Estimated reading time — 9 minutes
Throughout my years of reading people’s stories of this nature, I have noticed that many of them speak from the perspective of a child. This is entirely apt: we’ve all been children, we’ve all had the strange and unexplainable experiences before we “grew up” and convinced ourselves we’d figured out how the world worked.
As children, the rules are flexible. Monsters, flying, magic are all perfectly acceptable in our worlds until the droll, seriousness of ‘science’ takes over.
Please forgive me if I depart from this perspective and assume that of a parent, a father. I realise that many of you good readers, for plentiful reasons, have not had this experience. Those of you who have will agree that the becoming of a parent bestows upon one the weight of all responsibility. You are the one upon whom all the power of protection, reassurance and care rests. You have in your charge a unique and precious entity, your duty to preserve and nourish it. It is a sacred and terrifying burden. Thus is was with Corley.
When my first son – how I miss him! – was born, I confess I felt lost and terrified as well as the happier emotions new parenthood brings. But plenty of others do it, I thought. Millions all over the world, throughout history, have raised children and they managed. Poorer, less educated, even less evolved animals do it all the time! I would be fine!
Oh would it were so.
The first few months were the typical mundane, hectic, calm, chaotic, messy, joyous and absurd times of modern parenting. Corley was a difficult sleeper at first; hated sleeping alone. I can sense the parents reading this smile knowingly – for aren’t all babies like this? They have to be trained to sleep alone, heartbreaking though it might be. In infancy, Corley would scream for hours if he was separated from his mother or me; long after we had passed out from exhaustion, we would wake to hear him screaming. Eventually we relented. Surely any damage done by sleeping with his parents would be less than the obvious discomfort he felt screaming all night.
He developed into a spirited, highly energetic toddler. He was tireless, rough and boisterous but just as loving and relational as one could hope for. He was a little delayed in walking, and speaking, but every child is different aren’t they? Don’t rush them, says the literature. They’ll get there in their own time. And of course, he did. For a time.
Now reader, please allow me a small indulgence. You’ve heard about the horrors of parenthood: the sleeplessness, soiled nappies, drudgery, boredom. You’ve also heard about the “joy”, and the “amazement” and any number of superlative words of “wonder” that it brings. Thus it was when Corley started talking. More so, understanding. It is known that babies and children absorb huge amounts of information before they venture into language themselves. A new word, a colour, a concept. I was especially moved when he identified with me enough to give me a name: “Bab”.
The most special part of this for me was that instant of connection between two minds – that brief eye contact where he understood something, and I saw that he did, and he saw that I saw, and so on into that endless feedback loop that signifies the connection of two minds. We adults do that every day of course, with our friends and colleagues; but when you see it happen for the first time with your own child… then, you understand why we go on about it so.
And this must be when it started. Of course I didn’t realise at the time – who would with their first child? – that something was amiss. Shortly after I had begun to see these ‘connections’ regularly, I noticed that Corley would often shift his gaze from mine to a space in the room just over my shoulder. The look of understanding in his eyes would deepen. His smile would broaden. The first time I had assumed that his mother was behind me, and he was reacting to her. He would still acknowledge me of course, but his greatest recognition was reserved for that vacant space behind me, up by the ceiling, or at the top of the curtains.
“Bab!” he would say, as I caught his attention. “Bababab!” and he would give me that look of recognition before sliding his eyeline beyond, and smile and perhaps nod faintly as he acknowledged his unseen ‘friend’.
Now. I know at this point there are a thousand reasons that this could be. Perhaps his reactions were just delayed – he needed to stare into space momentarily as he processed his infant thoughts. Maybe a fly or a wisp of light caught his fancy. Or he was daydreaming! Why would I entertain foolish thoughts of him looking at ‘someone else’? Something else? For heaven’s sake, maybe the supernaturalists are right, and children do indeed see sprites and beings and auras and faeries and dragons, before the mighty hand of ‘science’ and ‘reason’ crush out altogether the world of the fantastical! If it’s normal and happens to us all, well then what of it?!
Like you, dear reader, I scoffed at my over-concern. And I would have forgotten it by now, as Corley is almost seven, had things eventuated the way I’d hoped. But as you see by now, they did not. Far from it.
Some nights later, I was heading to bed very late, congratulating myself on my brilliant fatherhood prowess, as I had only recently got Corley to sleep in his own bed calmly and without fuss. His mother worked night shifts as a nurse, so this formidable task had been left to me. As I passed his room I heard a voice. A calm, competent, clear voice. I inched closer, obviously in some confusion. The voice was Corley’s. He was holding a conversation! Proper sentences, and leaving a pause for the imaginary other participant, much as if he were on the phone. As I approached I was able to make out his dialogue.
“I can’t,” he said.
A brief pause.
“I’m not going to.”
“No. No I won’t. I would never do that.”
Of course I was stunned as he’d never said more than “bababab” or “mama” or “num num num” to me. And now he was negating hypothetical future situations? How was it so?
And then, after a longer silence:
“Because he is my father.”
Aghast, I strode into the darkened room. The curtain was open as usual, the sodium streetlight casting a dreary orange stripe on the far wall. It was dark enough to sleep, but light enough to see Corley sitting upright facing the end of his bed. He turned to me as I entered, his little face blank and neutral.
“Who were you talking to?” I asked him. He stared up at me, his face unreadable and innocent as a toddler’s.
“Bababab,” he replied. I knelt down by him, and gestured to the end of his bed.
“Who were you talking to?” I repeated, in a more kindly and soft tone. He continued looking at me and whispered “babab” again and put his hand gently on my arm. I tried a few other more complex questions to prompt him into revealing his powers of conversation with me, but he just continued to stare calmly, occasionally whispering “babab”. I was tired, I was rattled, but what could I do? I couldn’t demand he converse with me. I bid him sleep now, and he immediately lay down, placed his head on his pillow, all the while watching me as I kissed his forehead and left. Watching me with that same serene, impenetrable expression.
I slept poorly. The image of him in confident discussion with the end of his bed haunted my slumber, and the nature of his subject echoed on the edges of my conciousness. I rose some hours later to use the lavatory and heard Corley’s voice again. It was hushed this time, scarcely above a whisper. I crept to his door and listened to the following:
“I just want to go to sleep now.”
“Please go, I’m tired. I want to sleep.”
A longer pause, and then something of a weary sigh.
“Alright. I will if I can go to sleep right now.”
“I’ve said I would.”
I’m sorry to say I burst in at speed. Corley was fast asleep, snoring soundly, tangled in his cosy nest of blankets and toys. I tried to rouse him a couple of times but he was deep in slumber. ‘Dead to the world’, as the phrase goes.
As it was almost dawn and his mother would be home soon, I decided to resist the urge to sit up with him and watch over him. In any case he was now so deep in his dreams I reckoned that nothing could wake him, and I trudged back to my own bed and slumped into unconsciousness.
I decided against burdening my dear wife with the story; her work as a psychiatric nurse is traumatic enough and throwing a bizarre story at her about her son’s nighttime conferences wasn’t what she needed. And what would I expect her to do about it, I imagined her saying. Shouldn’t I, as the father, the husband of the house, the protector – the ‘man’ – be able to resolve it?
The next few days, indeed months and years, are of scant interest to this story. Suffice to say there were no more midnight communications that I was aware of, and though he was slower than most, and his distracted recognition of this unseen ‘friend’ of his increased and deepened, Corley grew. His character as observed by others, was of a quiet and solitary boy. Polite and serious when spoken to, his expression unknowable, gentle and reticent. The boisterous exuberance of his infancy was all but gone. Occasionally he could be seen running and laughing as he played outside, often alone, so as a family we weren’t particularly concerned.
When he was nearly four, his brother Antonio was born. Having experienced a new baby once already, we were much less stressed and ‘on-edge’ than with Corley. Antonio learned and adapted to life quickly. He could speak before two, and shortly after he could read several words and toilet himself. His knowledge of the basics – colours, animals, numbers, people – was considerable. Every day he seemed to learn a new word or phrase and begin using it. He would relish the idea of learning concepts and ideas. Corley, at six years old, was his idol, his hero. At least at first.
But as you will predict, the happiness receded and a darker time stole ever closer to us.
Corley grew more distant as his brother grew more competent. He had almost stopped talking to anyone, and seemed to run on autopilot. He ate mechanically. He read, wrote, engaged with other children, spoke, played only when directed. He never offered comment or opinion unless demanded, and then it was only ever “good” or “nice”. When we embraced him before school or before bed, his arms would automatically return the hug then drop to his side, devoid of emotion or warmth. His eyes would meet mine, but his neutral expression was even more pronounced. Please forgive my absurd oxymoronic grammar, but I could only describe it as ‘extremely neutral’.
I have read enough about conditions and syndromes such as dyspraxia, autism, Aspergers and such, to know that the world is big enough to embrace every child, no matter their disposition. I know that children who are exposed to trauma or poison or drugs can develop conditions like this. In Syria there are children so affected by the horrors of conflict that there is doubt they will ever ‘come back’. In Congo there are child-soldiers who have been stripped of their personalities through drugs and exploitation. Haiti even has a legal status of ‘zombie’ for people who have disappeared and returned with their emotions and humanity drained. In areas of Eastern Europe are children who have been mentally erased through trafficking and prostitution. Every country hosts some of these tragic, blank beings. Though it was somewhat agonising for us, his parents and brother, and the underfunded and disinterested health-system being what it is, we never found out what it was that caused this ebb of passion, of vitality.
Months passed. Antonio grew disinterested in his brother, in favour of his other friends. He stopped acknowledging him altogether, and regarded him as something of a piece of furniture. He wasn’t cruel or disdainful, but I suppose since he never elicited any reaction from Corley any more, he just ceased his engagement with him.
It was another dark and heavy Autumn night, around the 25th or 26th of March (Northern Hemisphere readers please note, in New Zealand the Autumn seem to come quickly, as sunset clunks in early when Daylight Savings Time ends.) I was again heading to bed late when I heard a voice coming from my boys’ bedroom. Antonio’s voice. Again that one-sided conversation, as of Corley’s those years ago. Though my distress was obviously great, I again listened.
The conversation was much more animated than Corley’s had been. Antonio was discussing events from his day, subjects like his favourite toys, basic emotions – normal three-year-old stuff. And occasionally laughing, as if the ‘other’ party had made some amusing comment. Then I heard this:
“You’re my brother. I love you, Corley!” and a delighted laugh.
I rushed in. Antonio was sitting up in his bed, his attention directed to the foot of it, an empty space. Corley was asleep, silent and still in his own bed on the other side of the room. Antonio glanced toward me as I approached, then returned to his dialogue.
“Dad here,” he said to the empty space. “Come on, Corley. Come out.” He turned to me and smiled, saying: “Dad, Corley’s here!”, again directing his attention to the foot of the bed.
“Where you going, Corley?” he giggled. nad after a moment he simply said “goodnight” and clunked his head down onto his pillow.
Needless to say reader, he offered no explanation of his eerie actions. He just looked at me with a gleam of happiness in his eye until he fell asleep.
I never heard his nocturnal conversations again. And that is almost the end of my story, except for this final event. Some months later Antonio was sitting at the table finishing his dinner. Corley was there too, but it was almost as if he had regressed further. Antonio did not even register him any more. Even his mother and I had to remember to attempt to engage with him, as our busy working life and day-to-day business took up more of our time. I was trying to get Antonio to acknowlegde Corley, perhaps talk to him or share his thoughts with him.
Antonio frowned. “No,” he replied. I don’t like Corley. I replied with some platitude about that not being nice, he’s your brother, he loves you, and similar words.
“I don’t like Corley,” Antonio repeated more emphatically. “Corley screaming. Corley screaming all the time.” He must have seen my shocked expression as he shifted his gaze to over my shoulder, up to that space by the ceiling, still frowning. His tone became grumpy, as that of any annoyed three-year-old. He stared back down at his plate, his eyes briefly flicking up to that empty spot.
“He screaming all the time now.”
And that really is all there is to tell. But my plea is thus: all of you parents, and those that would become parents, and those that are thinking of becoming parents. Please hug your child every day and tell them that you love them. Take every opportunity to spoil them. For the time we can show them that love may be all too brief.
Credit To – Mastadon