One Very Special Project

It finally happened.

Since long before Cassie could talk, we’ve been trying to eke out words from her babbled syllables. Did she just say “I love you?” my husband, Ty, would ask, and we agreed that she probably did, though we both secretly suspected she was just blowing bubbles with her spit.

Now, she is 21-months old and is capable of other three-word combinations. She can say “Mommy’s going potty” in a crowded public restroom right before she opens the door on me. She can say “Cassie, be careful” right before she breaks something. She parrots just about everything we say, particularly those four-letter words that sometimes sneak into our conversations uninvited. But each time we prompt her to say “I love you,” she squints at us, her face pinched and uncharacteristically serious. And she tucks in her top lip the way I did when I was a kid and someone told me to “button it.”

It’s not that we are worried about her language abilities or about her love for us. Actions speak louder than words, especially when you’re only old enough to know and understand a handful of them. But these are the words that melt a mommy’s heart. Ty has reasoned that Cassie simply understands the emotional magnitude of these words and that she is waiting for just the right time to say them.

It got a little silly one day last month when I broke down and bought a Barney videotape. The purple dinosaur has my child securely under an eerie kind of spell, but the video affords me 30 uninterrupted minutes to blow dry my hair, clean the breakfast dishes, and make a few business calls, so I will admit, I use it when I must. At the end of each episode, Barney sends out a ringing: “And remember, I love you!” The first time Cassie watched the video, she looked right at the screen to say - plain as day, “Love you, Barney.” So much for emotional magnitude. From my place at the kitchen sink, I made a mental note to ignore that detail when filling out the baby book.

We tell her we love her about 30 times a day, not in hope that she will say it back but because both of us were raised to say the words when the mood strikes us, which, happily, is quite a lot these days. After the Barney incident, we both sort of stopped listening for the reply. But we have a little game we continue to play. It’s a silly exchange I say throughout the day because it makes her hug me.

It begins with me asking “Hey Cassie…Do you know what?”

Then I have to tell her what to say. “Say 'what,'” I whisper.

“What?”

“I love you,” I say. Then I scoop her up and bounce her around for awhile.

It’s one of those silly sing-song things that just seems to evolve in every family. And, this morning, it must have been on Cassie’s mind. We were late for playgroup. I was weaving around Cassie in the kitchen, slapping together PB&Js for our picnic lunch. I had left the fridge door open and Cassie was sucking Hershey’s syrup out of the squeeze bottle. She was squeezing hard, and the excess bubbled out onto her chin. When I leaned down to rinse her off and move the chocolate to a higher shelf, it became obvious that she needed a diaper change. Fast. I was about to say, “Do you know what? We need to hurry up and change you and get you in the car.”
But she thought we were playing the game, and so she interrupted me right after the “Do you know what?”

“I love you,” she said. And then she grinned in a shy way, as though she had just presented me with a painting or a play-dough sculpture or some kind of special project, something she had made all by herself, something that had taken her an awfully long time. I suppose she had.