My sons are two years apart, so in the gap between them, I see all the things that disappear, at some point, with age. My younger son, Simon, still says bizarre things sometimes, but my elder son has long since lost that knack for the surreal. Malcolm was ever a sophisticated child though, and an independent one. We were well matched when he was a baby. He wanted feedings, changings, and then to be set down and left to himself most of the time. Simon on the other hand, bewildered me with his neediness. I wanted to leave him to sleep while I did other things; he wanted to reside in a marsupial pouch in my body. For almost two years, I carried him everywhere, pressed to my body in a sweaty, sticky sling. We were poorly suited to each other. I felt for the poor boy. Once, when he was not even a year, I read aloud an article about mother-baby mismatch–the worst mix being “the independent mother and the needy baby.” I glared at him as I read and he blissfully squirmed in my lap.
Now that he’s almost six, he’s left behind that desperately clingy phase, but he has never adopted his brother’s serious aspect, or his practical, cool demeanor. I understand Malcolm’s reserve, his restraint. He and I approach the world in similar ways. Simon, on the other hand, swaggers through the world, his shrieky voice piping incessantly, waggling his rear end in some absurd dance. He drifts into his own internal realm frequently: a place we call SimonLand, from which it can be difficult to recall him. When he does come awake, he reports epic dance parties and Lego and candy castles. His school reports speak gently of his lack of social graces. He leaves us reasonable, mature folk shaking our heads.
The other day, I was talking with Malcolm in the kitchen before school when Simon came bounding around the corner. “Mum?” he squeaked, “Will you play Book of Love?” Finding the Peter Gabriel version on my phone, I hooked it up to the speakers as the strings played. “Dance with me, Mum,” he said, reaching one arm toward me. Malcolm arched an eyebrow in his corner as I lifted Simon and swung and dipped him around the room. When we approached too closely, Malcolm fended us off with a banana, a bemused and cool look on his face.
This month, a study came out about babies and their purported understanding of the laws of physics. When they see something that seems to defy the rules–a ball passing through a solid wall, or a toy seemingly suspended in mid-air–they focus carefully on the object as they do not when only the expected happens. The babies don’t just pay more attention, their brains open up to learning in those moments, the surprise focusing their minds.
Simon does that for me. I was a child like Malcolm: reserved, observant, cerebral. I am an introvert who has learned to emulate extroversion. I am often walled up in my own head, and it sometimes seems there’s no leaving it. Simon is the ball that defies physical law. He stormed into my life, clawing, mewling, desperate for human connection from his first minutes on Earth. He is still doing it, breezing through the barriers I’d thought impermeable. When he does it, I am mesmerized. We sail around the kitchen, and he giggles as he sings the lyrics. Malcolm shakes his head at what fools we are, but Simon has his fingers in the mortar of the bricks. He pulls at them a little bit each day, and I am learning.