"I love you," I'd say.
"I love you, too," he'd reply, often snuggling into me speaking the sentiment with his body as much with his words.
It's been over two years since we've shared that exchange. Two years -- perhaps three -- since I've heard Bryce, my son with Aspergers, now 10, tell me he loves me.
I'd be lying if I said it didn't hurt. If I said that it was just words and that I don't care about the words, my nose would grow like mad. Truth is, I know he loves me, but I ache to hear him say it again.
On a recent night around the dinner table during a visit with my mother, the subject of love arose. Bryce pronounced, "I don't love anyone."
Now, my mom is hip to the blunt mannerisms of my Aspie son, so she didn't blink, but she did purse the subject with him. I offered my list of people I love: Bryce and his brother, my parents, a few good friends. Even without a family conversation, I run through this litany of love with my son regularly, testing the waters, hoping he’s crossed the love word barrier. Bryce held his ground: he loves cats and his Magic the Gathering Cards. Period.
We moved the conversation to friendship, an equally elusive abstraction for him. He hesitates when naming his friends, understandable when the meaning of friend is vague. With a bit of prompting, he remembered his buddies of four years down the street and my best friend’s son. I asked him what made these people his friends, exploring his understanding of the word.
A long pause followed. “Well, A. and N. live near me, so we’re friends,” he said. Another pause. “And V. likes to play Magic the Gathering with me, so he’s my friend, too.”
Utility and location. Further exploration of friendship bore no further fruit. He’s yet to consider loyalty, emotional support, or sharing of similar values in his friendship definition, and this social immaturity (his friendship criteria are more typical of a six year old than the ten-year-old he is) is fairly common among kids on the spectrum. Unable to ignore a teaching moment, I mused aloud about what friendship meant to me, although being a 40-something year old fairly neurotypical woman, I didn’t make any more headway with friendship than I had with love.
If I had to guess, I'd say his definition of love is a good feeling all the time with no demands on him. The cats and cards offer that. Relationships with humans do not. Especially relationships with family. That night at dinner, he avoided the question of what love is but was fairly certain about who he didn't love and why. He doesn't love me because I tell him to do things and correct him. He doesn't love his brother because his brother does things he doesn't like. Love, it seems, requires complete obedience to him perfection on the part of the beloved, two nonstarters with parents and brothers. Thus, he's left with cats and Magic cards.
Despite his lack of affection for the word love, I tell him I love him several times a day and always right before bed. I've wondered if this burdens him, since the word obviously troubles him, but I've decided to sally forth and pair my declaration of love with a back scratch, head pat, or, at night, snuggle, which are all sanctioned ways of receiving expression, at least from Mom. He's yet to ask me to stop saying it, although he rarely replies with even the neutral "okay" of a year ago. Perhaps I hope the words with the fuzzy feelings of those touches will pair in his brain. Perhaps I just can't imagine not telling him that I love him.
That’s it. I can't stop telling him. Nine out of ten times, I don't even blink when my verbal declarations of love for him go unrequited with an, “I love you, too.” Most of the tenth time, I listen more closely, hoping it's just so quiet that I can't hear him. I'm a word person, and his silence sometimes thunders in my heart. I yearn for the words and wonder if he'll ever say them to anyone. My mind flies decades ahead, and I wonder who will love a man who won't declare love in return. My eyes fill as I wonder if cats and cards will be enough for him then. It's a mom's worry, raw and deep, recurring when not expected, quelled by some self-talk but simmering all the while.
But I know he loves me, at least as I understand love. I know by the way he finds my face when unsure of a situation and before answering all but our closest friends. He seeks me out with his rage when the world disappoints him, although oftentimes I am the target of the same rage. I know by the way he seeks out my comfort at night, often unable to explain why he's afraid of his room, of being alone, of the dark. I know by the way he curves into me before he goes to sleep, after a back scratch and a bit of silly conversation. I can see it in his eyes, even when they're filled with angry tears aimed at me.
One sure expression of love bloomed recently. When feeling affectionate (often at bedtime), he’ll return my love-talk with a purr. Sometime in the last year, after one of our occasional conversations about love, we made an agreement. We could safely exchange purrs with head rubs, like the cats he knows he loves. He has no doubt what that purr and rub from mama cat to kitten means, and somehow that gesture seems more certain than a made-up, confusing word like love. The purr is the real thing, the heart of the matter. It's love, at least in my book, and I'll take it any time.