It has become familiar. This drive, weaving through city streets, trying to drown out the omnipresent howl of ambulances and the buzz of medflight copters with the mindless chatter of sports radio. Sitting trapped among the buses and passenger cars, my fingers thrumming along the top of the steering wheel, an endless stream of nurses and administrators and Harvard Med students filling the spaces between us like rainfall pooling around stones.
He sits in the back seat, opposite me. On his lap are the two books he has brought with him for the journey, to keep him company. One a small paperback of Justice League adventures: recasting two favorite videos into paint on paper, action captured in discrete cells and bright bubbles of dialogue. He reads along with it, these days. Asks for help if he sees a word he does not recognize. Sometimes he even reads out loud — adding drama and inflection to those moments he remembers having seen come alive on screen. There is one hero who shares his name, and it is his dialogue he most loves to recite. To imagine himself powerful and admired.
The other is larger, a compendium of math problems. It is one of a series, and today he is holding one of the subtraction books. There is comfort in numbers, for him, in the rigid and constant way that math is not a function of nuance and emotion and context but rather simply is. Numbers interact and move and relate to one another, but the relationships are linear, clear, constant. Once they are understood, they remain understood. He recites numbers as others finger rosary beads.
But his eyes are not on his lap — they scan out the window, to the walls of steel and glass that wrap around us and reach skyward. Reflecting the sunlight and the facades of other structures. He absorbs it all: the rumble and power of construction vehicles as they work to raise new towers. The ebb and flow and surge of humanity around us. The thrum of my fingers across the steering wheel. The slow progress and sudden stops as lights change and we stagger forward. The proprioceptive sensation of the seatbelt pulling tightly against his chest. My voice, reassuring, letting him know we are getting there. His voice: steady, calm, “I know, Dad.” Flashing a small smile when I catch his eye.
It is a journey we make twice a year. June and December, solstice to solstice. Carving the year in halves, tracking his life in hemispheres. Even the unfamiliar fading into a kind of routine: the circling climb through the parking garage. Waiting at the crosswalk for the light to change, Passing the police officers as they direct traffic. Walking beneath the bridge, its silver letters gleaming in the daylight – the bridge of sighs, as I have always thought of it – toward the painted columns and fluttering flags. The slow revolutions of the revolving door. The stop at the kinetic sculpture, and then navigating through the maze, up the stairs and past the sculptures of fish and paintings of Fenway and into the elevator and then, together, we count to ten and begin to rise.
We are fortunate, in so many ways. To live so close to such an embarrassment of riches — a handful of the finest academic medical centers on the planet, all gathered together in close quarters, cloistered like monks along the edge of the Charles. Including an entire hospital dedicated to the care of children. Including, in this one building, on this one floor, an entire center… for people like us. Specialists. Not offering promises, but the promise of guidance, of strategy, of the chance to hope and build toward something more.
A world spins halfway around the sun, and we sit face to face, and ask the questions and discuss the results and determine what has and hasn’t worked, where and how we can push to do more, who we can talk to in order to make that happen, measure the distance he has come and map out the road ahead. As best we can. Nothing is certain, and nothing is perfect, and it’s never as far or as wonderful as we wanted it to be, but always: we do the best we can.
It’s a status quo, of sorts. For all of us. He acclimates to the experience, the customs and routine, and I do the same. The crippling anxiety that tied me in terrible knots the first times we came… those are gone. That fear of the unknown. Most times, now, I understand what will happen, what will be said. I walk in with an agenda, and walk out with a plan. I know what to expect, and how it will go. As does he — his voice, from the back seat, “After we see Dr. W, we can get a cookie, okay?”
That’s the routine. The appointment is the challenge; the walk down to Au Bon Pain afterwards is the reward. An M&M cookie and a chocolate milk for the ride home — knowing it’s there, waiting for him, is enough to help him push through. I know he has anxieties, too. We work together to work through them.
And this small conversation we’re having, here in the car, waiting for the light to change? Looking back and seeing his huge brown eyes focused on me, waiting for the answer, his mouth opening again into that half-smile, reassuring me just as I reassure him, “of course you can, buddy”?
This is why I push through.
The light stays red. We are three cars back from the intersection, and I watch the cross-street traffic crawl slowly in front of us, trying to press forward toward another intersection two blocks down. My fingers thrum steadily along the top of the steering wheel. Behind me, my son begins to sing to himself, quietly, trying to recreate the words and melody to a Jónsi song. It’s a song he’s requested, repeatedly, these past few weeks. The irony of it, or maybe its appropriateness – “we should always know that we can do anything” – is not lost on me. I try not to think on it too much, so I take a deep breath and glance down at the clock. We have time. Waiting for the light to change.
Waiting to turn the corner.