“Oh look, your older son gave you a kiss. That’s sweet,” she said, sounding surprised. She smiled and looked to Isaac for a response.
He didn’t say anything.
“Yep, he’s a really sweet kid,” I said.
I had just met this friendly woman in the school supply aisle, so I didn’t feel the need to tell her the whole story. She didn’t need to know about his autism diagnosis. She didn’t need to know this happens all the time. She didn’t need to know he kissed me because a) he loves me and b) he wanted our conversation to end.
After all, it’s hard to keep a conversation going when a teenager is kissing his mother on the cheek.
Do most teens kiss their mothers numerous times a day? And if so, do they kiss in public?
“That’s enough. You are done kissing me now,” I’ve said on more than one occasion.
I decided to make tally marks on a piece of notebook paper while Isaac got ready for school one morning. For nearly one hour I counted the number of times he said “I love you.” With my pen in hand, I listened carefully while he was eating breakfast, getting dressed, packing his lunch, and waiting for the bus.
He said it 46 times.
That’s a lot of love.
As a parent to a kid who has very little speech, our world is a different kind of “normal.” I’ve wondered if he will ever tell me his hopes and dreams, wishes, and innermost thoughts. (We’re still working on those things.) I’ve wondered if he loves me as deeply as I love him.
For years I worried I’d never hear his sweet little voice say “I love you.” I wondered if he would ever say anything at all.
Now he says it all the time.
I know I’m lucky.
It is the highest high to hear a child say “I love you.” Parents desperately want to hear those words, no matter how the message is conveyed. Some kids, like Isaac, first used a speech generating device to say those words.
Some parents wait an entire lifetime but never hear it. I cried buckets of tears when Isaac spontaneously told me he loved me. It put things into perspective – all of the many challenges were worth it.
Love is what it’s all about, right?
These days our conversations (usually without a speech device) go like this:
Isaac: I love you.
Me: Who do you love?
Me: I love you, too.
Isaac: I love Noah, Henry, Dad, Mom.
Me: You love your family.
Me: Say I love my family.
Isaac: I love my family.
Isaac: I love Mom.
Me: Who does Mom love?
Isaac: (smiles and points to himself) Isaac.
Isaac: I love you.
Me: Who do you love?
Isaac: I love Noah Henry.
Me: You love your brothers.
Isaac: I love Noah.
Noah: I love you, too, buddy.
Isaac’s sincere when he delivers his message – it’s the piercing look in his eyes and the gentle smile that spreads across his face that lets me know his intentions. He wants a response from a listener and waits for one. He wants to be reassured that he is loved, too, even if he’s heard it hundreds of times before.
One morning Isaac poured a glass of rice milk for Henry, who was still in bed. I thanked him for helping.
“I love Henry,” he said, as he looked at me.
When his words hit me, I became teary-eyed. It was a spontaneous message that came at the right time. He was doing a good deed for his brother because he loves him. (Okay, he also likes to control who accesses what and when during meals -- but love was involved, too, I'm sure.)
It must be reassuring for Isaac to know I love him and he loves me and he loves his brothers and they love him and he loves his dad and his dad loves him and there’s love all around and he loves and is loved.
It’s a lovefest in our home, pretty much 24/7.
My cousin said she’d give anything to have her teenage son kiss her and say, “I love you, Mom.” She knows Isaac has his moments, but she said, “Those kisses must make up for it all.”
Sometimes it does, yes.
But sometimes it drives me crazy.
As special as it is, the “specialness” is starting to wear off. It’s difficult to admit, but it’s true. The love can be suffocating at times.
I’m suffering from love overload, if such a thing exists. My love meter is full – 46 times in one hour of hearing “I love you” is a lot of affection. And that’s just one hour of the day . . .
After he has professed his love for his family and me all day long, I struggle to find that loving feeling.
When Isaac continues to need a response to his never-ending expressions of love, I want to say, “We’ve been over this a million times. I love you. Now stop talking about it.”
But I don’t.
Instead I yell my love. It helps to alleviate some of my frustration when my patience is running on empty. I feel like a cheerleader yelling to a crowd of people who are sitting on the bleachers at a football stadium.
“I LOOOOOOOOOVVVVVVVEEEEE YOU! I LOOOOOOOOOVVVVVVVEEEEE YOU! I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU! I LOVE ISAAC! I LOVE ISAAC! I LOVE YOU!” (If I could jump high and throw myself in the air, I would. Spirit fingers! Back handspring!)
When he hears me, most of the time he looks at me, smiles, and says, “Yes.”
If he were able, I think he’d say, “Yes, that’s right. Mom loves me. I was just checkin’ again to make sure.”
Noah and Isaac are as close as brothers can be in that unspeakable twin connection kind of way.
“Well, he’s telling you he loves you, Mom, because he really, really, loves you,” Noah said to me one evening when I was at the end of my rope.
I’ve been thinking about Noah’s words.
Now that Isaac can speak about love, he will. It’s one of the first things he says in the morning. It’s one of the first things he says when he gets home from school. He proclaims his love multiple times before bedtime and any other time when his heart overflows.
Earlier this week when Isaac’s favorite radio station was mysteriously off the air one night, he became upset. Real tears. Anxiety. Pointing at the radio that only played static. Crying. He wanted to hear the station identification and the commercials he has memorized.
We were about ready to lose our minds.
“It will be fixed tomorrow,” I said, not knowing if that was the truth, but it helped calm his nerves. It made me feel better, too.
I hopped in the van and took Isaac for a long drive while we listened to a country station, although it wasn’t the one he wanted to hear. He sat in the front passenger seat like usual so he could control the radio.
He was silent the entire time.
On the way home, I drove past all of the familiar businesses on Main Street, turned by the coffee shop, and drove up the hill past McDonald’s and the car wash, like we always do.
I sensed he was thankful for the opportunity to clear his head and relax, even if he couldn’t tell me so.
As we drove in the dark, I reached over and grabbed his hand. I didn't need to say anything at all.
“I love you,” he said calmly, a few moments later.
I had a lump in my throat when I heard his heartfelt words.
I was grateful he told me.
“I love you, too, Isaac,” I said softly.
With the exception of the unfamiliar country music station echoing in the background, we drove the rest of the way home in silence.