“You have to make a conscious decision to love someone.”
My mother told me this at some point in my young adult years. At the time I remember thinking that sounded like something an old person would say. It really poked all the fun out of “falling in love,” something I experienced again and again and rarely acted on until I was nearly thirty.
I’ve reflected on those words many times in the years since she said it. In fact, my novel, Practicing Normal, explores that very idea. It holds up the concept of falling in love, against the reality of choosing to continue to love even when it isn’t easy. I’ve come to believe my mom is right. Love does require a conscious decision.
No more so than in marriage. I’ve been married now for almost twenty-two years. I’m here to tell you it’s not all fun and games. There are plenty of times when it requires serious work. And when you are bogged down in parenting or building a career you simply cannot coast on that euphoria of new love any longer. You have to make an effort. Even if you feel you’re carrying the larger load. Even when the bills and the laundry pile up, you still have to consciously decide to love this person who drives you batty at times.
The day we got married, I had a stomach flu that leveled me so badly my friends and sister-in-law had to dress me, do my nails, hair, and makeup. The limo didn’t show up and we all crammed in a friend’s mini-van to get to the church. The service started nearly twenty minutes late. Anything that could fall out of the sky, did fall out of the sky that November day – rain, sleet, snow, hail. My bridesmaids had barf bags wrapped around their bouquets, just in case.
And yet, my wedding was perfect. All the obstacles, whittled the event down to one thing for me. All I focused on, all I cared about, was being able to stand up and say my vows. Instead of worrying about my appearance and the million details I’d obsessed over for months, our wedding was about what it should have been about – making a conscious decision, even a declaration, to love each other. Forever.
In Practicing Normal, Cassie, a hospice nurse expounds on my mother’s words:
“Love isn’t romance. It’s a grind. It’s being there every day, even when you don’t want to be. I see it all the time. I watch these people who sit with their dying spouse or friend or parent. They clean up their shit, spoon feed them their dinner, bathe them, read to them, take care of them—because they love them. It’s the most romantic thing I’ve ever seen, but it’s not something you’d ever find in a romance novel. Love isn’t some grand thing that you luck into; there’s not magic chemistry involved. It’s a decision. A conscious decision. You have to decide you’re going to love someone and then you have to make that decision every day, every hour, again and again. Even when it sucks.”
I’m pretty sure my husband is forced to make the conscious decision to keep loving me much more often than I debate my own love for him. I know I’m not easy, and maybe that’s one of the things that makes me grateful for him. He tolerates my moods and whims and unilateral decisions about how many animals to bring home.
Just like sunscreen and thank you notes, mom was right. Loving someone is a conscious decision. One we all make every day, every hour, and if we’re lucky, for a lifetime.
Cara Sue Achterberg is the author of I’m Not Her, Girls’ Weekend, and Practicing Normal, all published by The Story Plant. The e-book versions of Girls’ Weekend and Practicing Normal will be available for the special price of $2.99 for the entire month of October 2017.