I can hear the murmur of his voice coming from upstairs. It is so early that the birds have only just started to chirp and the sky is still a bit dark. A few minutes ago, I heard the patter of little feet – they are Tommy’s, I’m sure, as he is always the first awake – and then the rustling of the covers. After a moment, the reading began.
It is not the first time that he has read to them. They are almost done with the book he started just a few weeks ago, as he reads to them at night and whenever we all need to take a break from the world. I guess that’s one plus of being quarantined. We always have time for a few minutes of reading.
There are a lot of kinds of love, that I know. I think I’ve felt them all in just four decades, though who knows if there’s a secret kind of love I’ll discover when I’m 80. But this kind of love – the reading books in the early dawn hours kind of love – is something that bowls me over every time it happens. It’s an everyday sort of love. But it’s also a very specific kind of love.
Years ago, I remember hearing about the idea of “love languages.” It was popularized in a 1992 book by Gary Chapman called “The Five Love Languages” and I found it fascinating. In it, he argues that each person has a primary way in which they express and experience love: words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time or physical touch. I found the idea fascinating, but ultimately limiting. Which one was I? Why did it feel like such a false choice to pick one over the other?
In fact, over the past two and a half years of widowhood, I’ve appreciated all of these kinds of love. Take physical touch, for example. I didn’t always want to be embraced by mere acquaintances, but I did need the hugs that dear friends gave me at the kitchen counter when I felt like I just couldn’t go on. I did need my family to stand guard around me at the burial of my husband, so close that I felt as though they were circling around me to defend me from some sort of armed bandit. I did need the cuddles I got from my kids.
That wasn’t all. I loved the words of affirmation that others said to me, even if I was frustrated by constantly being referred to as “brave.” And I appreciated the many times friends stayed to chat when dropping off meals and other gifts in the early months. I was forever grateful for the time that others spent with me, when I just didn’t want to be alone.
But ultimately, as I think this blog shows, I do have a preferred love language. Or at least I’ve needed one thing more than others in my widowhood: acts of service.
I’m not saying every widow feels this way. But there is something about needing a ton of help that makes you appreciate the many acts of service that others can show.
I think “acts of service” sounds a bit clinical, actually. When I think about acts of service, I don’t just think about the times that someone did grunt work for me like fixing a doorknob or bringing me some milk. I also think about the acts of service that were softer, the ones that made me feel again.
Because for me, the early days of widowhood made me feel so empty. Sometimes, I didn’t even feel sad – I just felt lost.
It was then that these acts of service were particularly important. The times when I’d be out at a party, feeling uncomfortable, and a friend would say to me, “hey, walk home with me,” even though I knew she wasn’t ready to leave yet. The times when I’d be exhausted from carrying Tommy all day, and someone would spend an hour distracting him at the park so I could sit on a bench by myself. The times when I was wearily walking home from school and saw a friend who said, “I made too much food tonight, why don’t you join us?” even though she probably didn’t have all that much extra food and even though she was tired too.
These acts of service were invaluable at the time. I knew it, even in my hazy emotional state. But they’ve remained a part of how I view the world now.
I’m not really sure what my “love language” was before Shawn died. Honestly, I could have picked any of them.
But I know what it is now. I know what it is because even as I type this, I’m listening to it happen upstairs. I’m finally able to write again in the early mornings without bribing my children with screen time because I have someone who does this simple act of service for me. And my children are listening to a story read by a man who loves them, too.
Maybe they won’t remember the long talks we had about how it’s going to work with a new man around. Maybe they won’t know that I thought a lot about their emotional lives, and whether we were doing the right thing. Maybe they won’t ever understand how my heart ached when I went in and kissed them at night and thought about how they had survived such a terrible loss.
But they will remember reading books in the morning. They will remember this act of service. They will remember this act of love.