Nantucket Essays

Sing the Body Electric

by Robert P. Barsanti

In August, the kids start to leave. Over the country, schools have broken through the Labor Day wall and call the young back for practice, or for team building, or even classes. The calendar sneaks up with a suitcase and a boat ticket. The last week marches through with the regularity of the waves and then they are throwing a penny and moving on.

Those of us who crossed that threshold and a dozen others look back on this “last summer” with some world weary cynicism. The teary and homesick young are going off to frat houses, beer kegs, and a cafeteria that will serve them as much pizza as they want then wash their dishes. New best friends, new mentors, and new lovers await on some emerald green campus; but the island of their youth remains and abides if only in their minds. Their future doesn’t end when they leave the island, it fires off the final stage of a rocket that will deposit them in Palo Alto, Cupertino, or New York.

Which doesn’t mean that they don’t leave something behind when they toss that penny. Small towns hug tight, especially ones twenty-five miles out to sea. Nantucket’s sand is ground into them. They know the value of a smile and a wave. They know that anonymity is a myth. Finally, they know that there is one place on earth where everyone knows your name. One young man left for soccer practice last Friday. He spent his final week pounding his way through the same schedule he held for this year and four years previous. But now, in the hot glare of August, soccer at the high school and sailboat races took on that great golden gleam of Last Time. By next year, new friends, new sports, and a new tattoo will push the past away. This year’s sailing awards will look great next to the teddy bears and the first teeth; nonetheless something will well up in him when he sees this summer’s Challenge Cup.

We sent our twelve year old away last year. We taped Harry Potter and Pokemon posters up in his room, folded his clothes in one last futile act of parenting, then drove away. Back on island, the house was quiet and the refrigerator remained full. The Legos remained on the floor of his room,
the swing blew in the wind, and everyone slept until the sun rose. The quiet crushed us.

But there was no choice. Autism lays out a difficult path to walk. If there was ever going to be a time when he could live on his own, brew a cup of coffee in the kitchen, and make change at a register, we needed to pry him out of his comfortable island home and leave him with the experts. This has been a hard year for the telephone and the heart; he has broken doors, windows, and keyboards. Growth has been hard, but he has grown; he looks people in the eye, can make some sort of conversation, and seems to be settling into our twenty-first century world.

To his great regret, he had to stay in school this summer. The waves would break without him for six weeks, the watermelon creams would be slurped by someone else, and the swings wouldn’t climb high. My island was emptier and quieter.

On a sweaty afternoon in July, I came off-island to visit him. He skipped to the car, head swinging, hands bouncing, and radiating cheer.

“What’s going on?”

“I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.”

I put the car in gear and headed off to Kimball Farms for an ice cream dish the size of a toddler’s head. I have learned a few lessons from the young man and one of them is to let him have his “secrets.”    In the private selfishness of fatherhood, I would like my world to become more like his. Rourke skips to the Barnes and Noble. At each step, his nearly six-foot frame leaps in the air and his arms flap for joy. When the stars align, his delight fires off as if sparklers hung from his fingers.

When we drove to see The Avengers, he bounced and hopped inside the car for twenty minutes. I don’t know this joy, although I can see it in him. All of my delight comes bound in the constraints of middle age and a forbidding Irish heritage; enjoy today because the seagulls will find you tomorrow.

When I watch him singing on the swing, I want a whiff of whatever he is steeped in.

At the ice cream farm, he speed walked his ice cream over to the table and started in with the little plastic spoon and without napkins. His face became a sticky mess of vanilla. I wandered off to get his napkins.

Wherever he is, he exists on his own island. The world can be simple and self-contained; with swings, superheroes, and a fast internet connection. Feed him apples, pizza, and bananas, let him drink white milk, and clean up the Cheerios in the morning. His island needs to expand and it needs to have a bridge to the mainland where he can go to the mall without fear and frustration. He will never sit through a team building seminar or a mission statement spitball session, but if he can travel from his island, to ours, perhaps there is hope for an independent life. Unfortunately, that trip is full of tantrums and broken furniture.

When the ice cream has left the bowl, most of it has found its way to his stomach. Almost all of the spillover on his face has been cleaned up, but his shirt still has white drips and sprays. He doesn’t care. He skips to the trash can.

“You seem pretty happy today.”

He nods then he looks at me carefully. “I told you it was a secret.”

“Fair enough.”

I could find out this secret easily enough. If I bribed him with two Hershey’s Bars, I could learn dozens of secrets. Failing that, I could ask the staff at the school and they could whisper it in my ear. None of them could tell me the secret that I really want to know. What does it feel like to sing the body electric? What does it feel like to swing to the sky? What does it feel like to be on his island and everything right with the world?

In August, the kids start to leave. We want them to learn, to grow, to develop into the thoughtful young lawyers and investment bankers that can support us in our dotage. However, we also want something of the island to stick with them. For us, we want our son to learn and to grow as
much as he can. And, we want him to still have that oblivious leaping joy that drives him to skip across parking lots.

Articles by Date from 2012