“Twinkle, twinkle?” our almost two-and-a-half year old son, Elijah, asked.
“You want to sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Elijah?” his mother asked.
“Yeah,” he responded in his soft voice.
It was dinner time at the Schneider family household and as soon as Elijah started to sing, we stopped talking, straining to listen to his quiet, high-pitched singing voice.
“Twinkle twinkle little star.”
He wasn’t looking up at us, but down at the table where the food he wasn’t eating sat on his plate, abandoned.
“How I wonder what you are.”
My son loves music. He loves singing and he loves dancing. Music seems to have a healing affect on him, the way it has always had on his Dad. Last week he had to spend a terrible night in the hospital emergency room, a victim of a nasty stomach virus that had been making the rounds leaving him terribly dehydrated. On the way home the next morning, sitting limply in his car seat, as if all of the air had been expelled from him, he asked for “Soul Sister?” When we put the song on, Lady Marmalade, Elijah, though not having eaten anything in almost 24 hours and exhausted from a whole night in the emergency room, started singing along with Christina Aguilera, Pink, and Missy Eliot. My wife and I looked at each other with a smile, knowing he was going to be just fine, slightly awed by how much alike he and I can be. Music, for us, can be like energy, giving us fuel to deal with whatever lies ahead.
But as much as he loves music, the only time he sings without music is when he is singing “Happy Birthday.” He has never sung at the dinner table like this before.
“Up above the world so high.”
My wife, our goddaughter and myself were straining to hear him even though he was only a couple of feet away. His voice was so soft and seemed so delicate as if somehow it might break at any moment if we weren’t careful.
“Crust? I got crust!” Elijah’s twin sister, Jordyn, interrupted. Not used to being the one offstage, she seemed to be trying to refocus our attention.
“Like a diamond in the sky.”
“Elijah’s got mucous. A big one.” She was pointing at him now and finally I had to turn to her and put my finger to my mouth and say, “Shhhh…Elijah’s singing,” I whispered to her. She then put her finger to her mouth mimicking my actions, but remained quiet.
“Twinkle twinkle little star.” It felt like we were all holding our breath at this point. Jordyn had stopped talking and all you could hear at the dinner table was the sound of our little boy’s voice. No one was eating the pizza anymore. Nobody was drinking their water. All of us were intent on watching and listening to a first, something we had never seen before. Sometimes in life you know you’re experiencing a special moment while you’re actually experiencing it and we all knew this was one of those moments.
“How I wonder what you are.”
We started to applaud and tell Elijah how great he was and what a great voice he has – we’re big on positive reinforcement in the Schneider family.
But something was wrong.
As we congratulated him, I was watching his face and it was literally breaking in front of my eyes. My God, I thought to myself, he’s going to start crying. He’s really upset.
When our family first celebrated Shabbat on Friday nights, after we lit the candles and blessed our children, we would wish each other “Shabbat Shalom” and give each other a kiss and a hug. When we would give Elijah a kiss, his face would do exactly what he did at the dinner table after he had finished singing. It looked as if he was realizing that something terrible was happening and the heartbreak he felt was first revealed in his face, before the tears began to exit his eyes and the cries flew from his mouth and lungs. What made a difference was realizing he thought we were kissing goodbye and that we were all leaving him. From then on when we kissed him, we reminded him we weren’t leaving and before long he understood what was happening.
“What’s wrong?” my wife asked, realizing as well that Elijah was getting upset. She was sitting right next to him, but I had a better view of his face from across the table. His heartbreak was showing full force in his face and I had no idea what had happened.
“Can you give him a hug?” I asked my wife. She quickly got him out of his booster seat, just as he started to cry out loud. She picked him up and held him in her arms as he cried.
I walked over behind my wife, knelt down so Elijah and I could look at each other eye-to-eye and held his hand.
I let go of his hand and gave him a kiss on his forehead.
“No Daddy. No!
I stopped and just looked at him while my wife held him.
“No Daddy. Go sit down. Sit down!”
“I just wanted to let you know I love you, Elijah.”
“No Daddy. Sit down! Sit down! Sit down!”
I returned to my seat and I am certain the same heartbreak that showed on his face was exactly what I was feeling at that moment.
“What’s wrong with Elijah?” my little girl asked.
“I don’t know, Jordyn. I don’t know.” I watched my wife hold Elijah, zoning off, my eyes seeing the two of them but my mind replaying him yelling at me to go back to my seat, away from him, because he didn’t want my comfort.
What had happened? How did this beautiful family moment of pride and accomplishment end with the two males in the family in pain?
I believe something about music and the power it holds for father and son played a major factor in Elijah getting upset. Music can be pure emotional expression, a way to share our innermost feelings in a way that feels safe. Elijah, an incredibly sensitive boy as it is (also very much like his father), had never really experienced music in that way. I believe he was completely caught off guard by how vulnerable he felt, how exposed he was, and when we reacted with such jubilation it startled him immensely, shaking him to his core because he had made himself completely vulnerable to us. Even though our reaction was positive, it was so shocking to his emotional state that he was overwhelmed and when we get overwhelmed, crying is a good way to deal with it sometimes. And that’s why he needed me to go back to my seat. In his fragile state, order was even more vital to him. My wife believes that there are times that Elijah requires everything to be in its place. Specific times in his life where order is more important than all else. She thinks that is especially true at the dinner table. She is right, of course, though I hadn’t understood it until that night. At these times, when things aren’t in their proper place, he gets upset. It was even more important for everything to be in its proper place – including me – because he probably felt everything inside of him was way out of sorts. It’s the same reasoning why many of us clean when our lives feel out of control. At the time, though, all I knew was that somehow my best intentions only ended up upsetting him more.
However, later that same night, my two children, my wife and myself were all gathered on the couch to read books before it was time for them to go into their cribs. On most nights, Elijah would fight to sit on Mommy’s lap, but this night, despite everything we had been through, Elijah wanted to sit with me, “Sit with Daddy?” My wife and I exchanged a questioning glance, ‘Where was this coming from?’ As we were reading the last book, Elijah leaned his head on my arm in a gesture of affection I don’t think I had ever experienced from him before. My heart seemed to start working double time and my vision got a little blurry from the tears welling up. I put my hand gently on his head and wondered if my gesture to comfort him at dinner had maybe had a positive effect after all. After we put them into their cribs, I marveled at the emotional roller coaster of an evening we had. Just when I thought I had caused him terrible harm, when I felt utterly unnecessary or even worse in his life, he leaned his head on my arm, generating a warmth that put most of my doubts to rest.
Photo credit: Jason Aaberg
Jeremy Schneider is a fatherhood expert, syndicated columnist, and therapist specializing in parenting, relationships, and helping people overcome depression. Learn more about Jeremy at jgs.net.