A particularly memorable “I love you”

Making memoriesWhen I’m driving by myself, I’ll catch up on TED talks or listen to public radio, and that opens a door to new ideas and new worlds. If I’m lucky, I’ll catch The Moth, a program where people share their true stories live. This Wednesday, I heard Wendy Suzuki’s story. She’s a neuroscientist whose father was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and she talked about that. She also described her family and trying to change how they related to each other.

“My brother and I always knew that our parents loved us despite the fact that we never said those three words to each other: I love you.

I wanted to start saying these words I love you to my parents.”

How do you start?

Though she barely spoke to her parents as a student, Wendy grew closer to them as she got older, calling every week. Usually it was small talk, talking about the things she did and asking them how they were doing. One week, though, she decided to ask a very different kind of question.

“Hey mom, we never say I love you. What do you think about the idea of starting to say that when we talk to each other?”

She realized how ridiculous this seemed. Here she was, a grown woman and highly trained professor at NYU, asking her mother for permission to tell her she loved her. Still, she was worried she would say no.

Her mother paused. Wendy grew increasingly anxious while she waited for an answer.

“I think that’s a great idea,” her mother said.

Wendy breathed a sigh of relief. Now there was just one more hurdle to go. After all, it was one thing to agree to express what you felt and another thing to actually say it. As the call wound down, the moment was approaching and the tension rose. Wendy knew she had to make the first move.

“Okaaaay. I love you.”

“I love you too,” her mother said.

Those three simple words were overwhelming. “After that call, I broke down in tears.”

The power of a feeling

On that same phone call, her father also agreed. But his memory was failing, and he would often get confused. While the I love you’s with her mother came easier over time, Wendy was unsure if her father would even remember what they spoke about.

“That week, though, he said 'I love you' first. And he said 'I love you' first every single week after that."

Wendy the neuroscientist knew what happened.

“Emotional resonance is helpful for memories. The beautiful emotion of his daughter asking him whether she could say I love you to him. It beat dementia and allowed him to form a new memory.

And you can be sure I will keep that memory for the rest of my life.”

The power of three little words. The power of love. Go. Make a memory.