“Sometimes,” I said, taking a deep breath and infusing venom into every word, “I think I hate you.” For a brief moment, I was dazzled by my own daring. Then, I heard a sharp intake of breath behind me. I turned and saw my mother, standing in the doorway of the playroom where my brother and I were facing each other, my fists clenched, his hand around one of my Ken Barbie doll, who was bound tightly with hair ties.
My mom crossed the room in a few steps, grabbing my arm and holding me tightly. She ignored my brother and Ken and looked into my eyes. “Don’t you ever, ever, ever say that again, do you understand me?” I was startled by her intensity. Her brow was furrowed, her mouth in a straight line. She looked angry, until I saw past the lines on her face and caught a glimpse of the tears glinting in her eyes. My breath caught. This was serious. Without really knowing why, I felt tears sting my own eyes. I nodded.
Her face softened and she sat down on the edge of the treadmill. “Do you know what it means to say you hate someone?” she asked.
I had thought I had known what it meant. I thought that I told my brother that I was as angry as I could possibly be, that if he wasn’t careful I would do something serious—like throw his rock collection back under the hedge, or hide his favourite book. Something told me it wasn’t quite like that, that hate must mean something more.
“When you say that you hate someone,” my mom explained, “you are saying that you wish that person wasn’t here anymore.”
I looked at my brother, who had put my barbie down and was pretending not to listen to our conversation (we granted each other the courtesy of semi-privacy when we were getting in trouble). I thought of how we collected stamps together, how we traded books, how we played with our rock collections. I thought of how we would herd our fluffy chickens into a corner and cuddle them, telling each other stories of what the chickens were thinking. Yes, I was tired of how he enjoyed playing cops and robbers, which meant that people had to be tied up before they could be rescued—sometimes it was my barbies, sometimes it was me—but I didn’t want him to not be here anymore. Life would be awfully boring if he was gone. If I actually thought about it, there was something of a thrill to come to a dolls house with a pile of tightly bound barbies in the upper story. I revelled in the anger. I think we both enjoyed a good fight.
“I didn’t mean that,” I whispered in the general direction of my brother. He nodded curtly. This was uncomfortable for both of us.
My mom stood up. “What we say matters,” she told both of us. “Think about what you are asking for before you ask for it. And don’t let me ever hear you say that you hate each other.”
I have said a lot of things to my siblings over the years, but I don’t think I ever again said I hate you. Whenever the words popped into my mind, I thought of my mom’s warning: Be careful what you ask for. No matter how angry I was, I couldn’t imagine my world without one of them, and whenever I imagined such an empty world I realized I didn’t hate them after all—I loved them, as annoying, as infuriating as they could be.
Sometimes we underestimate what children understand. I think of my mother when I see parents screaming at peaceful pro-life protests, often with their little children in tow. I have seen a mother, holding onto the hand of a beautiful, brown-haired little girl, cursing one of my friends. I have seen a woman, in the presence of her son, threaten to drive up on the sidewalk and run down the pro-lifers engaging high-schoolers in conversation. I have seen a father drop the hand of his son to shake his fist and yell that we had better be careful, because he might come back to hurt us. And I have heard, so many, many times, the words, I hate you.
What are we teaching our children? The children who see these words typed on a Facebook screen; the children who hear their parents scream these words out of their car windows; the children who hear their parents mutter the words under their breath as they pass by a pro-life display on the sidewalk. Sometimes, I still feel my breath catch in my throat, because the venom that fills these words is dangerous, and the people who are saying the words are old enough to know what they mean. They know what they are asking for, and they are asking for it anyway—and pro-abortion advocates aren’t the only ones saying them.
As Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” My mom didn’t say it exactly like that, but she said it in words that everyone can understand—and that’s important, because this applies to everyone—let us never forget that what we say matters.