Bored beyond belief one day in my formative years, I began to look through old boxes in our attic. Much to my surprise, I stumbled upon a box of my mother’s that has traumatized me to this day. Now before your mind starts to wander into “D-battery territory,” let me assure you that my sweet, sainted mother never “rolled” that way. At least in my mind she never rolled that way.
In fact, my mother took immense pride in the telling and retelling — at every appropriate opportunity — that she and my grandmother were both “as pure as the driven snow” when they got married. Never one to allow my mother true happiness for too long, I once replied, “Well, I guess that means the tradition stops with me.” Guess who never brought up that issue ever again?
What I had stumbled upon in the attic was a now color-faded pillow sampler my mother had made as a young child. Cross-stitched was Joseph Addison’s now-classic children’s bedtime prayer: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I shall die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.”
The horror and trauma of that day 30+ years ago remains vivid, and I vowed then and there that if I ever had children, they would never hear such doom. Why talk about death, when you can talk about life and love?
Typically, my husband reads and sings to our son Ethan at bedtime; my daughter and I do the same. With my husband out of town last week on business, it was my privilege to usher both my children off to dreamland. Eliza, being the younger of my two children went to sleep first; then it was Ethan’s turn.
When the book had been closed and the last song was sung, Ethan, on his own volition, sweetly and with long breath recited, “I love you Daddy, I love you Mommy, I love you Eliza, I love you Gramma Sandy, I love you Grampa Jerry, I love you Grandma Marge, I love you Grandpa Earl” (who died before Ethan was born, and for whom Ethan is named). For good measure, Ethan sometimes includes his aunts, uncles, educators and therapists, but that all depends on whether or not his melatonin kicks in.
Some might assume that because Ethan is on the autism spectrum, his use of the word “love” is perfunctory. It is not. Even at age 7, and even with a neurological condition, Ethan, to paraphrase Forrest Gump, “knows what love is.” He knows what love is because he sees and feels it in our home. He knows what love is because it’s the first thing he hears when he wakes up, and the last thing he hears before bed.
He knows what love is because he hears his parents always conclude phone conversations with close friends and family that way. He knows what love is because he sees it in the eyes of his educators and therapists when they look at him. He knows what love is because while some children on the spectrum can’t verbalize “I love you,” they express their love in non-verbal ways: A glance… a drawn picture… a food creation… a smile… a hug… and those non-verbal “I love yous” are equally as powerful. “I love you” is one of the most — if not the most — significant three-word phrase in our vocabulary. (Although in terms of three-word phrases, never underestimate the power of “Shoe Sale Today!”) The trick for us all — whether neurotypical or not — isn’t to just say “I love you”; the trick is to say it and actually mean it with your full heart.
In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, let Ethan’s pure heart and soul be your guide. Tell your children that you love them. Tell your parents that you love them. Tell your friends that you love them. Let people know your feelings through thought, word and deed. “Love,” according to Ali MacGraw in Love Story, “means never having to say you’re sorry.” But love is also something that, unlike my mother’s pillow, should never be boxed up and stored in an attic for someone to discover.
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