Wednesday, April 13, 2005
Was I ever wrong
In the opening pages of Life As We Know It, I wrote that most of my time with Jamie—that is, when I’m actually with him, doing stuff—is lived pretty much moment by moment. And I wrote this specific passage just under ten years ago:
Occasionally it will occur to Janet or to me that Jamie will always be “disabled,” that his adult and adolescent years will undoubtedly be more difficult emotionally—for him and for us—than his early childhood, that we will never not worry about his future, his quality of life, whether we’re doing enough for him. But usually these moments occur in the relative comfort of abstraction, when Janet and I are lying in bed at night and wondering what will become of us all. When I’m with Jamie, by contrast, I’m almost always fully occupied by taking care of his present needs rather than by worrying about his future. When he asks to hear the Beatles because he loves their cover of Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally,” I just play the song, sing along, and watch him dance with delight; I do not concern myself with extraneous questions such as whether he’ll ever distinguish early Beatles from late Beatles, Paul’s songs from John’s, originals from covers. These questions are now central to Nick’s enjoyment of the Beatles, but that’s Nick for you. Jamie is entirely sui generis, and as long as I’m with him I can’t think of him as anything but Jamie.
The clear implication here—and you don’t have to be a literature Ph.D. to see it—is that a child with Down syndrome will never have the intellectual capacity to understand the Beatles’ oeuvre, or even to understand that some songs preceded others, were written by different band members, and so forth.
Well, this is long, long overdue, but I owe Jamie one enormous apology: I couldn’t have been more wrong. Over the past ten years Jamie has become so fascinated with the Beatles that he’s memorized almost the entire songbook. He still has trouble identifying late Harrisonian ephemera like “The Inner Light,” “Old Brown Shoe,” and “Only a Northern Song” (all of which suck, anyway), and he’s not crazy about Abbey Road (with good reason). But in every other respect, his knowledge of Beatles music verges on the preternatural.
It started a couple of years ago, when he was fascinated with “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” and “Come Together” (he still gets a kick out of “juju eyeball”), whereupon I explained to him that John had written those songs and that John liked to play games with words. Well, Jamie was so thrilled with this news that he demanded to know what else John had written. So I went back over the corpus, so to speak, and found to my surprise that John had written almost three-quarters of the originals on the Beatles’ first four records. (My tally is twenty-five Lennons, ten McCartneys—though I’m counting “Hard Day’s Night” under John even though Paul wrote the middle eight. I attribute “I Wanna Be Your Man” to both of them. As for songs after 1964, I attribute “We Can Work It Out” to Paul even though John wrote the middle eight. If anyone knows which of them wrote “Tell Me What You See,” let me know—I’m inclined to Paul, because it sounds to me like a rewrite of “Things We Said Today,” but I’m not sure.) I revisited a mess of other things about John’s early work as well, like his fondness for melisma (as in the final verse of “Not a Second Time,” which gets positively silly in this respect) and his felicity with pop musical genres we ordinarily associate more with Paul (not only the remarkable “This Boy” and “Yes It Is,” but the relatively obscure “Ask Me Why,” which is way too complicated for its own good, but a hell of an effort nonetheless).
Before I knew it, Jamie had memorized “the Johns,” as he puts it, and proceeded to master the other three as well (for Ringo, we go by the songs he sang, not just the two he wrote). Then Jamie wanted to know who wrote “Bad Boy” or “Roll Over Beethoven” or “Anna.” Then he began to understand (as we made him presents of each CD) which records contained which songs. Then, as he began to ask which came first, I bought him one of my favorite extended pieces of rock criticism, Roy Carr and Tony Tyler’s The Beatles: An Illustrated Record. By now, Jamie had a sense of the year-by-year, record-by-record trajectory, and an astonishing memory for other things as well.
“Remember when the Beatles were in the Bahamas?” he asked one day.
“Uh,” I said, trying to think of Beatles’ world tours, “I don’t think they ever played in the Bahamas.”
“No, in Help!” he insisted, and proceeded to show me one of the pictures in yet another Beatles coffeetable book we’d gotten him. Yep, there were the Beatles in the Bahamas. Score one for Jamie. Now Jamie has a whole quiver of such questions. Remember when the Beatles had a pillow fight? Remember when John disappeared in the bathtub? Remember when Ringo was combing his hair?
So when he’s bored, or when we’re trying to kill time in long lines or on long trips, Jamie will now ask me to “do all Pauls,” or whomever, and I will proceed to pick random tunes from here, there, and everywhere. I’ll sing about two bars—“Close your eyes, and . . . ” and Jamie will immediately jump in and say “With the Beatles. 1963. Next!” And I’ll say, “let me think,” and he will mock me, and I’ll sing “Martha, my dear . . .” and he’ll say “White Beatles. 1968. Next!”—and this can go on, as you might imagine, for some time, until my own memory is exhausted. When we came back from Houston last month, and waited fifteen minutes by the baggage carousel, we got through about sixty or seventy of these, much to the amusement and/or annoyance of our fellow travelers, one of whom asked, “Did you already do ‘Norwegian Wood’?”
What makes this especially curious, to me, is that he’s not just cataloguing information and spewing it back; he’s got everything cross-referenced somehow, and he never fails to name songs I’ve forgotten. For example, by the time we’d gotten on the shuttle bus to Extremely Remote Parking at BWI, Jamie was chortling in the back seat at the fact that I’d forgotten “Rain,” “Any Time at All,” and even “Don’t Let Me Down” from the list of Johns. I never, never manage to remember the whole damn songlist, and I always forget different songs each time (though for some reason I have particular trouble with “Paperback Writer” and “Drive My Car” among the Pauls). And Jamie never fails to catch the omissions. It’s astonishing.
Equally astonishing is his ability to remember where we’d left off three or four days ago, and to pick up from there. “More Johns,” he said one day last summer as we were tooling around Paris; “If I fell in love with you . . .” I replied, only to be met with “we did that already. Next?”
But even more astonishing is his ability to associate specific words with specific songs. One night we were doing the words on his spelling list, and when he came to “through” he sang, “Through thick and thin she will always be my friend.” The word “you’re” was met with “you’re gonna lose that girl”; “picture” with “picture yourself in a boat on a river.” On certain days he has to use his spelling words in complete sentences, and we’ve told him that he can’t always just place them in Beatles songs, that he has to think up his own sentences. But if you’d asked me ten years ago whether I imagined that I would ever have to issue Jamie an injunction like that—stop quoting Beatles lyrics in your spelling-word sentences—I probably would have given you a very dirty look.
And so, Jamie, I admit it. Even when I was trying to represent you to the best of my ability ten years ago, I underestimated you. I was wrong, and I apologize. And through thick and thin, I will always be your friend.