (Not terribly surprising for a second child or a toddler). He has a why for every command, suggestion, rule, or instruction. Still, when he responds to my statement, it catches me off guard.
“Why…you…loooove me?” Josiah asks. He takes effort in forming each word, making sure that I know what he’s saying.
I do, but then I don’t. A good aunt, I reason, would have an instant response, but I’m at a loss for the right thing to say.
I think of all of the stock answers that we give to this question—the explanations we conjure for love. My default with children is to tell them the truth, but I’m not exactly sure what the truth is in this case.
“Because” is not a suitable answer for a toddler, especially one whose favorite question is why. It is unsatisfying for adults as well. Because is just not an answer.
Because you’re my nephew? Because I’m your aunt? Do I really only love Josiah because we are blood relatives and family? Does that mean I wouldn’t love him if we weren’t related? I don’t want him to believe this. Nor do I really want to think it myself.
I think of all of the things that have endeared Josiah to me over the past few days. The way he sings the Imperial March while swinging on the playground. His instant delight at finding fun noodles near the pool and inspired notion to dip them into the water and use them as a fire hose. I think of how engaging it has been to hear him use full sentences—revealing the silly sensitive boy that he is.
Is this the reason I love him? Is it really? If he could not speak or walk or dance or sing would I love him any less? I don’t want Josiah to believe that he is loved for what he does. I don’t want him to grow up thinking that his actions might change my affections (though if I’m totally honest, it’s possible they might).
A week later I recount this scene to the man I’ve been dating for the past five months, a man who goes to Oakland to fetch my car and brings flowers when he meets me at the airport, but who still hasn’t reached a point where he can say those three words to me.
“You know, he probably won’t remember anything you said,” the man reasons.
“I know,” I tell him. “But I will.”
As I am processing this beside the man at the airport, I realize that what really concerns me on that dirt road in Colorado is not the question of why I love Josiah, but the question of why anyone would love me. I am afraid of saying the wrong thing to him because three decades into life I still do not know what the right thing is. I can postulate all I want on the mysteries and misfortunes of love. I can read books and listen to sermons and write essays on the hard and satisfying labor that goes into loving another human, but I cannot make somebody love me. I cannot explain why it does or doesn’t happen.
Back in Colorado I am making my best effort to construct a right concept of love. Meanwhile a three-and-a-half-year-old boy in a hoodie and a cap is staring up at me, sucking on two fingers and waiting for my response.
“Well,” I tell Josiah. “Because…because you’re you.”
He looks at me blankly, as if my answer is not altogether satisfying. But apparently it is acceptable. Two minutes later Josiah is running headlong toward a tree, which somebody mercifully keeps him from hitting. We do this because we love him. And we love him because he is Josiah. Because he is ours. And quite simply, because he is.