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One Thing I Know For Sure

This happened on what, by our standards, was an ordinary night. It was maybe a year after the diagnosis; Hannah was four years old. We were in the living room, and I was holding her, rocking her, in the La-Z-Boy. In those days she still liked being held, at least by me—I’d kept her used to it, I guess, by all the nursing, which was something she still loved so much that I’d given up the habit of bathing very often, because I knew how much she enjoyed breathing in my sour, mammalian smell. But right now I wasn’t nursing her. We were just rocking slowly, and watching TV, probably one of her Sesame Street videos, I don’t know. We were alone—I don’t know where my husband was.

I was talking to her endlessly, just absently commenting on the action of the video, or singing along with the songs. It’s what they tell you to do, of course—you’re supposed to keep talking and talking to an autistic kid, trying to make some little connection, elicit some tiny response. It came to remind me of how, if your ship is sinking in the middle of a dark empty ocean, you keep sending up flares anyway, just in case someone else might be out there, invisible to you.

We felt cozy that night: we both liked the Sesame Street videos, and we both liked rocking, and I think it might have been winter outside, because being inside felt more than usually luxurious. I leaned in close to Hannah’s ear, and I whispered, “I love you, Hannah.” And as we kept rocking I added, “Now you say, ‘I love you, Mommy.’” And it was just one of my rituals—I had so many in those days. I didn’t expect a response. I didn’t expect anything. It was just another of those things people told you to do, like waving goodbye when she boarded the pre-school bus, or trying to coax her into blowing out the candles on her birthday cake.

But on this particular night, just like that, as if it were the most everyday thing in the world, Hannah actually turned her face toward mine and said, very plainly, ‘I love you, Mommy.’”

Or maybe she didn’t turn her face. Maybe she just stared into space as she said it. It happened so fast, and it was almost twenty years ago. I’m not sure I can trust my vision of it. I can’t remember the tone of her voice anymore, whether it seemed heartfelt or just mechanical, parrot-like. (‘Echolalic’—that was the term they all used.) Just seconds after it happened, in fact, the whole thing fell apart, started to feel completely unreal, like a scene from one of the thousands of dreams I used to have in which Hannah talked.

So by now, some five years after her death, the only way I know the thing happened at all is that I made a point of remembering it. I said to myself—right then, as I held Hannah in the chair, and we watched Sesame Street, or whatever it was—I told myself that I’d have to hold on to this moment. It might be the only time I’d ever hear these words, I thought, so I’ve got to carry them with me forever, and they have to be enough.