Once a young man named Jimmy who spent a lot of time alone and in his own thoughts, set out to find and understand love.
In Michigan he had a three month relationship with a kindergarten teacher and asked her, “What is love? “It’s knowing your own worth,” she replied. “And it’s understanding what you want and not settling for less than that.” Soon after that she left Jimmy and went to pursue what she really wanted, so he packed his bags and moved westward.
The young man took a job as a mechanic in North Dakota where he drank coffee at a roadside diner every morning and came to be acquainted with an elderly man called Bobbo who told him stories of the life he had lived.
“What is love?” Jimmy asked him one day.
Bobbo chuckled, “More than I’ve got.” He took a sip of his coffee and stared out the window. “Aw, I reckon it’s giving everything you’ve got to make somebody else feel better about the way they think things ought to be.”
Not long after that Bobbo passed away with lung cancer at the age of 95, the by-product of seventy years worth of cigarettes. Jimmy grew tired of his life in that town and moved to Oklahoma where he became friends with a preacher everybody just called, Brother Moe. As Jimmy listened to Moe’s stories and sermons he again wondered just what love really was, so one day while he helped Brother Moe paint the church he asked, “Brother, what is love, I mean, really, what is it?”
Brother Moe wiped sweat from his forehead, pushing his ball cap back, “Love, is what Jesus had for all of us when he said that we should love one another as he had loved us. On the one hand it’s basic human kindness, on the other, it’s being willing to lay down your life for another person and I suppose that means being willing to give up what you want in exchange for what they need.”
There was a pretty woman in Moe’s church called Sarah. Jimmy dated her a few times and asked her, “Sarah, what’s love?”
Of course, she thought he was trying to profess his love for her so she mustered up her best answer. “It’s compassion,” she said. “It’s that and romance and passion and it’s being strong for another person, listening to them, really listening and being willing to commit your life to them and lay it down for them and… it’s nurturing.”
Not long after that she started dropping hints about marriage and talking about children. Jimmy knew that it was time for him to fly. He wasn’t ready to settle down and “love” Sarah because he hadn’t resolved what love really meant to him. So, he said his good-byes and left.
For a couple of years, Jimmy lived in a tiny Texas town where he worked as a janitor in a factory. After work, he’d go to a small club and have a few beers with some of the locals. One night they all had a little more than usual to drink and got to talking about love. Each of the men at Jimmy’s table had an opinion on it.
One guy, John, said, “Buddy, love means setting boundaries and keeping your own needs and wants separate and….”
“That’s a load of crap,” another buddy, Chaz, cut in. “Love is hanging on tooth and nail to somebody and….”
“No, that’s what’s crap,” John said. “Man, love fights for the highest good no matter what.”
Ann, the waitress came by and chimed in. “You yahoos don’t know what love is,” she said. “That’s why ain’t none of you got any. Love is letting go and not being possessive or stupid jealous and letting somebody be who they are and not trying to change them and make them what you want them to be.” She picked up their dirty dishes and moved on.
“What’s she know?” a big red head named Scooter said. “She’s a woman. They don’t know nothing about love. They think it’s packing in the groceries in the middle of a big game.”
“You’re a brute,” a quieter guy named Bobby Joe said. “Love is action. It IS carrying in the groceries and it’s the gifts you get and the stupid mush that you say. It’s like rock solid care in motion. You know, the ultimate concern, the fabric of the cosmos and all that jazz.”
“You’re a geek,” Scooter said.
A fifth guy at Jimmy’s table, Liam, chimed in. “Love is the essence of life.”
“That doesn’t really tell me anything,” Jimmy said. “What do you mean the essence of life?”
“Well, it’s what you do to make somebody else’s life better,” Liam said. “It’s not like you know, an emotion. It’s way bigger than that. It’s what that nun over in India said, love is a sacrifice, giving up yourself and what you want for the sake of somebody else.”
Scooter banged his fist on the table, “Charlie Brown says it’s a man called Jesus.”
“Yeah, but he told us to love as he had loved,” Jimmy said.
“Love is not religion,” Bobby Joe said. “Jesus didn’t seem very loving when he made that whip and ran those money changers out of that temple.”
“But he was,” John said. “I ain’t no church man but I know he was taking up for the common people, the working folks, like us.”
Annie came back around to refill their glasses. “You guys still arguing about love? Take it from me. It ain’t about sex or lust or romance. All that stuff is a load of hype that Hollywood pushes to keep women buying more products so they can be baby-making machines and then the media downs ya for having kids. It ain’t about making babies or doing dishes or jumping every time a man hollers. I’m telling you, that if you love somebody you are willing to do what’s best for them, even if that means setting them free. Take me, for instance. I been married to my old man for twenty years and he thinks he loves me, but he don’t love me so much as he loves his own comfort. I honestly think that if he loved me, really loved me, more than he loves his own comfort, he’d tell me to go on a six month vacation by myself where I didn’t have to mop the floors, change the oil, mow the yard and do the dishes. I make sacrifices for him and love him because I’m supposed to, but most days of the week I don’t even like him.” She moved on again.
“He sounds like a real looser,” Jimmy said. “I wouldn’t like him either.”
“She’s a good woman,” Scooter said. “A real hard-worker.”
“Yeah,” Bobby Joe said, “and everybody knows that being a hard-worker is what constitutes your worth as a human being.”
Jimmy bade his friends goodnight and they went home, some of them to comfortable, predictable lives, some to chaos and turmoil, but Jimmy went home alone and lay in his small apartment above a professor’s garage and fell asleep on a twin-size bed. Two months later, he received a phone call from his sister in North Carolina, their father was dying and would he please come home.
Jimmy sat by his father’s bed all night, holding his dad’s hand. His siblings slept off and on but he never closed his eyes. He had been gone so long and had missed so much time with his dad. This man had always been strong and soft-spoken and now, he was as weak as a baby and fragile. Jimmy was thankful for the darkness so that his father couldn’t see his tears.
Every so often his dad would say, “I love ya, Son.” It was a faint whisper but Jimmy could hear it. Sometimes he would say, “I’m not afraid. It’s okay. I’m not afraid.”
He remembered the time his dad had taken off work to come watch him play a little league game, knowing that he would lose a half day’s pay. He remembered the time his dad had rescued him at 3 a.m. when he ran out of gas three counties over after a night out with his friends. He remembered all the nights his dad had sat at the kitchen table and told him stories before bed and the time when it snowed and his father couldn’t work and didn’t get paid, so there were no groceries in the house. He remembered how his parents had done without any meat, giving it to he and his siblings.
“I’m sorry, Dad,” he said. “For all the times I caused you grief and put you out and…”
“Love doesn’t keep score,” his dad muttered. He coughed, “I’d do it all….” he coughed harder.
“Don’t talk,” Jimmy said.
“I’d do it all again,” his dad managed to get out in his raspy tones.
Jimmy squeezed his father’s hand. His memories continued. He recalled how his dad had dreamed of playing in a bluegrass band and had pursued that dream for awhile. He had gone on several tours and would be gone weeks at a time. But eventually, the band fell apart and Jimmy’s dad didn’t seem to want to do it anymore. His father had pursued other dreams from time-to-time as well, but he had always been there for his family when they needed him. He didn’t know what his father did when he was away and in this moment, he didn’t care. His father had not been a perfect man but he had been a great man.
“I’m not afraid,” his father said again. He looked from Jimmy to each of his siblings with his glazed eyes. Jimmy wondered what he could actually see. “Love each other,” he gasped. “Let everybody be…be…themselves…be yourself. Help each other. Forgive…forgive. Love one another. Yes, Mama, yes,” he said, then he sat straight up, his eyes bright, a smile on his face and he left his body.
Jimmy and his siblings embraced. Early that morning he went outside to get a breath of air. It had rained all night and now, the sky was clear above the house. Jimmy looked up and saw a beam of sunlight bathing the little house where his father’s body still lay awaiting the coroner. He smiled.
“What are you smiling about?” his sister asked.
“I know what love is,” he said. “I can’t explain it, but I know it.”