On my wife’s suggestion, we visited a wildlife refuge just outside of Olympia, Washington. We were staying at a vacation rental just before Labor Day, trying to get one last little slice of family time together before the official end of summer and beginning of the school year.
Naturally, my 13-year-old son, Tristan, started complaining before we got out of the car. He was pretty bummed that he had to go on a nature walk, when he’d rather be back at the vacation rental, playing video games, and chatting with friends online. Just getting him out the door and into the car was a challenge, and now getting him out of the car and into nature was just as big of a struggle.
He did get out, however, and like a good and dutiful father, I listened to him discuss his hardships in all “I” statements. “I don’t want to be here.” “I don’t want to walk.” And “I hate this.”
Eventually he asked me this question that I knew he felt was going to turn the whole outing to his favor: “Do you want to be here?”
He knew the answer before he asked it. I’m not all that into visiting wildlife refuges or bird seeing. That was his mother’s thing.
“Not really,” I said.
“Then why did you go?” He asked, like he’d really found some hole in the plot of my life.
“Because visiting this place isn’t about me,” I replied. “It’s about your mom and I love her, so I went.”
He gave me this long, confused, why-would-a-grown-human-do-anything-they-didn’t-want-to-do, stereotypical teenager look.
“Well I think this place is stupid, and if I could drive, I’d be out of here,” he said.
I thought about laying into him. I thought about telling him to suck it up and be a good sport. But I had a feeling he would just dig in his heels, and act like a martyr, when what I really wanted was for him to understand an important lesson about what love actually looks like.
“Listen,” I said. “I love mom and she loves these sorts of places, so I go without complaining because that’s what love looks like.”
He rolled his eyes and said, “Going to a wildlife refuge has nothing to do with love.”
“Oh, son, it totally does. When you love someone, it can’t just be words. It’s got to be actions, too.”
I raised my hands and gestured to the swamp land and the boardwalk, and the signs describing the animals habitats, and the birds hiding in the trees, and the many miles of trails that we would eventually explore.
“Going to a place like this when you don’t really want to is the purest form of love,” I said
He clearly didn’t like my answer. I could tell because he rolled his eyes, hard. To be fair, nothing that he was doing was abnormal behavior for a 13-year-old kid. But the fact was, I didn’t figure this sort of thing out until I was well into my 20s. I think some people never do. So I wanted to make sure that he learned — starting as early as possible — what it means to really show someone that you love them.
“Listen, love can’t always be about you,” I said. “Chances are you are going to fall in love someday, and that person might be perfect for you, but you will still be different people. And being in love with someone who is different from you often times means going shopping for something that isn’t for you, or to a restaurant that you don’t really like, but your partner does. And if you want that person to know that you love them, you don’t complain, and you don’t call the thing stupid. You just go because you want to see them be happy. And do you know what happens when you do that?”
“What?” he asked.
“That person feels appreciated,” I said.
Then I pointed at his mother who was grinning ear to ear as she took a picture of a great white heron.
“Look at how happy she is,” I said.
I told him that this sort of thing needs to go both ways, and if it doesn’t, that’s a problem. And I tried to stress that if he figures this out now, at age 13, he will be way ahead of me.
He thought about what I said. He kicked the dirt for a minute. Then he said, “Fine.”
It wasn’t an angry fine, or an “I don’t like it” fine, but an “I understand” fine.
And by the time we made it back to the car to go home, my wife looked at our son and said, “You’ve been very quiet.”
He looked at his mother, and gave her a casual, boyish, shrug. And in so many ways ,what he was really saying was, “I love you.”