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12/31/2005

Friendly

Every weekend we go to Friendly's, a local outpost of the burger chain where Charlie can be as noisy and as messy as he likes and still be better behaved than much of the clientele. (I speak not of the other children we meet there, who are, for the most part, tolerable, but of the cadets from the nearby military college, who are, for the most part, in-.) Charlie likes the helium balloons they usually offer on Saturdays, and he certainly likes their milkshakes. But more than anything, he likes the people.

It flattens me, awkward, anti-social me, every time: Charlie makes friends. He's at his happiest when there's another baby nearby, when he can emphatically brandish bits of his lunch, crowing indignantly as if to say, "These jackasses brought me carrot chunks when I distinctly ordered a Fishamajig!" And the other baby waves her sippy cup jauntily in answer, as if to ask, "Dude. What the fucking fuck is a Fishamajig?" And in his subsequent confusion, Charlie crams a pickle slice the size of a dinner plate into his mouth, effectively ending the conversation.

But it's not just the babies. He gives long, soulful looks to the occupants of the next table, squirming in sudden delight when he's noticed at last. He smiles when old ladies touch him. He bends his head backwards to smile upside down at a waitress hurrying by. I am proud and happy that he likes other people, that he naturally wants to be friends.

He is mostly, I see, irresistible. He starts by staring intently at his quarry, waiting to catch the eye of his unsuspecting prey. Once he's mesmerized them with his blue-eyed basilisk gaze, he stuns them with a wide-mouthed three-toothed smile. Then he issues the coup de grace, a high-pitched squawk of purest baby glee, a killing word of sorts. And they are his forever.

Or until he does something disgusting with a French fry that makes them turn away in shocked revulsion. You know, whichever comes first.

...

One Saturday Charlie was making friends with the people across from us, a middle-aged woman and a boy of about sixteen. At first I was a bit unnerved by the attention the teenager was showing Charlie, but it soon became clear that he was disabled in some way, with halting speech patterns and facial features that hinted at some sort of affliction. He was eager to engage with Charlie, who responded with his customary shout of approbation.

The woman at the other table was, it turned out, the boy's mother. She remarked on Charlie's size, as nearly everyone does, and for some reason I told the truth, as I almost never do. "One pound, eleven ounces," she answered, nodding at her son.

He'd been born at 26 weeks, she said, a twin whose brother hadn't survived. He had cerebral palsy; when he was a baby she'd been told he'd never walk or talk.

But there was her son, walking and certainly talking. He liked baseball, he told us, proudly declaring that he'd attended every home game by our local AAA team and had even been asked by the coach to go with them when they went on the road. He liked to go snowmobiling. He loved the tiny Tupperware we'd packed with Charlie's lunch — "Look how small it is!" "Well, look how small the food is," I answered, and he laughed when I showed him Paul's careful julienne.

I don't know if it's significant that the woman looked tired and was dressed in old clothes while her son's were neat and new. I don't know whether I imagined or observed an air of peacefulness between them, patience on the mother's part, trust on the son's. I know no more of their story than what they told me. It's not fair for me to infer anything from such a brief meeting.

But even now, 26-weekers don't always survive; far fewer did sixteen years ago. And I don't know much about cerebral palsy, but I do know that it can demand an enormous effort on the part of a parent — massage, exercise, and endless physical therapy, to say nothing of the emotional strain. To be given such a grim prognosis, and not to believe it, not to allow it — I didn't know what to say in the face of such courage but, "What a lot of hard work you've done."

"Goodbye, Charlie," the boy said cheerfully as they got up to leave. I wish I'd asked his name.

What a lot of hard work they've done.

...

At the local library, in the children's section, there's a play area. There's a large table with a train set, a big dollhouse with a cutaway roof, and baskets of interesting toys. There's a bench that runs the length of a bank of curved windows, the perfect height for Charlie to cruise along. We go to the library when we need to get out, need a place to go that doesn't involve money, need to see other kids.

It's fascinating to watch. Charlie is accustomed to kids his own size because of the time he spends at day care, but he hasn't been around bigger kids much. He watches them first, then follows, or tries; they walk faster than he can crawl, but he tries. And he shouts, a short bark of joy, to get their attention. And smiles and smiles and smiles. He doesn't know he's not one of them. They see baby. He sees friend.

I've noticed that kids under about age four aren't careful with each other. They push. They don't look where they're going. It doesn't occur to them that the baby swaying precariously, one hand on the dollhouse, might not enjoy being tackled from behind.

The funny thing is, the baby does enjoy being tackled. Or rather he doesn't mind it at all. He accepts it as the natural order of things, stands up again, and sets immediately to chewing on the yarn-haired grandma just released by the two-year-old who felled him.

The responsibility of civilizing this cheerful tiny savage is a daunting one to me. At story hour a few weeks ago, I put Charlie down to cruise among the benches while the older children listened. Charlie quickly spotted a boy he wanted to befriend. First he tried to catch the boy's eye, employing what my mother calls sweet eyes: Charlie's best, most appealing smile accompanied with the crinkled eyes of true and ardent friendliness.

But the boy was listening intently and didn't see Charlie there. So he shouted, a single short syllable, what passes for "Hi!" if you're Charlie.

That didn't work, either. The boy still didn't turn. So Charlie did what any sensible baby would do: he cruised around behind the boy, stood for a second and sized up the situation, then plunged his hand, friendly-like, down the back of the poor boy's pants.

What passes for "Hi!" indeed.

...

Charlie didn't warm up fast at Christmas. We went to my parents' house while Charlie was still suffering from his latest cold, a protracted affair that encompassed fever, coughing, an ear infection, and the usual torrents of puke. (A brief aside to the commenter who charged that his fever was the result of his MMR immunizations: It was unnecessary to post similar sentiments under three separate names. I heard your ringing accusation the first time.)

Because he wasn't feeling well and was on unfamiliar turf, Charlie was unusually clingy during the first few days of our visit. He screamed if ever I attempted to put him down, and cried when I tried to sit down, even though he was still in my arms; only standing and carrying would do. And since his cry meant business — "I am truly upset" as opposed to "I am formally registering the expected protest but can be bribed into acquiescence with a sufficiently fascinating toy" — I carried him a lot. All the time, in fact. And at thirty pounds — thirty mucusy, vomity, whiny pounds, if I may be blunt — our boy was quite a load.

By the end of the first few days, though, he felt better, more at ease, more ready to make friends with my mother, who won him over with the elaborate gift of an empty Nicorette box. And he took quite readily to my sister-in-law. But he reserved his greatest wriggling enthusiasm for his cousins, my three nephews, who continually fought over who got to sit next to him at dinner. "Aunt Julie, can I hold him on my lap?" they each asked every time we gathered.

Oh, you absolutely may.

He's open. He's resilient. I loved watching him adapt. Not only did he warm to the people, he rolled with every change. When he missed a nap because the whole house was in a pre-holiday uproar, he stayed pleasant until his usual bedtime, though he almost ended up face-first with exhaustion in my mother's traditional Christmas Eve chili. When his dinner was inexcusably late because we were out at a restaurant, he surprised us with a game fondness for the smoked salmon spread and stone-ground wheat crackers that passed for an hors d'oeuvre. When bedtime was an hour late because — well, I guess because he was just being so goddamned delightful that I just couldn't stand to miss it — he sang throughout being pajamaed, then dropped off obediently without even a peep of dissent.

I am happy and proud of our boy.

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