I’ve mentioned before that my husband Ben and I were high school sweethearts. We started dating at the beginning of our sophomore year, which made high school mostly fun, and probably a lot easier for us than it was for other kids.
The thing, though, with meeting your partner so young is that you sometimes feel things that are too hard or uncomfortable or complex to put into words – simply because you haven’t had much practice yet. And sometimes, especially when you’re fifteen, completely lovely things feel embarrassing to say when other people are around to hear them.
For the first part of our young relationship we didn’t say, “I love you.” Maybe those words felt too grown-up, too serious for Ben. And it could’ve been that they felt too commonplace for me. To me, “love” felt like the most natural word ever to be spoken. When I was a kid, I remember hearing someone say that our family said “love” like other people say “the” – which wasn’t wrong and I would never change.
At some point, though, even complicated feelings need to come out, one way or another. For us, it was through the curly-cords of mid-nineties telephones. Before hanging up, one of us would tap the mouthpiece of the phone four times. As far as I remember, we never really talked about what the four taps meant, but we both knew. They meant “I more than like you” and “being with you feels like home.” They really meant “I love you” – but we didn’t know it yet.
Over time, four of anything came to mean “I love you.” Four quick hand squeezes before a test. Four pen taps on the table at study hall. Little reminders that we were in this thing together.
Eventually, of course, we did say “I love you” – but we never fully retired the four taps. We’ve always signed letters with four little x’s and four little o’s. Sometimes when the babies were crying so loudly that we wouldn’t have been able to hear a verbal “I love you” over their shrieks, four long shoulder squeezes were enough to pull us through until nap time.
A few years ago, I was sitting with my arms wrapped around our older son, and without thinking about it, I squeezed his little hand four times. I explained to him what it meant for his dad and me, and asked if he’d like it to be a sign of love for the whole family. Since then, there have been thousands of taps. At school drop-offs and after strike-outs. When melt-downs have left us so drained that words are too much, we can always reach out, squeeze a hand four times and find each other again.
I love words, but sometimes words aren’t right for the moment. Every now and again, the perfect thing to say is nothing, with four silent taps.