My last year at Amherst, I lucked into the most amazing housing situation. The Dean of Students and his wife had bought a new home off-campus but still had one semester left in their college rental house. They were looking for some students to sub-let it, and because I had worked for the dean two semesters, he asked me if I would like to gather some friends together to live there. Ummmm, yes.
Andy and I were already engaged, though with two semesters of college left, I felt this was kind of an “intentionality” type of engagement rather than a real one (no ring, after all). So Andy was over at our sub-let house a lot.
I remember one specific day when I was the only one home and he stopped by. We young co-eds had moved the kitchen table into the room with the fireplace and the huge window that overlooked the back yard, and that’s where Andy and I were sitting, eating some lunch together.
I don’t remember why, but Andy launched into a little chant to amuse me. It went like this:
“Vlädafeesh-feesh vee doe foe.” Beat. “Vlädafeesh-feesh vee doe.” Beat. “Vlädafeesh-feesh vee doe foe video foe. Foe.”
For some reason this tickled me beyond reason. Perhaps it was the accumulated stress of the semester. Perhaps it was young love. So he chanted it again:
“Vlädafeesh-feesh vee doe foe.” Beat. “Vlädafeesh-feesh vee doe.” Beat. “Vlädafeesh- feesh vee doe foe video foe. Foe.”
Andy had this mock concentrated look on his face and had pitched his voice low as if he were some sort of Nordic shaman performing a ritual to bring back the sun. I laughed and laughed.
Then he transitioned into another oddly amusing persona, and began proclaiming, “For heaffen’s sake, Mrs. Heiffershmorsh” with his lips compressed and looking in an agitated way left and right. I laughed so hard I nearly peed my pants and tears were rolling down my cheeks.
I wonder now as I wondered then, how did he come up with that? The sounds are certainly Scandinavian, not surprising considering Andy’s Swedish background and growing up around his Mormor. But the beat, the facial expression, the very fact that a 29-year-old man would be performing such ditties, where does that come from?
Maybe my Amherst years had wrung some of the child out of me, or maybe my literary linguistic tendencies bent me more toward reciting “Whan that aprill with his shoures soote/The droghte of march hath perced to the roote” in my best Middle English, but I could never have composed, on the spot, the “Vlädafeesh” chant.
This is one of the earliest memories I have of Andy’s wonderful childlike side. Apparently this is a Bartlett trait, not specifically Asperger’s, because I have heard the tales of Andy’s grandmother’s similar whimsical sense of humor.
For example, as Andy’s dad tells it, one day she and her husband (my father-in-law’s dad) came home from the grocery store and five lemons they had bought rolled out of their bag, unbeknownst to the grandfolks. They thought they had either left the lemons at the store or misplaced the bag the lemons were in. A week or so later they found the lemons, which had rolled behind a door in the kitchen. They were now desiccated and rattling like little maracas.
Instead of being disposed of, the lemons were given the status of “rogue citrus” and allowed — for years — to roll around and stay hidden in various places in the house: under the dining room hutch, behind an umbrella in the entrance hall. They would periodically roll out when no one was looking and hide themselves elsewhere. Apparently these lemons remained on the lam until Andy’s grandfather died and his grandmother sold the house and moved to a nursing facility, by which point they had finally been forgotten.
Apparently, this childlike trait is genetic. When we were up at the Bartlett camp in the Berkshires recently, Andy filled me in about the photos in the loft of the A-frame, which I had always assumed were purchased. In the photos, a small group of stuffed bears and a giraffe are on a boat floating on a lake. I thought these were by the same photographer who created The Lonely Doll, but no. On the wall between these two photos was the actual marine-canvas boat from the photo, resting on a wooden platform made especially for it. Andy told me that his Dad had crafted the boat, staged the voyage, photographed it, and then told Andy and his brother and sister stories about the fanciful expedition.
I can visualize this because I know Andy’s dad. He can go from the driest, most technical explanation of methillin-resistant staph aureus infections to the most child-like of tale. He just loves the 1931 picture book Joe Buys Nails, which is only tangentially about young Joe’s time at the hardware store and predominantly about his adventures through the woods en route.
And then there’s Andy. Most of the time he is quite technical and precise. Asked by one of our boys what a bruise is, he will respond with “Well, a contusion against the bone will dissipate blood under the epidermis until the lymphatic fluid dissolves it.” All three boys turn their heads to me like the three little kittens for the translation. “A bruise is blood that oozed out of a vein when it broke and then got stuck under your skin.”
“Well,” Andy says, “that’s not precisely what happens –“
At this point I hold up my hand and say, “Close enough until they get to med school.”
“I’m just trying to be accurate.”
But then there are things like Vladafeesh and Mrs. Heiffershmorsh, and when Andy invites the boys to a foam noodle battle in the pool, he seems to be the one having the most fun. Apparently, the same neurological difference that leads to anxiety and temper tantrums – the immature amygdala – also leads to the other child-like emotions: joy, whimsy, and playfulness.
Einstein himself attributed his discovery of the theory of relativity to his delayed emotional development. He once said, “The normal adult never bothers his head about space-time problems … I, on the contrary, developed so slowly that I only began to wonder about space and time when I was already grown up. In consequence I probed deeper into the problem than an ordinary child would have done.” There is that famous photograph of Einstein sticking out his tongue or the one where he is riding his bicycle with a huge grin. The downside to this was that he sometimes had to be fed and told when to go to sleep and protected from exploitative people.
Einstein was also a ditty writer, penning for example a little poem about Captain Carefree. This poem reminds me of a song from Andy’s childhood that he sometimes sings: “Ahoy! Ahoy! I’m captain of my ship. My name is Captain Salty and I live on the sea.” He unfailingly intones this chantey in a bold husky voice, standing feet spread with one fist on his chest, grasping the lapel of his pretend captain’s coat and looking to the far horizon, and he unfailingly makes me laugh.
Of course, as Andy is the first to admit, he might have Asperger’s but he is “no Einstein,” and luckily for me that means he is not so childlike that he needs me to feed him or tuck him in. Well, not often. But he is childlike enough to keep life fresh for me, the boring 40-something NT with her mature and aging brain. He does funny little dances in the kitchen and play Legos with the boys and sings silly songs. But then he’ll turn around and analyze the Iraqi economy or calculate our break-even price on a 50-cow expansion or rewire the electrical service to the house.
Appreciating this polarity in an Aspergian is an acquired taste. The rare combination of childlike whimsy and sophisticated intellectual analysis is like one of those sense experiences that contrasts sweet with bitter or sour with salty or hot with cold. It’s like amaretto cheesecake with espresso or sweet and sour chicken. Or listening to the various movements of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Such contrasts can be just exquisite, like leaping from a sauna out into the snow.
Of course the emotional rollercoaster can be taxing, and like a little overwhelmed child, Andy does frequently fall into bed exhausted by day’s end. And so do I, after being hurled from side-splitting laughter at one of his silly personas to dealing with his explosive rage over some lack of precision or efficiency.
The elderly Einstein had that crazy white hair and that impish grin. I can imagine Andy looking very similar in old age. His hair will eventually turn white, though his childlikeness seems to have extrapolated itself into keeping his hair from graying or falling out. And I know that he will be whimsical and beloved of our someday grandchildren.
We all know that the mysteries of the kingdom are given to little children and hidden from the wise. There is something about the wide-open nature of childlike perception and wonder and contemplation that allows children more direct access to the rarer dimension of experience – call it relativity, call it the Kingdom of Heaven, call it what you will. Andy certainly takes great joy in nature and experiences it in a way far beyond my grasp, while my aged amygdala often feels jaded and just sees mud and leaves. He is much more pure of heart than I am in this way.
It seems to be part of the human experience to return to our child self before death, but the Aspie gets to retain that delight and awe throughout life. Eventually, I’ll be developmentally back there with him, but in the meantime, Andy tries valiantly to take me along for the ride. He often has to pull me off my middle-aged lawn chair and back into the sandbox. But truthfully, once you’re back there, it is a lot of fun.
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