idiot. savant.

At first, before the epilepsy, when I’d tell people about my toddler son’s gross developmental delays—the fact that he couldn’t hold his head up until he was almost a year, couldn’t crawl until he was two (and even so, has never crawled very well) the fact that he utters no words, the fact that he can’t walk without falling and thus needs a spotter—they’d say things like, “oh, he’ll catch up,” or “you know, I heard about this boy who didn’t say ‘mama’ until he was eight but he could play Beethoven compositions on the piano after only hearing them once.” Somehow I knew that wouldn’t look anything like Calvin’s future, and though they meant well, their comments only served to belittle and exacerbate a difficult and heartbreaking situation. And then came the relentless seizures, and the drugs—mountains of them—and Calvin's future, his development, seems more bleak with each passing year.

I first heard of a man named William Sidis on the car radio. Born in Manhattan in 1898 to Jewish Ukrainian immigrants, he became a child prodigy. At the age of eighteen months he could read the New York Times and had reportedly taught himself eight languages in as many years, in addition to creating an entire language of his own. He was ready to enroll at Harvard when he was nine but the university wouldn’t admitted him until the age of eleven, citing that he was just a child. And by twelve William Sidis was lecturing the Harvard Mathematical Club on four-dimensional bodies.

Sidis was a whiz at math. It is thought that he had an I.Q. fifty to one hundred points higher than Albert Einstein, that in fact he had one of the highest intelligence quotients ever recorded. But he lived a life of relative seclusion, estranged from his parents before dying at the age of 46 from a cerebral hemorrhage. I doubt, from what little I’ve read and with all his celebrity at the time, that he was a very happy person.

It pains me to see that by the standard dictionary definition Calvin is an idiot, though perhaps he might not have been if it weren't for the countless seizures that batter his brain and the mind-numbing drugs meant to stop them. But if Calvin was a child prodigy, a math wizard, a musical savant like Mozart, a chess champion, a genius or had a photographic memory like the character in the film Rain Man, it would be no consolation to me. It wouldn’t assuage the rancor and suffering of his relentless seizures. I’m not even sure it would serve to make him happy. As it is, I’d give anything for Calvin to be healthy—not different—just healthy. I’d give anything not to have to stuff all of these chemicals down his throat every morning and every night, which he does so dutifully, even when he doesn’t want to eat because the drugs upset his stomach and or suppress his appetite, especially of late.

So, no, Calvin can’t recite Bach or Chopin, can’t even plunk out a tune on his little yellow plastic four key piano. He can’t make a mark with a crayon much less scribe a simple equation on a big black chalkboard. He can’t win at chess, beat the dealers in Vegas or tell us what day of the week it was the day that we were born. And he can’t recite pi to 22,500 decimal places like Daniel Tammet can. But Calvin can do what no other human being on this earth can do, which is to love me in a way that is so utterly beyond words, no genius could come close to describing, even if they tried.

Originally published 11.23.11.

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Daniel Tammet
William Sidis

Calvin and his Geepa

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