We had three different picture-book versions of the nursery rhyme and often he had all of them spread open on his bedroom floor. He studied each picture with a grave intensity. Hearing and seeing Humpty Dumpty was not enough—he had a need to absorb it into his body. As I read, he ran his fingers over the pictures of the brick wall on which Humpty precariously perched. He touched the king’s men who gathered to rehabilitate the broken egg. And then he would stand back and flap his hands at the pictures. He was doing that a lot then, flapping his hands, and the way he did it, stiffly and with utter concentration, brought to mind a mini sorcerer conjuring a transformation spell.
One night, after reading Humpty Dumpty for the umpteenth time, he closed the largest of the three books. I expected him to request another reading, but he was silent. Eye contact did not come readily for him and there were times I had no idea what he might be thinking. Sometimes he’d play for hours with his crayons, lining them up according to their height in the front hallway and staring at them. He could stare at them for hours, literally, and I was amazed at what I took to be his powers of concentration but, try as I might, I could not get him to explain what he was doing. Then he closed the other two books and sat down with his back against his changing table.
“Stephen fell down today.”
Though he could not articulate it further, I understood: he had been falling a lot lately. Whether it was more than any other child who had been walking for only seven or eight months, I dared not speculate. Each day brought a new scrape on his elbow, a new bruise on his knee. He was big for his age, registering in the 98th percentile for both height and weight and was otherwise healthy, but his bigness meant that when he fell, he fell harder and heavier than 98 percent of other children.
Mouth ajar, he looked at the picture again of the broken Humpty.
He might have been suffering through his first existential moment, wondering if he too would not be able to be put back together again. My heart went out to him, my son, for I too knew what it felt like to be broken.