Child of My Right Hand

By Eric Goodman


Simon could sing before he could talk, a little boy soprano, louder and more resonant than  children twice his age.  It sounds odd, but even at twelve and fourteen months,  he was barrel-chested and big-muscled, especially his calves and thighs.  Middle linebacker, I’d think, or a tight end  like my brother, as I watched Simon toddle after his rubber ball with the joy he had for the enterprise then, the blond Little Lord What’s His Name curls we didn’t cut until he was two, the way he’d put the ball to his mouth and suck on it as if to taste its secrets or perhaps to tell it his, before he chucked  it back at me, left-handed.
            He was prone to ear infections and slow to speak.  Until he was five, my boy  lived on amoxycillin like a honeybee on nectar.  Ten day runs of the bubble-gum flavored antibiotic, three teaspoons a day.  Then he’d finish, and the ear infection would return, his little hand to his ear, Simon standing in his crib, screaming, and let me tell you, you could hear him down the hall.  What  lungs!  Our first-born, and we were trying to be perfect parents, not pick him up for every little thing.  He’d shake the bars,  screaming,  and you could hear every word though from
twelve to eighteen months, when his first set of ear tubes was  inserted,  his vocabulary diminished.  Imagine trying to hear under water, an ear, eye and throat doc later explained.  Or listening through gauze.  Mommy,  Daddy!  Mommy!  Man, you could hear him down the hall.
            Not perfect pitch, he’d say, years later, but almost.  I remember him at two and a half, after we’d returned from Genna’s sabbatical in Strasbourg, belting out, “Fre-re Jac-ques, fre-re Jac-ques, dormez-vous, dormez-vous!” the sustained note in the second vous,  pure and distant as the light of a new moon, Simon smiling his cherubic grin when he finished, glad to be the center of attention, even then.  I remember him at three in the college pre-school, singing, “Row, row, row your boat,” so loudly the other kids stopped singing.  And I remember the looks on their parents’ faces, not the last such looks we’d see, explaining, with a sniff, that some little boys were  louder than others.
            Genna and I used to wonder where this prodigious sound came from because neither of us were musical.  Physically, Simon resembled us both: my chest and 17-inch neck, Genna’s coloring and dusky blond hair which in Simon darkened through adolescence until he began dying it.  But the voice?   We speculated  it was the legacy of Genna’s biological father, and not just because my field is the history of science and I’m predisposed to think that way.  We assumed a genetic link, a biological explanation, if you will, for complex instinctive and performative behavior because Simon’s gift was always present, hard-wired, the little boy who could sing  before he could pronounce the words.
            “Mommy,” he said one night when he was four, sitting up in bed while Genna sang a lullaby.  Simon with this amazing voice, and our second child, Lizzie, not quite one, but already beginning to talk.

            “Mommy,” he said and pressed his hands to his ears.  “Don’t sing!”
            We laughed about that for years, even Genna, who was family famous for being unable to carry a tune.  Mommy, don’t sing,  as if her voice hurt his ears, which it probably did.  Mommy, don’t sing!
            That’s how I remember Simon, a sweet little boy of  three and four, with this astonishing sound coming out of him, his instrument as we later learned to call it, before all the rest, although there were signs even then.  That’s my training, to order the unknown, to create a coherent narrative from available fact.  Is that science?  Of a personal sort.  Is there speculation?  You bet.  As soon as a child is old enough to leave your sight, there are things a parent can’t know, influences beyond parental control.   What we might have done differently, could have or should have, if only we’d been paying close enough attention.
            What I want to remember, and I do, can you hear him, listen,  is Simon singing at two and a half, Are you sleeping, Are you sleeping? Dormez-vous, his French and English jumbled together, but there’s no mistaking that high, perfect  note.  Like the sun, my son, like first light.
            For he is sleeping.  Il dort.
            And this is Simon’s song, in three voices: Simon, Genna and Jack’s.  That’s me, Jack Barish, impartial researcher.  This arrangement is intended to reveal the harmonies and discordances inherent in any family life.  Perhaps more importantly, it’s the only way I can bear to tell the story.  Listen.