Why is saying "I love you" so hard for my elderly mother? Perhaps, I think, it's because for her, words are too small to hold her great love.

“I love you,” I tell my mother at the end of every visit,
before bending to kiss her forehead.
“That goes without saying,” she might reply in return,
or “Reciprocated,” as she picks up her book as I leave.
But rarely, “I love you” in return.

Such words make her uncomfortable,
and hugs have always made her uneasy.
I have no memories of being tucked into bed with her whispering, “I love you,”
no memories of hugs and kisses when I woke in the morning.
But I have never doubted the love she has for her family.

It is fierce,
It is possessive,
It is unending,
It is sacrificial,
It is her purpose.

Love of family sent her back to teaching when her husband became ill.
Love of family is why she went back to college so she could earn more money.
Love of family made her fight for equal pay for women at a school board meeting.
Love of family is why she still refuses to get her hair done sometimes.
“I want that money to go to you kids,” she says by way of explanation.

So when she returns my profession of love with
“That goes without saying,” or “Reciprocated,” I never feel rejected.
Instead I look at my mother in her favorite red chair, wispy white hair flying,
I reflect on all she did for her family, all she still wants to do for us,
and I am grateful beyond measure for the love for her family she can’t express.

It is fierce,
It is possessive,
It is unending,
It is sacrificial,
It is her purpose.

Words are too small to describe her love,
too few to encompass all she did for her family,
too short to span the decades she labored,
too insubstantial for the burdens she bore,
too inadequate for a Mother’s Day card.

Perhaps, I thinks as I watch her set down the book she is reading
and turn her attention to a crossword puzzle,
this is why she shies away from “I love you.”
Her words can’t possibly hold the long lifetime of her actions.
So I say them for her again before I leave.

“I love you, Mom,”
and she looks up,
her faded blue eyes twinkling,
her smile wry and loving.
“I know, Jo,” she says and turns away, “I know.”

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