Alex is four. I don’t really know what to say about it. Only 14 more years until I’m done, ha-ha. 14 years ago I was in my second year of grad school. I feel like the same person. Not drinking as much. Not writing at all, comparatively. But otherwise.

He doesn’t look that much different to me than he did a year ago. Or two years ago. Or three years ago, to be honest.

People say he’s changing and I know that he is but I really don’t notice it that much. It still feels the same to hang out with him as it has for pretty much the past two, two and a half years, ever since he started walking. He is generally in his own little world, about 80% of his brain anyway, focused on something internal. Here’s a change: I think he’s starting to realize that most people, mommy and daddy included, can’t actually see what he’s seeing. Or more precisely, what he’s thinking, what he’s feeling. It’s him, and then there’s everybody else. I think when he thinks about it, it makes him lonely.

So he’s growing there, empathetically, putting himself in other people’s shoes to understand them and why they aren’t doing what he wants them to. He’s figuring out manners. We work on the difference between yelling the single word identifier of the thing he wants and “asking nicely,” which means a calm voice, a full interrogative sentence, and the magic word. He’s starting to substitute words in his scripts on his own, adapting them more to the circumstances. He’s getting more serious, understanding how he affects things, other people, the first little blossoms of a sobering self-awareness, but also more than anything he loves to be silly, to play, to be tickled especially, because it’s so simple, what’s the phrase, something about it being its own reward, there’s no concept you need to grasp, no suspension of disbelief or pretending required, it’s pure, it’s easy, it’s chaotic, out of his control, he surrenders to it and laughs and laughs and laughs.

He didn’t want us to sing him Happy Birthday today. They sang it to him at school. He seemed to tolerate it that day, but two days before was another kid’s birthday and Alex spent the whole song covering his ears, which I taught him to do whenever I use the coffee grinder and now he does when he doesn’t like something or is surprised or nervous, like when Shrek is about to scream at the pitchfork-and-torch crowd, or when Daddy shows up at Mommy’s house unexpectedly to celebrate his birthday.

We took him to the bookstore today. Usually we take him to Build-a-bear but the bookstore seemed like enough of an outing for all the breaking of routines and excitement going on already. We learned our lesson at the petting zoo that too big a crowd overwhelms him and leaves him scurrying for shelter like he’s caught in the middle of an omnipresent, unending explosion. We had thought about taking him to the zoo today, thinking it might be cold enough to keep the numbers down, and it was, but then it broke the next barrier and got too cold for us as well. I don’t think he minded too much. He got to play with mommy and daddy as much as he wanted today, and he patiently waited until we finally let him have cake, and ice cream, the both of which he horked down like a pelican and thus I am 90 minutes behind on bedtime tonight. The point is he had a good time.

He’s a stunning little child. He breaks my heart constantly. In a span of three blinks I’ll go from wondering how long his default communication will be stuck in single-word imperatives, to marveling at his intelligence or insight. He drums at a third-grade level, maybe higher. He’s gotten as good at reading as it makes sense to him to get; he knows how to sound out most any word but he doesn’t think in sentences yet, so reading sentences isn’t a skill he’s particularly keen on honing, like I don’t see the point in developing my speed at reading the names in a phone book. He’s actually bored with books, currently. I can get him to read one or two of the classics with me, sometimes. But he thinks movies are so much more entertaining right now, and he’s not wrong about that.

He didn’t get as tall as I thought he had. I had him pegged at 3’3” about three weeks ago, but he’s still more like 3’2.5” if I’m honest. But he’s clearly growing, in any case. His brain is growing, still not in the traditional directions, but there’s a lot going on in there and I hope not to wreck its natural development just so he better aligns with my own—or the world’s—expectations of him. I don’t care that it’s still hard to get him to say goodbye to people on FaceTime because he’s reciting the same line from Hercules for the 50th time in a row. I do get jealous of some of the things I see other people posting about their interactions with their own three- and four-year-olds. Like, segments of conversations they carry on. It blows my mind a little that other people speak the same language as their four-year-old. I do not speak Alex’s language, not fluently, anyway. I know enough, as they say, to ask where the bathroom is. Other adults encountering him for the first time are flabbergasted if they try to interact with him. What’s your name. How old are you. Do you want to pick one of these books on the table. Do you like books. These poor librarians, he just stares back at them, they may as well be interrogating furniture, or if he does happen to say something it’ll be so out of context to them that even if they do correctly identify the words, they’ve got no chance at making sense of why he’s saying them.

Because it’s music. Obviously. When he uses his voice it’s to make music, because there’s a song stuck in his head and that song is the phonemes and cadence of a particularly well-struck line of dialogue from a movie. Aladdin has been perhaps the biggest hit so far, because of Robin Williams, who makes music with every last word he speaks in that movie. No substitutions, exchanges, or refunds. In fact, there’s so much there to latch onto that Alex actually began to prefer the Will Smith version because there’s less happening, it’s a stripped-down version, easier to digest a well-spoken line, to let it marinate in the brain for a minute, if the following lines are dull, lack rhythm, pitch, nuance.

Most day-to-day speech lacks rhythm, pitch, nuance. I don’t blame Alex for not being attracted to it, at times barely noticing it. You flip through the FM stations, or let the radio scan itself and give you three seconds of each, and you hear music, music, music. Fast music, then country music, then hip-hop music, then country music, then rock music, then country music, then a commercial but it’s a radio commercial so it too is sonically interesting—and then you hit talk radio, I would say NPR but these days even they are aware how they need to really smash the delivery of their lines if they want to keep ears at attention. But like, I don’t know, C-SPAN, if it were on the radio. The driest verbal toast around. That’s what normal talking sounds like to Alex. He can’t focus on it, not when there’s a much catchier tune already playing in his head. And I’d rather not force him to. Not if I can find a way around it. I want to figure out how to give him the option to partake in regular conversation if he wants to, or needs to. I am not interested in breaking him like a horse so he can wear the same sad saddle as the rest of us.

And this is slowly happening. He is starting to substitute some more appropriate words into his scripts, or using a script in a more appropriate situation.

But for the most part, still, I have a four-year-old whom I cannot talk to, and I’m working as hard as I can to be okay with that.

Just keep singing. Just keep singing, singing, singing, what do we do we sing.

One response to “Older”

  1. Aaron, I loved this. I’ve been told that most of parenting is learning to manage our own anxiety. Well done. Just keep listening. And singing. And listening. Well done, you. Well done, Alex. Well done, Gretchen. He’s magnificent.


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