He used run nakey to the tub, arms full of tiny plastic guys that he would line up on the ledge. He would only agree to veer away from athletic pants because he could carry Legos in his cargo pockets. He vroomed and whooshed and turned any little thing -- one of my hairbands, a milk ring, a wine cork, a gray rock from someone's gangway -- into a toy, most often a guy, a guy and a car if there was two little things.
Cleaning house was a process of herding toys from every room back to his, where bins of dinosaurs and birthday party goody-bag stuff and fire trucks with sirens that went off at all hours and games with half the pices missing and whistles and Star Wars figures spilled out on to the floor and were hidden under the bed and tucked into the dresser drawers and sometimes creeped into the hamper or my room or seventeen tote bags shoved into the closet.
Play is a child's work, my educator mother told me over and over. And time and again, I watched my boy punch the clock. The plastic ticky clock that only displays one-half of each number and plays an aggravating, sugary Sesame Street tune on the hour.
But over the last few months, playing has been demoted. Reading has soared from middle manager to the big boss. Reading is so in charge that no Lego chef guy's plastic baguette or the mostly put-together Millennium Falcon or the low-tech video game that plugs into the TV barely get any projects at all. They just all hang out in the break room, waiting. Watching that broken clock tick until it sings again.
To be fair, we all knew reading would get the corner office some day. E has always loved reading, from the time when that meant pointing at the trucks on the board-book pages with chewed corners and yelling out in his baby voice, "Back hoe! Digger! Cement truck!" Eventually, he pretend-read/memorized a stack of those board books, laughed heartily at Elephant and Piggy, learned to love Curious George even before he saw the cartoon character on the television.
I read aloud to him every night before bed, moving from simple storybooks into chapter books. One summer, we made our way through every single Beverly Cleary book, me rediscovering the joy of the author's timeless children's adventures and he cheering on the dog Ribsy and confused by what a "pizza pie" is and why Ramona's family only had one telephone and why it was affixed to the wall. We tore through series after series, making Jack Stalwart, Stuart Little, Flat Stanley, the Littles and a hundred different kinds of dinosaurs from an encyclopedia all a part of our reading rituals.
I wept as he read out loud on his own the first time, taping it stealthily. In kindergarten, he began reading books on his own, and then in first grade, his teacher handed him a Cam Jansen mystery and he made his way through the chapters independently. He curled up in the Quiet Corner with a biography of Jackie Robinson that helped him connect the baseball player-activist's philosophies to Ghandi and MLK, Jr.
At home, just as we finished the final pages of The Trumpeter Swan, a quirky and sweet E.B. White classic, he found Percy Jackson. He was happy to read it alone. Soon, he'd devoured the thick book and hungrily began the second, then third, each 400 or 500 pages. He anxiously asked how when the Amazon package of the second series by the author would arrive. And now, a couple of months later, he is nearing the end of book nine, his appetite still not sated after thousands and thousands of pages.
Once itchy to pull out a Matchbox car or 25-cent maze with a tiny plastic ball, he now carries his book everywhere. Where he once played, he now reads voraciously.
He reads in the few minutes between math centers and art class. He reads while brushing his teeth, one hand extended out so far it almost reaches the bathroom mirror. He reads all through church. He has possibly cured himself of lifelong motion sickness after clocking so much time in traffic with his head bent toward his book. He spends the last few moments I am putting on makeup in the morning reading, and if I have to pause in conversation to refill my coffee, he opens up to the dog-eared page then, too.
My boy with the hair blowing back in the wind as he chases his friends in an elaborate 15-kid game of cops and robbers, who loves to figure out football with his buddies, who swings like a monkey from one end of the playground to the other, who kicks and kicks in Tae Kwon Do, now spends a recess here and there happily tucked into a corner of sunshine with his book.
He reads in the bathtub. Where he once demanded my attention while he made green army guys dive down to the depths of the bath water, shot squirt guns to the highest row of tiles, turned empty Johnson & Johnson soap bottles into speed boats, he now only asks for bubbles and a clean washcloth to keep his page-turning fingers dry.
He reads and reads and reads.
He was so excited for me to share the experience, he pushed the first book at me to read while he read his own book, much further along in the storyline. He looks up only in bursts, overcome to share something about the myths and gods in the stories, or detail a plot twist just enough so that he doesn't reveal to much and spoil the series for me. The books are full of phrases I know are outside his current vocabulary and concepts and humor that I am sure go over his head. But that doesn't stop him, and it shows when he deftly throws into conversation "pegasi" and "territorialism" and colloquialisms this talker has never used before these books. He is bursting. He is on fire. He is in heaven.
I miss discovering (or rediscovering) the words and unfoldings together, miss creating voices for each character, miss seeing him raise his eyebrows out of the corner of my eye when when a surprise or punchline is revealed.
I hope we will get back there. But for now, I rest beside him, slowly plodding my way through the second book in the Percy Jackson series, turning to him to remind him of something funny or mysterious he read weeks and weeks ago. It's a read-aloud on delay.
There's one book left in this series, with the promise of another due out this fall. What will happen when his eyes rest on the last The End? Which characters will call to him next? Will he want to settle back into the read-aloud routine or is this the way the reading is now?
I don't know. I see the squishy aliens and half-assembled Millennium Falcon and Lego chef guy's too-yellow baguette sitting lonely on the side of the tub. I notice the Kindle has been charging for two weeks, the boy from the subway chase game app hunkered down quietly next to an El train. I find Nerf darts in corners that have not been loaded and reloaded for more than a month. All of the Star Wars guys congregate in the bin where they belong. Everyone one of these toys seem to be staring at the broken plastic clock, wondering if the music will ever crank for them again.
And it will. For now, though, reading is how my boy plays. It's complex adventures that once were spoken to another kid or a half-listening parent or just the air that said, "And then...and then...and then...this guy did this thing...and then this guy says..." It's just between him and the page now.
It is the same anxiousness, a similar insistence, an independence, a world I get to half-step into while he submerges fully, coming up only for the air of a snack or sleep or to tell me some nonsequitor.
This is the clock he punches now. Overtime and benefits and late nights huddled up in covers for just one more page.