I have a notebook where I jot down—usually in the middle of the night—impressions about Colin’s adventures with his brother Quinn and his sayings. Here’s a sample from last spring to now.
March 20, 2010
On the first day of spring Colin says: “Last night I dreamed of jumping over an orange tree. Tomorrow night I’m going to dream of jumping over an apple tree, and the next night of jumping over daddy.”
March 21, 2010
At 3 a.m. Colin bursts into our room. “There are flies in my room!” My wife, Maura, and I struggle for a long time to calm him. He’s in tears and congested with a cold. Maura gives him medicine and takes him to the bathroom. While he stays in our bed with Maura, I check his room. No sign of flies or even a single fly. I turn his sheets back in a welcoming triangle. Then I take a still-agitated Colin back into his room. “It’s okay,” I tell him. “No flies in your room. I just checked.” His face reddens, eyes welling tears. He puts his face so close to mine I can smell the sugary grape flavor from the cold medicine. “Dad! There were hundreds of them!” His tone makes me so uneasy I look over my shoulder and all around the room. I shine a flashlight over the freshened sheets and set the light next to his pillow. “You can keep the light on if you want.” He climbs in bed, comforted at last, and falls asleep. I stay with him for 15 or 20 minutes, listening to Colin and his little brother, Quinn, breathe slow and deep. This is my favorite place in the house and one of my favorite things to do—listen to the boys sleep. Across the room, the humidifier sputters away, and from Colin’s top bunk where I’m lying next to him, I hear it: A room full of flies. I scramble out of the bunk to shut the humidifier off.
As we walk through our neighborhood, Colin recites each house number and the names of everyone he knows that lives there, even the pets. When he rides his bike, this is more difficult, but he still tries, slowing his speed and even stopping until he has named each house and its residents. Riding around town or on the freeway with Colin is like having a GPS system on. He recites street names, exit numbers, miles to the next town, interstate and service road numbers, historical sites, billboard taglines. He says it all out loud in a mechanical voice, as if mimicking a GPS system, though I’m not sure he’s ever heard one. If he gets distracted or wakes out of a nap, he’s agitated until he gets his bearings: “Where are we? Where are we?”
Travel writer Bruce Chatwin describes a similar phenomenon in his book The Songlines. An Australian aboriginal man becomes frantic while riding in an automobile. He chatters away, looking behind him, out one window, then the other, stretching his neck to look ahead at what’s coming—all the time chanting as fast as he can. The driver slows down when he realizes the old man is trying to sing the ancient songlines for the landscape. He’s reciting the songs of the ancestors in the Dreamtime who in the aboriginal tradition sang the world into existence. Every hill, dry riverbed, stand of trees, and rock formation has a story. It’s one thing to sing the songlines while walking through the desert and quite another to sing them while hurling down the road in an automobile. Colin, like the Australian aboriginal, makes order of the world around him by naming the places, naming the people, naming the names.
Colin watches the digital clock at night before bed.
“Dad , it’s 9:02.”
“Dad, it’s 9:03,” and one minute later, “9:04, dad. It’s 9:04.”
“Yes, buddy, it is.”
“Dad! It’s 9:05.”
“Okay Colin. Why do you keep telling me the time?”
“Because I like time,” he says.
April 13, 2010
I insist that Colin put down the colored pencil he has been spinning in his hand for a half hour while humming the Darth Vader theme from the Star Wars soundtrack. He says, “What are you trying to do? Wrinkle my ideas?” It’s his way of saying: “Can’t you just leave me alone.”
Colin hums the overture from Bizet’s Barber of Seville while he’s hurrying to get dressed in the morning for school. We don’t have a CD of the music so he must have picked it up from a Bugs Bunny cartoon or something else on TV. And there it is for three mornings in a row—Bizet connected to being in a hurry, trying to do what you’re being pestered to do.
Colin obsesses over addresses, pouring over his school directories and lists, church and neighborhood phone lists, and family address books. We even had to hide them from him for a while—on top of the refrigerator.
So imagine how he felt when his teacher announced to the class: “Students. Today we’re going to learn how to write our addresses.”
The teacher later recounts what happened next, her eyes bright with excitement. “You wouldn’t believe it,” she tells us. “His face just lit up. He quickly jotted down his own address and then moved around the room, from one kid to the next. He checked the street names and numbers. He corrected spelling. Many of the other kids struggled to get their addresses right and he helped them. With the exception of two new kids whose addresses didn’t appear in the school directory, Colin had all the others memorized!”
His teacher had heard his chatter about streets and peoples’ names, but she had no idea how perfectly he had locked the information in his mind. For me it would take all day to memorize the addresses of thirty people—and even then the information would slip away in a few hours if I didn’t put it to use. For Colin, if he’s interested, the information is all there for him, locked in place, like he’s reading it off the page.
At the end of the class the teacher tells the kids: “All of us have gifts and Colin has a gift for memory.” I love to imagine this moment of victory for Colin and wish I had been there to see it for myself. Who wouldn’t love to have such a gift dropped in your lap? It would be like me walking into a terrifying meeting with the executive committee at work and having the company president say: “Forget about the marketing reports, Cantwell. Why don’t you tell us instead about the novels of Saul Bellow?”
April 27, 2010
This week Colin falls prey to the flu—long nights of ceaseless coughing, his nose red and raw. Then, on top of it all, vomiting. He doesn’t whine or cry. He endures. He forces a smile on his pale face and states it as it is: “Daddy. I’m sick.” Then he goes back to his toy or his book. No drama. He bears it alone, a little man in a child’s body.
May 7, 2010
Last night Colin flooded the toilet by filling it with an entire roll of toilet paper—something about the dry paper drinking up the water fascinates him. It’s irresistible. By the time I think to turn off the water valve, I’m standing in two inches of water. Furious beyond all reason, I howl at the boys and they flee upstairs as if a wild bull elk had suddenly materialized in the bathroom. In short, I made a pure ass of myself in front of the kids.
But Colin turns even such nonsense into gold. Tonight he says, “Dad, when I put tissues in the toilet, you were tense.”
“Yes, I’m sorry about that, Buds. I really am sorry.”
“Daddy,” he says, not letting me off so easy. “Daddy. You were way passed tense!”
Colin is still awake when I get home at 11 p.m. He says, “Sorry dad. I didn’t want to be caught sleeping.”
Colin says: “The only thing that will make dad happy is if I move to Timbuktu.”
August 31, 2010
I take the boys to the movie The Last Airbender that tells of people with the power to control air, water, earth and fire. They call it air-bending or water-bending or fire-bending. A few nights later I’m putting the boys to bed. Their bedroom window is open and we can hear the crickets in the backyard singing in unison. I stand next to the window swinging my hands in time with the crickets. Colin says, “Daddy. You’re cricket bending!” From that night on, we open the window to listen to the crickets. Colin opens and closes his hand in time—cricket bending. We continue this all summer.
October 1, 2010
I’m in the kitchen while the boys are taking a bath. I hear the distinct smack of a wet fist and go to investigate.
“Did somebody get hit in here?” I ask.
Both boys look at me intently, not wanting to answer, happy with playing in the bath and not wanting their play to be cut short.
Finally Colin says, “Nobody hit nobody.”
Quinn, with the trace of a smile, part of him longing to admit to the crime, says, “Somebody hit somebody.”
The boys look at each other, and then back at me. They’re conspiring. What should irritate me pleases me instead.
“Are you guys doing a little cover up?”
Colin says, “Yep!”
October 19, 2010
Mind blindness at work: Colin goes through a stage for a few days when he writes words in the air with his finger instead of answering you out loud. He writes the words as he sees them, so they’re backwards to you and hard to interpret. Maura can make sense of it. I never can.
November 3, 2010
I have these dreams—there have been dozens—when I’m looking for Colin in a crowded place, a place unfamiliar to me. I see him in the crowd 50 yards away and I call after him. He doesn’t respond. I go in pursuit. When I find him after a long series of sightings and flights, I hold tight to his hand until he’s safe at home or in bed. But then he always breaks free again.
Colin has seven colored pieces of foam, small rectangles about two inches long. He pretends they are candy bars—red (Kit Kat), blue (Nestlé’s Crunch), yellow (Butterfinger), and so on. He invites you to come into his “magical candy shop” and sample each bar. So he lines them up on a tabletop or chair and asks you to choose one after the other, to pretend to take a bite, to taste it. And after you have sampled each, he asks for a few “coppers” and you pretend to drop them in his hand. He carries those colored foam pieces around for weeks, clutching them in one hand. Then a day comes when he sets them aside and moves on to the next obsession.
November 24, 2010
Colin takes on a new obsession this month—the Presidents. I play along, asking him about terms of service, birth and death dates and places, political party, etc. It’s hard to stump him. Tonight when he gets out of the bath, his hair sticks up on top and pushed forward on each side. He stands in front of the mirror shouting: “Oh No! I like look Andrew Jackson!”
Voice Messages from Colin:
“Hello Dad. This is your son Colin. I was wondering what time you were coming home. It’s 5:50. Bring the car around by six o’clock. Bye.”
“Hello Dad. I’m sorry you missed your call. But we were wondering what time you were coming home. See you soon. Bye.”
“Hello Dad. This is your son Colin. When are you coming home? Why don’t we go to Canyon Rim Park? Just us and the forces of nature.”
Colin says in a prayer: “And bless us that we will all live a hundred lives.”
In the kitchen Colin holds his hands over his ears when the sizzle of the frying bacon intensifies. He says, “The sound is louding my ears.”
February 14, 2011
Several weeks ago Colin and I went on an outing to Café Rio—just he and I for lunch. Then last night we drove past the restaurant.
“Colin. Do you remember going to lunch there at Café Rio?”
“Yes, dad. January 22nd.”
Back home I checked my calendar and he was right. When I asked him again later, he still said January 22. I ask about St. Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and Easter. Colin knows the days and dates for each. Simple enough.
Then I ask, “When is your Dad’s birthday?”
“July 25,” Colin says. I’m not surprised he knows this either, but I ask:
“What day of the week will my birthday come this year?”
“Let me think . . . ah Monday. It’s Monday.”
I have to walk into the next room to check the calendar. He’s right.
“Colin. How do you know that?”
“I just know it, dad.”
“Can you see the calendar in your head?”
“Yes. I have a calendar,” he says. “I can see it.”
March 6, 2011
Colin is reading Dr. Seuss’ book The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins when he notices the large birthmark on my forearm. He says, “Daddy, your birthmark includes 154 speckles most unusual!” I fight the temptation to count them to see if he’s right.
April 5, 2011
Early this morning Colin joins Maura and me in bed. Maura decides it’s a good time to practice his list of spelling words.
“What’s the first word on your list, Colin?” Maura asks.
“How do you spell it?
‘Good. What’s the next word on the list?’
‘How do you spell it?’
And on it goes through a dozen words. What is strange about all this is that the list is in the next room and none of us are looking at it. We take for granted that he will remember all the words on the list—every one, and in the same order that it appears on the list from his teacher.
Colin says, apropos of nothing: “I feel like half-baked sourdough.”
April 14, 2011
I try to explain to Colin that we can’t play with him right now because Mommy is busy with dinner and I’m trying to help. Colin says: “Busy at home, busy in the town, busy in the world, busy all around.” I tell him he should be proud of coming up with such a great song. “What kind of music should we make for it? A lullaby, rock n’ roll, or something funky?” “Let’s do something funky,” he says. “So later we can turn it into smooth jazz.”