Growing up, I’d often ask the people around me what love was. This started young, practically when I first heard the word. “Love?” some would say. “It’s… you know, it’s love.” Drawing out the word, making eye contact and nodding, as if that were supposed to explain everything.
Many times, people would simply turn the noun into a verb, as though that were sufficient to explain. “Well, I love you. Your father loves you. Your mother loves you.”
That, too, explained little. Surely, all these people felt differently about me. They were different people. And these were different kinds of love. Sure, your parents loved one another (maybe) and loved you (maybe), but those loves were (probably) different. Your parents married each other, but they wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) marry you.
But to the people I asked, my inquiries about love never seemed reasonable. They felt like I was needlessly turning a known into an unknown, overcomplicating the simple, something they considered to be one of my most annoying qualities. To them, I might as well be asking what one plus one equaled. They thought the nature of love was clear cut and certainly nothing to be wasting precious time wondering about.
But to me, questioning love felt less like simple arithmetic and more like exploring the nature of zero, a number that behaves differently than the others. An exercise in exceptionalism. A deep ambiguous one that other people took for granted.
So I turned to media. Cartoons, movies, books. Looking for the answer… and yet never finding it.
The Linguistic Problem: Many Feelings, One Word
Part of the issue, I’d later learn, is a linguistic one. Unlike some other languages, for example Greek (which has four to eight words for love, depending on who is making the distinction), in English we have a single word to cover such a broad territory of deep connection and positive regard. And while I suppose it’s nice only having to remember a single term for all the different kinds of love that we’re capable of, trouble of course arises in that we’re never quite sure that when we say “love” and someone else says it back that we’re talking about the same thing.
The More I’ve Experienced Love, the Less I Know What It Exactly Means
Technically, I’m no stranger to love. I’m on my second marriage. Have had enough lovers to fill a minor census. And even more friends who I’ve been extremely close to, and yes, who I’ve loved. And more than a few folks who fall somewhere in between friend and lover.
I’m also surrounded by love, as a polyamorous writer and relationship coach who advises people on how to manage their relationships. And a local social connector in polyamorous and kink communities — a person who knows a lot of people and introduces them to one another.
I’ve been known to set people up, without even meaning to. It’s not something I like to do on demand, but I have a decent sense of who might make a good partner for someone else, so when I stumble on it, I make it happen. Now, there’s no guarantee that they all work out. They don’t. I find that’s especially the case when people are fixated on a type of person that isn’t good for them and in that fixation can’t appreciate a person who actually would be. But sometimes it works out well. And just in these incidentals, I have an impressive matchmaking record throughout the course of my life.
But even with all of these life experiences, I’m still not exactly sure what love is. Even setting aside the linguistic ambiguity. The “many kinds” complications.
I’m not sure even if I just limit it to myself, and what I mean when I think of as the most intense, vulnerable, private kinds of love. The ones that half-melt me. Punish me. Redeem me. I’m not quite there in fully understanding it, let alone communicating it to someone else.
But maybe I’ll get there one day. Day by day, I feel like I’m approaching a personal understanding of what love is, what love means to me.
I Probably Don’t Know What Love Is, But I May Have Felt It the Other Day
I’m driving my 17-year-old cat to the animal hospital my vet recommended. This is about a 45-minute drive each way. He’s been fasting all night because he’ll need imaging of his digestive system. So he started out the day surly, glaring at me as I didn’t feed him breakfast. Yowling plaintively as I tricked him and trapped him in the pet carrier.
He started out starving and betrayed, even before the car started to move. And now that we’re on the way, he is yowling. A primal scream that curdles my blood.
I had worried about this before setting out. “Just talk to him,” my husband had told me, when I expressed that concern the night before the trip. “Let him know what’s going on. That always calms him down.”
“And what if that doesn’t work?” I’d asked.
“It will,” he’d assured me. “And besides, he’ll calm down after about ten minutes or so. He won’t scream the entire way.”
But now I’m in the car, and I’m trying to talk to him, to explain where we’re going, why I’m doing any of this. Letting the cat know that he’s lost a lot of weight, and I’m just trying to figure out the root of it so we can fix him and get him better again. Make it so he can hold down food like he could when he was a younger cat.
And even though I’m talking to him exactly as I’ve heard my husband do so many times in the past (with great effect), the cat yowls louder in response. Every time he hears my voice. He is not reassured. And he doesn’t stop screaming in ten minutes. He doesn’t stop screaming the entire way to the vet. And he screams the entire way home.
“I wonder if this is love,” I say aloud to him.
He yowls in response.
“Technically, I’m violating your consent here,” I continue.
He yowls even louder.
It’s Hard to Explain, But It Gives Me Hope
We get to the hospital. Even though we’re early, they take him right in. I speak with the vet about the differential diagnosis. She gets my consent for testing. An ultrasound and some blood work. She quotes me a ridiculous price but one I arrive prepared to hear. I nod and tell her to proceed.
She sends me off to the waiting room for a few hours.
The place is hopping. Packed with animals, all dogs. The dogs are loud and acting up. At first, I’m really annoyed by this (it doesn’t help that I’m generally scared of dogs). But as I sit listening to the dog owners talk to one another, I begin to realize the dogs’ behavior is understandable because they don’t feel well. One of the worst dogs has had liver cancer twice.
Over the next few hours, a number of different surgeons emerge from operations and break good or bad news to the owners who are waiting near me. Some dogs make it, some don’t. Regardless of the outcome, the owners cry upon hearing the news, whether from relief or devastation.
And so do I. I can’t help it. Their tears are contagious. I feel their pain and their joy, and the tears won’t stop. I stare at my phone, hoping no one will notice and that my sunglasses will make it less obvious.
It’s a long few hours waiting to hear about my cat’s diagnosis, sitting in these dramatic surroundings. I’ve been very disillusioned with people lately. And overwhelmed by the prospect that my cat might be gravely ill or about to be. But strangely, listening to the people around me show such commitment to treating their sick pets when they could easily just put them down or discard them… well, it gives me hope.
I dunno. It’s hard to explain. It’s just…
If it’s not love, it’s something very close to it.