It’s a sunny Friday morning and I stretch out in my warm bed. I’ve taken the day off from work to be with Ethan who is home on winter break. From the living room, I hear him at the electronic keyboard we bought the day before. I hear Dan, too, teaching him basic chords, his soft voice rising to cheer Ethan on as he grasps this new skill.
It’s a sweet domestic scene, quite ordinary but for one detail. Ethan and I are in our apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey and Dan is a hundred miles away in his house in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania. My son’s first piano lesson, given by my loving partner, is taking place via speakerphone.
“Okay, Dan, see you tomorrow,” I hear Ethan say. A moment later he calls me in to show me what he’s learned.
“Name a chord and I’ll play it for you.”
I ask for C, then E, then G. Ethan plays each without hesitation.
“You can ask for minor chords too,” he informs me.
I’m impressed with how quickly Ethan has picked up the piano. I’m equally impressed with his ingenuity in handling our living situation. He’s an only child of a single parent who’s in a long-distance relationship. True, Dan is with us most weekends, and Ethan often has friends over during the week, but even when it’s just the two of us, Ethan finds creative ways to fill our quiet home.
The speakerphone technique started with math homework. I’m a good coach when it comes to writing, vocabulary, or research, but by the time Ethan was in third grade, his math skills were beyond mine. I can sometimes assist with word problems by reading them aloud slowly and helping him decipher their logic. But most often, if he’s struggling with a math assignment, Ethan calls Richard or Dan. Being blind, Dan is especially good at working on problems without having them in front of him.
While they untangle tough questions together, I find myself lingering in the room, enjoying the lovely, albeit quirky, rhythm of our budding family.
I’m less inclined to stay close by when Ethan sits at his laptop surrounded by friends via instant messaging. Not that I don’t love his friends, but each has his or her own signature sound effect. When they’re together in a virtual group, the room fills with a relentless cacophony of doorbells, rusty hinges, song fragments, and, my personal favorite — kissy sounds. Still, I like knowing Ethan’s crew is there, available in cyberspace, to keep him company when I have to work late, or when I’m just not enough of a diversion on a long afternoon.
I love how technology has made the world into a smaller place and our home into a fuller one. But even when the phone is resting in its charger and the computer is off, our apartment rarely feels empty. Living with Ethan is like living with a character actor. He has personas with all kinds of accents and personalities, some based on characters from television — like Grandpa and Abu from The Simpsons — and many who are creations of his own. There’s Burt, Ethan’s sweet but none-too-bright alter ego with a goofy world view and a speech impediment; Dr.Smeeblo, a mad scientist with a high voice and a vaguely Eastern European accent; an old Jewish man based loosely on my father; and a nameless ghetto kid who’ll challenge anyone who dares to get all up in his face. He inhabits these various personalities so fully, and moves from one to the other with such fluidity, I often feel like I’m in a crowded room.
This of course has its downside. Ethan can get me laughing so hard my eyes tear, but there are definitely times when I feel inundated by the menagerie that is my son.
“Enough, Ethan!” I yell, just to be heard over the crowd. “I’d really like to remember what my own thoughts sound like.”
Still, I can’t help but appreciate his liveliness. When Richard first left, I worried that our two-person household would feel somber to Ethan, that he’d find life with me dull. After all, he was an energetic preschooler and I was a bookish mom with a disability that prevented me from running around the playground or even around the house with him. What I should have realized even then was that dull and somber don’t stand a chance around Ethan. He’s the most vibrant person I know.
Ethan does sometimes wish for more of a houseful. “You should have had more kids,” he tells me periodically.
“Maybe so, but it’s a bit late now,” I respond.
He loves when we have company, just as I do. But he also craves time that belongs to just the two of us. “I want to have a quiet day at home with you,” he sometimes says, though I wouldn’t define any of our days as especially quiet.
Today was pretty typical, with Ethan’s long-distance music lesson, his computer ringing, beeping and blowing kisses, his thousands of stories and the many voices he told them in.
Right now he’s playing the opening chords to John Lennon’s Imagine on the keyboard. Having just learned them, he’s giving his fingers what he calls “touch memory” by playing them over and over. He fiddles with some switches so that we hear Imagine as if played by an oboe, a steel drum, a harp, a tuba, a banjo and a mechanical woman’s voice counting out the tune — “One, two, three one twothreeone.” He calls his dad and plays a few versions over the phone. Then he calls Dan and leaves a few on his answering machine.
I go into the next room to do some dishes and find myself singing Imagine. Ethan was born on the same day as John Lennon, a fact I proudly announce whenever someone asks for his birthday.
Imagine all the people sharing all the world . . .
I laugh to myself, thinking, Imagine all the people I gave birth to that day . . .