When I was a young girl, around seven or eight years old, my mom had a friend whom I loved. Her name was Diane and she was amazing to me because she was a grown up and she liked me. She made me feel special. When mom’s other friends came to visit, they came to visit my mom. When Diane came to visit, she came to visit both of us. Sometimes, on particularly happy occasions, she came just for me. Diane took me places, just she and I. We went to movies and out for ice cream. She spoke to me with an attitude of collusion and with a raised eyebrow or a knowing nod I was included in inside jokes and the quiet communication so often kept from young children. I adored Diane and thought about her often. It got to the point I thought, perhaps, I ought to tell her just how much she meant to me.
I had some special stationery, paper and envelopes that to my childish eyes were the epitome of lovely, adorned with pink and red hearts. Writing on it would be a true testament of my affection, a statement that couldn’t leave any doubt. I was going to declare my devotion. I was resolute.
In my best penmanship I wrote the most powerful words I could muster to convey my feelings.
Dear Diane, I wrote boldly, I love you. Love, Carrington.
I folded the paper neatly, sealed it in an envelope, and wrote Diane across the front.
I felt shy about my declaration. I felt even more nervous once the words were sealed that maybe this was too brash a move. My mom knew about the note. She knew it was hard sometimes to tell people how you feel about them. She encouraged me to do it anyway, assured me it was a message Diane would be touched to receive. I didn’t want to back down so when Diane came to visit next I slipped the note onto the seat of her car. She would see it when she left our home for the evening—I wasn’t brave enough to look her in the eye after my confession. Not that night.
We rented a movie that evening and watched it in our basement. It was a movie only a grown up could love—long, boring, lots of talking and men in suits. But I stayed in the room, sitting with my mom and her friend, thinking about the note burning a hole in the seat of Diane’s car. Thinking about how the world might change once my love was out in the open. This was the first time I had ever said I loved anyone other than a family member, possibly other than my mom or dad. This was big. I had a lot at stake.
The movie dragged on and I mentally twiddled my thumbs until l finally noticed something interesting on the screen. There were two men in suits, carrying briefcases and walking on a beach near the surf. The image struck me as odd and I piped up “Why are they wearing suits on the beach?”
And without missing a beat Diane shot back, with just enough sass in her voice to set my teeth on edge, “I don’t know Carrington. Why don’t you ask them?”
I immediately kept quiet.
As an adult, I can look back on this moment and I am sure she didn’t mean to be harsh. Diane did have a little sass and spark to her—that was part of what made her so special. I just didn’t like being on the receiving end. I was a shy girl who had a rather difficult time finding my place in space. Until that moment I had always felt elevated around Diane. In that instant I felt targeted. I wanted to disappear. And to retrieve my letter from her car.
I couldn’t find a way to make that happen. I sat through the end of the movie in silence, impatient for Diane to leave and squirming in my discomfort. When she left I felt both relieved and dismayed at what she was about to find. I questioned whether I really loved Diane, whether the words on the paper were even true or not anymore. I wrestled, perhaps for the first time with any real consciousness, with the reality that when we offer someone the gift of our vulnerability, they have the potential to hurt us even as we dare to bind ourselves closer to them.
Diane acknowledged my note shortly after that day. I felt not so wounded by the time we spoke, and in time I came to the confident conclusion that yes, I did still love her. But I remember that experience as an important moment in my growing and learning the power of words, the power of tone, and the power of laying myself bare to someone who then has the chance to wound.
Vulnerability is one of the most precious gifts we can give to one another. To offer ourselves in friendship, to parent with honesty about the things we don’t know or aren’t sure of, to admit when we are in need—these are treasures bestowed in relationships. We cannot control the response of the recipient. Sometimes, as we watch with broken heart, they stomp on our gifts, leaving the wrapping and ribbons in a messy heap. But sometimes—sometimes—the gift comes back magnified and multiplied, enriching us in ways far too complex to contain with words.
I will continue to choose the chance to be broken for the chance to be brought close. People need close. People were made for close. I knew that, somehow, even as a little girl, writing big words on a page of hearts.