How My Son Found His Voice With Conversation Hearts

by Jamie Sumner
John Long / Getty

“Only twenty-three more days,” I tell him, as we pull up to his preschool on another cold January morning. Numbers are important when every day looks the same.

We count down the days to Valentine’s Day like most people count down to Christmas. It starts just after New Year’s. If only he liked chocolate, I think each year. I could fashion an epic Advent calendar with a giant box of Russell Stover’s.

It began three years ago, his first year in an inclusive preschool for special needs. It would be the first set of holidays with anyone other than family. Halloween was a wash. He didn’t care that I’d transformed his wheelchair into the Batmobile. I got one picture with his eyes half-closed before he pulled off the cape and went on with his day. Thanksgiving and Christmas passed much the same. I’m a sucker for revelry and I was lured by the festivities of his first school programs and sing-alongs. But he remained stoic, like a miniature Queen Elizabeth on his wheelchaired throne. None of it was drawing him out like I’d hoped.

I began to dread the birthday invitations that showed up in his cubby like glittery time bombs. “No, sorry, Charlie will not be able to attend Micah’s birthday at the trampoline park,” I would text. “Will not be able…” there was never a truer RSVP. We tried it. We made a test run to the trampoline park, just the two of us. With his full weight under my arms, I wobbled my way onto the sea of trampolines. Kids younger by half, double bounced us and he startled and cried until I dragged him to the edge like a drowning man. It was the same with parties at the pool and play gym. It was too much or not enough stimulus to draw him out of himself.

“Remind me again, when the ‘inclusive’ part of this inclusive preschool begins for us?” I said using air quotes, my favorite thing, while my husband stared at the raw spots on my knees from the trampoline disaster.

“The point is that he gets the chance.”

If my husband had a tagline, it would be “steady onward.”

But by the time that first February rolled around, I picked over the dollar bin Valentine’s Day cards at Target with grim resignation. I was over the holiday luster. I need the 14th to pass by fast and cheap.

Before I could stop him, Charlie almost toppled his wheelchair in a lunge for a dusty bag of conversation hearts. I grabbed his wheels and steadied him while pretending not to notice the string of saliva that he’d transferred onto the shoulder of the woman next to us. He hefted the bag until it was touching his nose, studying it like a near-sighted old man.

We bought the conversation hearts in all their compact sweet goodness and took them to school. When the van door slid open that afternoon and I buckled him into his car seat, he said two words, “Ma-ma” (drawing it out like a game show host) “good.”

He held up his paper sack spilling over with candy and cards and stickers and pulled out a piece of pink construction paper in the shape up a heart. Some kind soul had glued his conversation hearts in an uneven line that read: “Love You”… “Dear One”… “Tweet Me.”

Jamie Sumner

I laughed and tried to gently pry it out of his hands so he wouldn’t eat the gluey sugar on the way home. But my son, the boy with cerebral palsy and only a handful of words he could call his own, managed to give me a look that said: “Not if your life depended on it.”

I let go.

Drove home.

After dinner, I dumped out the leftover conversation hearts on the table, the powder remains getting lost in the cracks of the wood. And I watched as he began to sift through them like seashells on the beach, placing them in arrangements that actually made sense.

“UR,” “Real Luv,” “Soul Mate,”


“Marry me” next to “Please,” after which he pointed from me to his dad. We stood silent, his words having chased ours away.

Was this some sort of magic trick? A bag of candy turned Ouija board? I had done enough wishful thinking as his mom in the past, imagining movements of his body or skills that were not yet there to let myself be taken in. But this was something new.

I took a video, trying and failing not to sound like a pageant mom in the background. I sent it to his speech therapist and held my breath until she confirmed what I was afraid to say aloud. He had done the same thing in class. He had made that construction paper heart. He had spelled out messages for his classmates like a little shaman. I hung up the phone and cried. Of course I did. I had just discovered that my kid had been hiding a world inside him.

Something about those candy hearts made language accessible for him in a way that flashcards and his fancy speaking device never could. With the hearts under his hands, he made yellow and green and pink and blue messages that the world could understand.

He’s better with his speaking device now, conversing with others as we had always hoped he would. But each year for Valentine’s Day, I buy a bag of those hearts and we do our countdown and we make cards with sentences that he forms himself. And we celebrate the holiday when he found his voice.