Three words. On three separate hearts. Ice Liebe Dich. “I love you” in German. My father had bought me a necklace in Germany. I think he was in West Berlin (yup, during the Cold War) and bought me the necklace as a gift.
I’m ashamed to admit that I sulked when Dad didn’t give me the necklace. He gave Mom and my brother their presents but told me that he wanted to hold on to my gift until Christmas. I was so angry with him, felt like he was being completely unfair and mean and…yeah. Poor me.
And that Christmas, I opened up what was likely a small package that was likely wrapped in ugly brown mailing paper because my dad didn’t care about the appearance of the gift. The important thing was the gift itself.
And there, in the palm of my hand, was a necklace with three small hearts. With three small words, one inscribed upon each heart.
Ich Liebe Dich.
I love you.
I can’t remember very well what I would have said. I know I would have been humbled. As I am writing this, my eyes are filling with tears, my nose is prickling. Little sad sounds are escaping my throat.
I’m ready to start crying.
I was so ugly to my dad. I was so unhappy because of lovely teenage hormones and not understanding or wanting to accept that my raging emotions were based on chemicals that was triggering my body to change. I was no pretty butterfly hiding in a crystalline chrysalis. I was an ugly slug in a uglier shell waiting to emerge and just get off the road and hide in the grass.
And then, my darling father gave me Ich Liebe Dich and all my failings, all my flaws, all my anger and unhappiness and misperceptions and misconceptions just fell away as I clasped the necklace around my neck.
I understood then why Dad had waited. This just wasn’t some silly token of “Hey, I was in another country and knew I was supposed to get you something.”
This was Dad giving me three little pieces of his heart.
My dad isn’t that great about saying the right thing all the time. But he’s incredible about showing his love.
One year, he made me a shadow box with a mirror back. I still own it. It’s in my office and holding my favorite pieces of my china-animal, pewter-dragon collection. I have given my daughter over ninety percent of my china animals and the accompanying shadow boxes.
But I have this shadow box still. Because my father made it for me. For me and only for me. Because he knew how much I loved those silly china animals and pewter dragons and he gave me something I could use to display them more neatly.
Until he accidentally knocked it over and I freaked out and got super ugly on him. I’m really, really ashamed of that moment.
So Dad’s gift to me, the Ich Liebe Dich necklace meant the world to me. I wore it everywhere and to everything. I never took it off. Even when the necklace stained my neck green and the hearts started losing their gilded edge.
I didn’t care. They were from my father and he loved me despite my failings and flaws and unfortunate temper tantrums. They were the reminder that he loved me and that I was still his skiing and chair-lift partner. I was still his daughter, no matter where I was or what hemisphere I was living in. I was with him. And I had his love in my favorite language that I wouldn’t speak because I was afraid of making a mistake and sounding stupid.
But saying I love you isn’t stupid. It’s beautiful and wonderful. And it doesn’t matter what language it’s said in. It’s still beautiful and wonderful.
I love you.
Ich liebe dich.
Even in German with all its guttural sounds, “I love you” is still musical and lovely.
For a long time, my favorite statement to my students was “much love.” And then I started hearing other people say it and I worried that maybe I was just following another fad. So I stopped. And then, somewhere in the last five years, I started saying “Love you. Mean it.”
It sounds silly. In some respects, because I say “Mean it,” it doesn’t even sound sincere. But it is sincere. Much like how much my father loves me.
Dad is silly. He’s a bit crass and goofy and gross. He loves silly potty humor, loves watching videos of a man with his “Pooter” making fake farts on people. Dad loves the Three Stooges, raised me on slapstick humor.
But his love is incredibly tender and gentle and kind. He is fiercely protective and only wants me to be happy. I’m forty-three. He’s nearly seventy. But I would give anything to crawl back into his lap one more time, much like the time when I was in fifth grade and he found me playing “Oh Christmas Tree” and sobbing because I was homesick for Germany.
Because I had learned that song originally in German and we had just moved from Germany to America and the culture clash was making my head spin and I had lost everything I knew and understood and this new country with all of its different standards of living and without the German alps as a backdrop to my world was disheartening.
And Dad understood.
So he gave me his heart. In three little pieces. And stood and watched as I wore his heart around my neck and walked into the world and away from his side.
Eventually, one heart fell off, its loop widening and it fell under my feet.
Another heart fell when I was at an amusement park with my fiancee, my future husband. I felt like I really lost my father that day.
I have the third heart in my jewelry box, somewhere up in my office. At least, I think I do.
I have looked for a replacement, a way to still have my father around my neck. But my husband, after a difficult period in our marriage, gave me a necklace with a heart on it. It’s pure gold, has never tarnished or turned my neck zombie-green.
And I wear it nearly every day, will wear it everywhere. I don’t care if it clashes with my earrings or my clothing. It’s my husband’s heart, around my neck.
It’s not quite the same as the three pieces of my father’s heart. And it will never replace my father. At the same time, I would never want my husband to be my father’s replacement. Ignoring the possible gross interpretations, I want my husband to be my husband. He is the father to our children.
Ich liebe dich. I love you.
No matter the language, no matter the final locations of those three little hearts, I have my father. Right now, in my office, I have a picture of my parents holding hands about two weeks after my father nearly died. Right now, in my office, I have pictures of my parents, of my beloved, wonderful parents. And, for now, that is enough. I don’t need to wear love around my neck.
But it sure feels nice when I’m having a bad day.