I used to believe my love was like an ocean.
I believed my love was wild and powerful and impossible to contain, able to crash over shores, to shake and move the world around me. I believed if I loved someone enough, he or she would love me back, an equal and opposite reaction, an involuntary reciprocation of an irresistible force. If I loved her, she would love me. If I cared for him, he would return the favor.
I believed my love could be the life raft for someone who was in danger of drowning in addiction or depression or anxiety. My love could pull them out of the quicksand, snatch them from the grip of whatever ailed them, lead them back to safety and health and wholeness.
I was young. I don't believe in love like that anymore.
To be more accurate, I don't believe my love can do any of those things. It's taken almost my whole life to realize that. I've had to watch multiple friends relapse and return to alcohol or heroin or pain killers to realize that. I've had to sit, powerless, next to multiple hospital beds and hold multiple hands infused with tubes and fluids to realize that. I've had to stand in somber silence at multiple funeral services to realize that. I've had to endure the ripping apart of a life built with someone I thought was my soulmate to realize that.
I've learned, from firsthand experience, what my love can't do.
My love can't make her love me back. It certainly can't make her love me in the specific way I desire. It can't make her choose me. It can't whip together the recipe for the magic love potion that would have saved me years of trying.
My love can't coax him out of addiction. It can't reason with him when his brain has traded in clarity for fog. It can't be there for him at every lonely moment when he convinces himself just one more is what he needs. It can't be his guardian angel to shout we love you and you are worth it and we'll make it through together every time he wants to give up on living.
My love can't eradicate her cancer cells. It can't make the scans read differently. It can't restore her muscle mass. It can't reverse the damage. It can't make the cancer change bodies and take my organs instead.
My love can't guarantee there won't be loss, or failure, or pain. There's so much my love can't do.
I've spent a lot of time fighting and wrestling with disillusionment. I've fought through anger over my wasted efforts. I've shaken my fist at God for letting me be foolish enough to believe my love meant anything when I'm evidently so powerless, so puny, so ineffectual.
Like my utter uselessness in the face of something as daunting as cancer.
A few months ago, when my sister's health took a turn for the worse, and we thought we would lose her at any moment, there was concern that my dad wouldn't be able to make it to Phoenix to see her. He was in Pittsburgh, and no one could get a hold of him. At that point, every second that went by felt like the sand was pouring through the neck of the glass like a waterfall and would empty out before any of us were ready. Because my dad hadn't been around for much of Susie's life, this moment held more urgency, more importance--he needed to see her. She needed him to see her.
I was at work, in class with my students, and I had to leave to try to call my dad. Though nobody had been able to get through to him earlier, we connected, and my dad was able to book a flight to Phoenix that day. I immediately called my brother-in-law Mike and said, "Tell Susie that Dad's coming. He's on his way."
Mike told Susie. A moment later, he relayed Susie's response to the news: "My Dad loves me." He said it through tears.
I stood in the hallway outside of my classroom, and through my own tears, I said, "He does. He's on his way."
This moment taught me a bit about love. Yes, there's a long list of what my love can't do. And it's true that my love is not an ocean. But it doesn't have to be an ocean. And there's still plenty my love can do.
My love can be present. It can be in a room or looking at her face on Skype or even be en route on a plane. My love can do that.
My love can speak some goodness into existence. It can send an email or a text or say a few words in person like I love you or You're doing just fine or I'm glad you're here.
My love can do the little things. It can text a song with a "reminded me of you" note. It can give him a hug because he likes hugs. It can watch The Bachelor in Paradise because she likes to watch it. It can bring in some cookies because he goes crazy over cookies. It can scrape the snow and ice off her windshield before she comes outside. It can ask, "Hey, what's going on?" when you see he's off his game. It can say, "Let's take a deep breath together, and it will be okay," when she feels frazzled.
My love can join the chorus of a hundred other voices which together can tip the scale from despair to hope, from disaster to relief, from pain to healing.
My love is not an ocean.
My love is a single stream, small and winding. A stream that sometimes fights to crawl and trickle through over dry beds of rock and dirt, and other times flows and rages and carries enough force to move boulders and trees. It's a stream that joins another stream, and another, and another, until they are a mighty river, and in time, that river and another river and another river pour into and become an ocean.
My love never has to do more than it was made to do.
My love is not an ocean, and I'm finally okay with that.