95: A Hug with No Arms

95: A Hug with No Arms

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum

A Hug with No Arms

Millions and millions of years would still not give me half enough time to describe that tiny instant of all eternity when you put your arms around me and I put my arms around you.

~Jacques Prévert

When our boy was born, he didn’t gaze at faces the way I’d seen other babies do with their mommies. He cried for hours. Being held close in a soft blanket did not soothe him. Neither did music, gentle bouncing, a clean diaper, or a bottle. He’d refused to nurse, struggling away from my skin. We were blessed with a baby who seemed not to love us. I had a constant fear that something was wrong.

Family advice didn’t help. They insisted we were just nervous first-time parents and the baby was fine, or that he’d outgrow it when he could talk instead of fuss, or that it was my fault for painting the nursery when I was pregnant. I’d stenciled teddy bears around the baseboards to welcome him home.

Our boy had a cherub’s face, big blue eyes and soft pudgy cheeks. He pronounced simple words, but my “Say mama . . .” brought silence. I gave him a dollhouse, hoping to interest him in playing family. The doll’s plastic cradle had a battery-operated voice that called out, “Mama.” Our boy imitated the high-pitched, strangely automated sound. It was better than nothing but not enough for me.

He caught the flu as a toddler. Small and feverish, he let me hold him on my lap for almost an hour. I breathed his precious smell while his warm weight lay against my heart.

At age four, our boy was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. Though I’d suspected a problem, the autism spectrum wasn’t the one I wanted to hear. I tried to love it out of him with sweet words and extra snuggling. He’d squirm away, shouting, “That’s too much!”

He showed no sadness when our dog died, but wept huge rolling tears when I bought orange Jell-O. He preferred old T-shirts and sweat pants from the thrift store, clothes already worn thin by someone else’s child. He chattered endlessly, but only about Legos and the tractors he made. Even after working with doctors and therapists, his heart seemed unreachable.

Instead of anticipating the joy a milestone gift would bring, my husband and I learned to cringe. Our boy threw screaming, red-faced fits at the sight of his new tricycle, the scooter he’d asked for, his birthday skates. Parenthood wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Things got a little better in kindergarten. While he still didn’t like faces, he looked at the hem of my dress one morning, and declared, “A good mom wears a skirt.” It was high praise.

I worried, though, that he wouldn’t sit close to me or smile when I smiled. He didn’t show love. My deeper fear was that he didn’t feel it either. When I’d drop him off at school, I’d hear kids call to their mothers, “Love you, Mom!” Our boy would slam the car door without looking back, no matter how many times I asked him for a quick wave. He didn’t seem to have the cuddly kid gene.

Eventually, I resigned myself to his distance and odd preferences, the emptiness of the house.

As a young teenager, he suddenly asked for a “hug with no arms” meaning that we would stand next to each other without touching, without our eyes meeting, and silently agree we were hugging. I was stunned down to my toes. He wanted affection, but a glass prison window stood between us. I cherished anything he had to give.

One evening, after a stress-filled day at work, I sat at the kitchen table wiping my eyes with the back of my hand. My husband listened while I poured out the day. I spotted our boy lurking around the corner. He was an expert eavesdropper.

To unwind, I mixed up a batch of molasses cookies. The smell of cinnamon and the oven’s warmth gave me a coziness I needed, but I began to dread our boy’s reaction. He despised molasses cookies, the chewiness and the gritty sugar on his fingers. In the past, he’d yelled or stormed out when I made any cookie besides chocolate chip.

Tonight, however, he walked into the kitchen and picked up a stack of five cookies, wiping his sugary fingers on his jeans. He glanced into my eyes and looked away. Then he leaned near me in an armless hug.

“These are my favorite cookies, Mom.”

He was lying. He hated molasses cookies. What he did with them, I’ll never know. I’m sure he didn’t eat them. But he must have planned to comfort me. His words were a hug.

He will likely never throw his arms around me, but I’ve come to understand what our boy must have known all along. A hug, even without arms, and a few carefully chosen words can fill a hole in the heart.

I leaned close and said, “I love you, too.”

~Carrie Malinowski

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