It showed up last Christmas, a gift borne by eager grandparents. Long and unwieldy, we managed it through the front door, grandparents on the porch, I inside, angling it this way and that.
Since the unwrapped present’s box boldly declared its contents, I dispensed with the usual wait-until-Christmas rule. We pried apart the box’s sharp staples, and there it was: the mother of all electronic keyboards.
My son loves music. Diagnosed at age one with a rare seizure disorder that stalled his cognitive development, he is fond of rhythm, buttons, and lights. And so we have known some keyboards over the years. They’ve been presents from all over the place: eBay, garage sales, a local grocery store. Our basement is a bone yard of broken keyboards, some still working erratically if pounded in the right spots.
The new present was spectacular. A song bank stores one hundred familiar tunes. By pressing a sequence of buttons, my son can change the instruments and tones in startling ways. We’ve heard everything from “Ode to Joy” with a disco beat to a haunting church organ rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
I love the keyboard not because my son loves it, not because it is a great educational toy, but because it safely occupies him for long stretches. As long as I hear the stops and starts of the music blaring from my son’s room, I have time to fold towels, grade a paper, throw a roast in the oven, or read about my son’s disability. I have time to fantasize about mounting some public and terrific response to my son’s affliction. The keyboards have been great babysitters.
One day I wandered into my son’s room. “Beautiful Dreamer” was playing. I sat down on the floor to cut my toenails. My son leaned back and flashed me a beatific smile. I smiled back: the music was nice, the piano just right.
A few days later my son, insistent, led me to the bathroom connected to his bedroom. He climbed up on the toilet and reached into a basket perched on the windowsill. Then he handed me a pair of nail clippers. Instantly I understood. And so I sat for a while on his bedroom floor, just listening with him. “Four-four,” I requested, naming the number for my favorite tune, “Red River Valley.”
He surprised me by accommodating my request, and we shared some smiles. As we listened, the sunlight came streaming through the blinds. It was brilliant and perfect and infused with that certain and unnamable something else.
The other day, curious, I looked up the lyrics to “Red River Valley.”
Come and sit by my side if you love me,
Do not hasten to bid me adieu.
And so I have come to believe in sitting and listening with someone as a powerful act, a loving action full with possibility. This I have learned from my son and his special music, a belief forged only after I was able to take a moment and listen.