The Meaning of Numbers


William Henderson

William Henderson lives in Boston where he is often tooling around with his children, Avery and Aurora; musing about love and writing and parenting on his blog; tweeting; practicing yoga; and waiting for his ever-after ending. He has published nonfiction in Annalemma Magazine, Sea Giraffe, Zouch Magazine, Specter Literary Magazine, Revolution House, and Xenith, among others. Also, NAP Literary Magazine will publish Henderson’s first chapbook in January 2012.

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The first word the language of parenthood required was aba, which is, I learned only after weeks of struggling to match it to a word in English, a placeholder word with no set meaning other than the meaning set upon it by my son, Avery, who, as a two-year-old, used aba for the numbers three and eight, the letters C-M, and the word fish.

Sleep is see (or, sometimes, seep, depending) and stove is stobe and food is ummies (which means gasoline is car ummies; don’t ask). The letters H-M get skipped during alphabet song sing-a-longs as does the month of February, when reciting the months of the year.

Avery and I play with blocks and dinosaurs (arrs), and we hunt monsters (also arrs) and the places where monsters grow, outer space, and beyond infinity, and inside the darkest nights. The windows in my bedroom, which is also Avery’s bedroom since he continues to refuse to sleep in his room, are open, and at night, when Avery is stuck unable to sleep and I am stuck unable to sleep because he is stuck unable to sleep, we count cars and headlights and trees. Seven trees can be seen from the window closest to my bed. Avery always misses the number three when we count these seven trees.

We keep watch over the dreams Aurora, my daughter, dreams as she dreams her dreams of electric sheep. Or not electric sheep. She has no clue what sheep are, let alone that she can count them to help her sleep. She needs no help sleeping. Her dreams are not cluttered with words she cannot say. Or maybe her dreams are cluttered only with words she cannot say. She misses all of her numbers because she doesn’t know her numbers because she doesn’t even know the meaning of numbers or the meaning of counting on something other than her mom and dad.

Avery names things to give them meaning, and we name children to give them meaning, or maybe to give their lives meaning, or maybe even to give our lives meaning. And we have to hope that we have named them their names, or that we will not hate the names they name themselves one day when they are old enough to tell us their own names.

Knock, knock, Avery asks, and I always say, who’s there?, because how else to answer but who’s there, and Avery says, Avery, and I say, Avery who?, and Avery says, caca on your head. Caca, as in poop.

Avery doesn’t know the word drink. I want more chocolate moo (milk) he asks, and when I say his chocolate moo (milk, because I am fluent in Avery) is in the living room, because making his chocolate moo is the second thing I do in the morning (after making coffee), Avery will say that he’s eaten all of his chocolate moo, and even though I never believe him, he’s always right.

When Avery and I play dinosaurs, sometimes he’s the triceratops, and sometimes he’s the tyrannosaurus rex, and sometimes he’s a dinosaur that hasn’t been discovered, but mostly he’s my best friend who just happens to be my son. Aurora is one month old, then two months, then three. She sounds like a parrot when she makes sound, and Holly begins saying: My Princess Parrot. Holly goes back to work; I quit my job to stay home for swim lessons and carpools and back-to-school shopping. Aurora is four months. She can keep her head up. Five months. She sits up. Six months.

Avery is playing with plastic dinosaurs when the head of the brontosaurus snaps cleanly off, making the brontosaurus blind to everything but the whims of a child small enough to snap the toy in two without thinking about aftermath.

The head in one hand, the body in one hand, and no other hands with which to wipe at eyes red and angry and sad and something that Avery has no words for (not regret; he neither understands not wants to understand a consequence, for words, recriminations, have no effect on a child who is able to snap a toy in two).

Use magic and make better, Avery says. And I take the two pieces from him. A mostly dried tube of glue at the back of a junk drawer (show me a kitchen without a junk drawer) might help, though I expect the toy to be broken again before the glue dries.

But I want these words from my son who believes that I can fix the broken toy because I have made magic before: band-aids and pudding cups and the fruit snacks that Avery asks for but doesn’t get when Holly, his mother, my wife who will soon be my ex-wife, is around.

One pack, Daddy, Avery says, and he holds up one finger the index finger on his right hand, and he looks at me and I look at him, and repeats himself: One pack.

One pack of what?, I ask, even though I know what he wants: Fruit snacks shaped like cartoon characters and sharks, dinosaurs.

One pack of fruit snacks, he says. I will have one pack now, and when I come back, I will have another pack.

I should say no because his mother wants me to say no to requests for fruit snacks, but I am not his mother and I don’t see the harm in his eating one pack of fruit snacks. Or two packs of fruit snacks. But I do not tell him that I would OK his eating two packs of fruit snacks.

Avery does not need to know that not all broken things can be mended.

Avery falls asleep in my lap one Sunday morning. Aurora is asleep in her swing. I am listening to Lou Rhodes, who was once in the band, Lamb. My coffee is cold.

Avery is asleep on my lap and Aurora is asleep in her swing and I am not asleep and Lou Rhodes is singing. When Avery was a baby, he radiated so much heat that I would hold him and lay down with him and I would quickly fall asleep. He still radiates this heat. He scratched my face this morning. He didn’t mean to. Or maybe he did. I bled a little. He asked me later if I needed a band-aid. I think he just wanted to show me that he was sorry.
Avery is asleep in my lap and Aurora is asleep in her swing and soon I will have to wake them up and take them to the gym where I will lose myself for an hour on a treadmill and then, if the weather holds, I will take them to the Charles River.

But for now, Avery is asleep in my lap and Aurora is asleep in her swing, and I am drinking coffee alone on a Sunday morning. Later, Aurora will hang from my chest in a Bjorn and Avery will ride in his stroller and I will take my children on a walk around the river, where on any given day, depending on how wild Avery’s imagination is, sea creatures lurk and princes and princesses have picnics in the shade of weeping willows.

Avery doesn’t know the word forever. Or maybe he does. He knows enough to use the word ever when he means forever, and of course, as someone fluent in toddler, I know enough to know he means forever when he uses the word ever. And I’d even wager that he knows what the word means, since, when he changes his mind, as he is prone to doing, he knows enough to say, Daddy, I don’t want to stay with you ever; I want to stay with you a little bit.

When Avery says the words a little bit, he holds his thumb and index finger together in a tight circle. He knows little bit means something less than ever.

Holly and I keep the kids on a schedule. Makes planning non-kid events easier, and, really, sometimes, during some weeks, knowing a night is approaching when I will be home alone is the only way I can survive a particularly brutal day with both kids. Not because of Aurora. She’s not eight months old. But Avery can be – OK, is – a handful.

So when Holly texts one evening to say that Avery is out of control and that she can’t handle him anymore and that I need to take him, I jettison my plans because what can I do but jettison my plans. I met Holly and Avery at a playground. I would have been returning Aurora to Holly. An interesting turn of phrase. Returning Aurora. As if she is something I borrow occasionally. Not true. Not really. I neither return nor borrow my daughter. Not like she’s a possession or something.

I give – again, interesting word choice – Aurora to Holly and she gives me Avery, and Avery is naked except for a diaper, and shoeless.

Daddy, I want to stay with you ever, Avery says, and I look at him, and I look at Holly, who looks like she is about to cry, and I look at Avery and say that he stays with me some of the time, and that some of the time he stays with mommy.

Daddy, I want to stay with you ever, Avery says.

And I badly want to say that he can stay with me always and ever, but I cannot say that he can stay with me always and ever, because Holly looks like she is about to cry, and she has cried a lot this past year, too.

I buckle Avery into his car seat, and I seatbelt myself into my seat, and we drive away. I look in the rearview mirror and I watch Holly watch us drive away. More than 12 years I’ve known her and loved her, and I no longer can tell what she’s thinking when I watch her watching her husband, who will one day be her ex-husband, and their son, drive to a home that isn’t hers.

I ask Avery if he knows how much I love him, and he stretches his arms as wide as they can reach. And then I stretch my arms as wide as they can reach.

And he says: You love me a lot, and he says: You love me a lot in a way that makes his saying you love me a lot sound like a question, and I say that he can’t even comprehend how much I love him, but that he will one day comprehend how much I love him because he will love someone else as much.

You love me a lot, he repeats, which sounds like he is asking, and I stretch my right arm to the side, and I bend my left arm at the elbow, and Avery, from the backseat, says, roll window down; show me how much. And I roll down my window, and I stretch my left arm as far as it will go, and Avery smiles, satisfied.

At my apartment, before going inside, Avery says he is sorry, and I say he needs to say he is sorry to his mommy, and he says, sorry mommy. And she isn’t around, because she is at her home with Aurora, and I say that she knows he is sorry and that he is a good boy, and then we go inside and we eat dinner and he dances in my kitchen, wearing nothing but his diaper, still shoeless.

Eight months, nearly nine, Aurora can almost crawl, and can stand, assisted, and is saying da-da (just da-da, which upsets Holly). I expect – Holly and I expect – that her second word will be Avery; she hears the word more than any other word, except maybe princess and lovely and look-how-much-she-looks-like-me. These words are mine, when she’s falling asleep or just waking up or when she’s howling inside her car seat because the radio has stopped singing. Avery asks for the radio to sing, and I know what he means when he asks for the radio to sing. One day Aurora will ask for the radio to sing, and I will know what she means when she asks for the radio to sing.

Near the end of a day of errands and play dates and unwanted naps, Avery, on the floor, on his back, legs crossed at the knee, arms folded behind his head, says I remember being a baby.

Avery is wearing a red shirt with the word England on it, blue shorts, and I have just taken off shoes that are not his shoes but are a girl’s shoes, and they’re purple, and they’re too tight, but Holly dropped him off without shoes and the girl’s shoes, purple, are the only shoes I have.

I remember being a baby, Avery repeats.

What do you remember?, I ask.

I remember you, Will. And I remember Holly.

He learned our names a couple of months ago. Holly taught him to say Holly, and when I realized he could say her name, I worked with him for two weeks before he could say my name.

I’d like it if he called me, Will, I told Holly one night, and she laughed and said I would miss him calling me daddy, and I told her she was wrong, but she was right.

I would miss him calling me daddy, and pretending not to poop when he is pooping, and asking me for juice and an ummie right after I’ve sat down or picked up a book to read.

And I would miss playing with him outside, and pointing out birds and joggers at the Charles River, and teaching him about flying things and wings and loving to the moon and back.

I would miss him pushing me away from his sister and saying, my sister, and I would miss him taking his toys away from his sister and saying, my toys. And I would miss him because I’ve known him, and his sister, since before they were born.

You remember us?, I ask Avery.

You’ve always been there, he says.

And I want to say that I will always be there, but I will not always be there, and one day, I will no longer be there, and Avery and Aurora will be there, and I want to have said to them to let’s play dinosaurs one more time and you be triceratops and you be stegosaurus and I will be tyrannosaurus rex.

© William Henderson

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