Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Heidi, Reading

When my granddaughter, Heidi, was about eighteen months old, she fell in love with the number "two." None of us remembers the moment it emerged from the clutter of the world around her as something to pay attention to, but once it did she saw “twos” everywhere—and each time she saw one it was as if she’d fallen in love all over again. Huge “twos” on billboards and on the sides of trucks. Tiny ones in a book or on a credit card.

“Look! Two!” she’d crow. “Two! Two!” The expression on her face, pure, unmitigated joy.

“Draw ‘two,’” Nommie,” she’d order, and I’d make as many “twos” as I could get on a page. She’d hand me another piece of paper and say, “More.

She had no interest whatsoever in the meaning of “two,” or its mathematical possibilities. If I took two crayons and added two more to show her how they made four, she’d shrug—then pick up one of the crayons, hand it to me, and I’d be drawing “twos” again.

Why two? Why not four, or eight?

The love affair lasted a good six months, after which the object of her affection became a book of…stuff. There was no story, just page after page chock-full of pretty watercolor sketches of clothing, footwear, furniture, vehicles, plants, toys, tools. I had to read it exactly the same way every time, pointing to each object as I read its name. I read it so many times that it felt like a litany, like singing. She listened, absolutely intent—and if I ever made the mistake of trying to skip one item, she’d put her hand on the book to stop me from turning the page and regard me with deep disappointment.

This went on for the better part of a year. There was no other book she’d even consider looking at; I began to worry that indulging this obsession might turn her into a little materialist. So one day I asked, “Why do you like this book so much?”

She gazed up at me, beatific, and said, “I yuv words."

Needless to say, I read the book again. And again and again and again.

Now she’s in the first grade, actually reading herself, and there’s nothing that gives me more pleasure than to listen to her read to me, working out words she doesn’t know. I love the way she stops and laughs when she’s reading a funny book. Sometimes she makes delightful mistakes, like reading “ukelele” for “unlikely.”

Listening to her read takes me back to my own first grade classroom. I see the little desks and chairs, the alphabet marching across the top of the blackboard, the big black and white clock on the wall. I see myself in reading circle, Fun with Dick and Jane open on my lap, feel again the wonder of words jumping out at me beneath the brightly colored pictures. “Run.” “Spot.” “Jump.” “Father.” Worlds springing to life inside my mind.

Not long ago, I was talking to an oncology nurse who told me about a conversation she’d had with a colleague. Both of them had a realistic, matter-of-fact understanding of what certain diagnoses meant; both had watched countless patients with no hope of surviving suffer debilitating chemotherapy treatments or allow themselves to be hooked up to life-support just to live a little while longer. So when the subject of what kind of end of life care they might want themselves came up, she was surprised that her colleague didn’t instantly agree that there was no way she’d want to be kept alive when recovery was out of the question.

“I don’t know,” the woman said. “If I could read—even if I could only hear the story, I think I’d want to stay here as long as I could.”

I thought, oh, my God! Yes!

I’m not making resolutions this year. I’m making wishes—and one of them is that Heidi will love reading all her life. I imagine us on a beach together when she’s all grown up, both of us reading novels—lost to everything in the real world, except the cool ocean waves lapping at our feet.

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