When asked, “Which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus answered, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God.” He went on to share that the second is like unto the first, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Matthew 22:36-39)
A lesson in love came into my life through a very unexpected and challenging way. “I love you too” was not what I thought I would ever hear, nor was it expected.
John is my older brother and I looked up to him as an example of one who was a hard worker. He was strong, independent and enjoyed sharing his love of the outdoors -- hiking, fishing, hunting and gardening. He was also stubborn and never thought he was wrong. His head-strong ways would become one of the things that contributed to his death at a young age.
John became addicted to alcohol, and as a result, his personality hardened and his marriage and business eventually failed. It was difficult to be around him as he rarely had a kind word for anyone. It appeared that he tried to create conflict, and refused to acknowledge he had a problem or that he needed help.
As I watched family and friends distance themselves from him, I wish I could say that I did not do the same, but I avoided him and did not look forward to seeing him. I did pray for him.
Through all of this, my parents continued to love him and tried to get him the help he so desperately needed. He was not kind to them at times and I watched as they aged from their worry and concern.
Many years into his addiction, John and I had the opportunity to work on the farm making repairs. As we worked side by side, he was at a better place, but still in real trouble. When it was just the two of us he was not as rough and we talked about life and shared memories of previous outdoor adventures.
When I visited him in Salt Lake City, I brought him some of the salmon I had caught and smoked, as I knew he loved it. An idea took root in my mind to plan a fishing trip on the Columbia River with dad and John. So, I began the planning for our next adventure. The catch was that John would need to be clean to make the trip.
As we talked and planned over the next several months, I continued to pray to know what I could do.
The answer came, “Tell him you love him.”
As I thought about this answer to prayer, I wondered how long it had been since anyone, other than my parents, had told him that they loved him.
Not knowing how John would react but knowing that I needed to act on my impression, I called John to talk about our fishing trip. As our conversation ended I paused and then said, “John, I love you.” There was silence on the other end, then the word bye and he hung up.
From that time forward, every time I ended a conversation with him or saw him, I told him I loved him. He would shrug these words off with various replies or act as if he had not heard me. This went on for several years. I truly was not expecting anything from him in reply, I simply wanted him to know that I did love him.
He continued to drink and was unable to make the trip to Washington where my dad and I shared a new adventure.
On a visit to Salt Lake, my dad and I found John’s apartment living conditions beyond healthy. Rotten food in the sink, refrigerator, and on floors, dirty dishes, garbage overflowing; truly a condition of squalor. We began to do what we could to clean up the place.
After hauling out the last bags of trash while John lay on the couch -- unwilling to change and unappreciative of the efforts -- we readied to leave.
Again the words, “I love you.”
From John there was no response, no emotion, no desire for help, and little to no hope on his part.
Months passed as his health declined, his living condition worsened, and our family felt deep despair as we could see his body shutting down. He refused any help. Of particular concern to me were my aging parents as they were now preparing to stand over the grave of their child.
As John and I finished one of our last phone conversations in this life, I again shared my feelings, “John, know that I love you.” Then came a very unexpected, “I love you too.”
Our few conversations that followed ended with those same words, “I love you” and his reply, “I love you too.”
The words of Jesus Christ came to mind: “... love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another”. (John 13: 34-35).
Love was not enough to save my brother from his addiction, but what I have come to realize is that pure love, the love of Christ, is sufficient to heal us all.
As a disciple of Christ I echo his invitation to each of us: “as I have loved you, ... love one another.”
I believe that as we come to love people where they are in this life, and for who they are as our brothers and sisters regardless of our differences or challenges, healing can occur in our lives, in our families, and in our communities.
John, I miss you and know that I love you.