If I Never Hear My Nonverbal Son Say, ‘I Love You’

Earlier this week, I picked up my 5-year-old son, Quinn, from daycare and saw a giant pink poster with a statement from each child in his class noting their “favorite thing about their mom.” My son’s note was at the top, declaring that he “loves his mom’s great cooking.” Quinn is nonverbal, so he clearly did not tell his teachers this. And what’s more, even if he were verbal, I assure you this is not what he would say.

My son is the only nonverbal child in his class, so I immediately felt an ugly jealousy rising in my stomach upon seeing the notes on this poster. All of these children really did say these things about their moms. I’m even jealous of the “my mom wipes my butt” accolade. When something like this happens — and I have to admit it happens a lot — I experience a predictable cycle of jealousy, anger and sadness.

The jealousy is fleeting; I know have a great kid and appreciate his other qualities and skills. The anger though is somewhat subdermal, and I’m not sure it ever goes away. I’m angry at the “it doesn’t make sense” and “this isn’t [expletive] fair” qualities of raising a nonverbal child. The sadness, of course, is a result of the longing to hear his voice and inner thoughts. It’s also the result of the realization that not knowing these things means that some of him is locked away from me.

I glanced at this giant pink poster again today as my son came wildly careening over to me, shouting with joy at my arrival. He jumped in my arms and kissed me repeatedly. His teacher casually looked over at us, smiled and said, “He has the best reactions when you arrive, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

It was that moment I thought to myself, “Look elsewhere.” What was that famous quote often attributed to Einstein? “Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” I have to look elsewhere or otherwise I am creating the same unfair and hurtful standards for Quinn and for my own motherhood. If I evaluate motherhood according to benchmarks of verbal declarations of love, I will live my whole life believing I have come up short. And nothing could be further from the truth.

So I sat down and wrote this poem for my son and for myself. It’s my gift to us. Because being this kiddo’s mother, when I look elsewhere, is better than I could have ever imagined it would be.

If I Never Hear “I Love You”

If I never hear “I love you,”
Whispered thoughtfully,
If I never hear you say those words,
While leaning into me,
I will find them in your face,
In your fiercest embrace,
In your hand that clutches mine,
As we walk this road together,
Our bond a constant tether,
That needs no verbal declaration,
No murmured affirmation.
Your love, it stays with me,
As a lovely graffiti,
That is written everywhere.
In your touch, your laugh, your sweetest grin,
Are the words that have never been,
In your frustration reaching out for me,
In your sick or weary lethargy,
I hear those words constantly.
In places I never thought I would have to look,
You share the words that autism took.

This post originally appeared on Project Bearings.

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