There wasn’t a lot of what I’d call love in my household growing up. My parents were cold, unemotional, verbally and physically abusive to me, and each other, at times. I can’t remember my father ever saying he loved me or giving me a hug. My mother told me once when I was a teenager: “I love you,” she said, followed by “but I don’t like you.” The years of psychological therapy after my quadruple bypass helped me reprocess my parents’ behavior and put it in perspective. It didn’t excuse how they acted and it didn’t erase the mark it left on me but I more or less understand the kind of people they were.
All four of my grandparents were immigrants from Belarus; they were icy and stoic. The two on my mother’s side lost their first three children in the 1918 flu pandemic. The two on my father’s side suffered through a loveless, arranged marriage. Their lives were a struggle.
I learned love by my parents’ example. I had a steady girlfriend in high school and quite a few more in college— dates, hook-ups, I even lived with a few women. I never had strong feelings for any of them, really, not feelings of love. I didn’t know what love should feel like. I certainly never experienced the kind of love toward them you see in movies, the deep, yearning, stare-into-each-other’s-eyes gushing kind of love.
When I met my wife it was far from love at first sight. You know those stories they tell on talkshows where the guy says: “the moment I saw her I told myself that was the woman I’m going to marry?” That wasn’t us. She liked me, flirted with me, hung out with my friends and me. But I barely knew she was there. Months later, I bumped into her again and I asked her out. We dated and moved in together. It took years before I asked her to marry me and only after she pretty much threatened to break up.
I didn’t think much of marriage. There weren’t a lot of great role models to encourage me that it was something I wanted to try. My parents’ shouting and fighting, the cold, distant marriages of other relatives… I wasn’t in any rush.
My children showed me what love is.
When our first child was born, I was smitten. I finally felt that deep, yearning, stare-into-each-other’s-eyes gushing kind of love you see in movies… Sharing that love with one, then two, then three more kids didn’t diminish that feeling one bit. In fact, it was more like love to the fourth power. It was a sinking ache in my chest that could make me well up with tears just seeing them play with Legos. Sometimes I’d be watching a video with Jack, let’s say, Thomas the Tank Engine for the 20th time, and he’d catch me looking at him instead of the TV.
“I’m watching The Jack Show,” I’d tell him. “This is my favorite episode where Jack watches a movie with his dad.”
My wife worked nights and weekends as a stage actress when our children were little, so that was my time to step in as Mr. Mom. That really helped me get closer to my children, helped me become the kind of father I never had growing up.
With time and the help of my psychologist, I’ve come to realize what love is— to me. My wife and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary this past April (although we’ve been together 29 as she’s quick to add). My love for my wife has grown over the years, matured, or maybe I’m just in better touch with it. And while it still might not be the yearning, gushing kind of love of a romantic drama, it’s become the loudness and laughter and warm hugs of a Neil Simon play.
Walter Michka is a guest writer for MB50 and currently writes for the Chicago Post, along with other publications. We recently posted his insights to life following his major heart surgery.