The day my stepson said I love you

By Hillary Vaillancourt

I’ve only been in his life for three years, since he was twelve. Growing up, I used to imagine what my family might look like, the babies I would raise, the nights spent around the dinner table, and to be honest, I never imagined having a stepson.

The first time I met the boy and his dad, we were at a hockey game. A group of mutual friends introduced us all. I had already heard so much about my now-husband from them, and so I was eager to meet him, even though I wasn’t so sure about dating a man with a child. I had read something a long time ago, never to marry a man unless I could imagine having a son just like him. I watched as my now-husband leaned in, said something to his son, and they both broke out in wide smiles with matching sets of dimples. I didn’t have to imagine having a son just like my husband, I could already see it, and I couldn’t help but smile too.

The next time I saw my stepson, weeks after my husband and I started dating, I was introduced as “the girlfriend.” Already wholeheartedly in love with the boy’s dad by then, and knowing how close they were, I wanted to build something special with him too. And, I wanted his approval. I wanted to be part of their existing family.

But, relationships aren’t made; they are nurtured. A seed is planted in fertile soil, dirt with: compost, clay, worms, oxygen, nitrogen, grass clippings, bugs, things I can’t name, things I don’t understand, things I may not even like. Without it, there is no growth, there are no flavors to smell and savor.

I told the boy I loved him for the first time at Christmas Eve mass. The candles were glowing around the little baby Jesus, reflecting off my brand new engagement ring, and I could see my stepson’s profile out of the side of my eye at the same time. It all came together for me. But, he didn’t say it back. And, as we left the comfort of that church, I realized I loved another woman’s child.

A few weeks later, he was rollerblading outside. The pavement was mostly dry, but he found some residual ice, slipped, fell, and came hobbling into the house crying with a bruised back.

“I’ll get the ice!” I yelled, jumping to my feet, flying to the freezer, and snatching an ice pack.

The boy lay on his stomach, and I gently placed the ice pack across his back.

Was I hurting him? I worried. Was he okay? I went back to my seat on the sofa and tried not to look so obvious watching him for any signs of distress the rest of the afternoon.

The second May I knew him, I woke up on Mother’s Day wishing I’d slept through it instead. I saw friends wishing each other a Happy Mother’s Day on social media, but nobody said anything to me. I loved the boy, but I didn’t count. I rolled onto my side away from my sleeping husband and let the tears fall silently. Later while washing dishes, I heard a small voice next to me. I turned to see my stepson next to the sink. I thought he said “Happy Mother’s Day,” but I didn’t believe it. I asked him what he said. He repeated, “Happy Mother’s Day.” I didn’t know what to do. My hands were soapy and soaked. The water was still running. He looked at me. I looked at him. We smiled. Then, when the dishes were done, we packed the car and brought him home to celebrate Mother’s Day with his mother. 

We’ve spent a lot of time in the car together between pick-ups and drop-offs at his mother’s house. One such drive, I noticed he wasn’t wearing his seat belt.

“Where is your seatbelt?” I cried.

He froze like a caught fish who’s given up the struggle. He grabbed the belt behind him and buckled it. Does no one check at home? I wondered. My mind put on a whole play where the boy’s dad and I were notified that the boy was in a car accident. Dead. They’d inform us. Could have been prevented if he’d been wearing a seatbelt.

He’s fifteen now, but I still check to be sure he’s buckled in. Most of the time he’s not, and I am both aghast that I have to keep reminding him and pleased that I’m needed in some, small, maybe significant way.

Recently, my husband and I moved out of state for his dream job. He had to go out of town for work at the end of a visit with the boy, so that left me to bring my stepson to the airport to fly on his own for the first time. I got a pass so I could walk to the terminal with him. I let him navigate the airport so he could learn. He was nervous, but he did well, and I told him so.

We waited together an hour for the plane, and when passengers began boarding, he got in line. I fought back tears as we said our goodbye. His ticket was scanned, and he ducked his head to go into the tunnel. My heart sank.

That’s it? I thought. This boy that I loved, cared for, protected, worried over, prayed over, was he too old for a hug or any other sign of affection? Or was he not inclined to share it with me? Did I still not count?

Then, from the tunnel, my stepson leaned back. He turned to me. He smiled. He waved. “Love you,” he said. And, then he left.

Love you! I repeated to myself. He said, “Love you!”

I melted into the nearest chair and texted my husband: our boy is on the plane.

Hillary Vaillancourt writes primarily children’s fiction. She’s the beloved wife to an incomparable husband, the stepmom of a teenager, and about to be Mama to a newborn in 2018. She would be delighted to connect on Twitter.

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