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If music is a universal language, then for many years Jackson was tone deaf. It didn’t matter whether it was Mozart or the Wiggles – music left my son cold. In desperation, I joined a mom and tot class where I bounced him up and down on my lap while singing nursery rhymes through gritted teeth. Still, his disinterest was palpable. Not that I blamed him on that count.
My music-loving husband and I were crestfallen. We didn’t particularly care if Jackson never picked up a hockey stick or paintbrush. But if he didn’t appreciate a poignant lyric or a perfect guitar riff, where did that leave us?
The summer he turned 3, Jackson was diagnosed with autism-spectrum disorder. We would turn off the car radio, knowing he needed the quiet in order to decompress. Silence gradually became our family’s soundtrack. Sometimes it was belly laughs. Other times, it was my son’s shrieks, the smash of a toy thrown in frustration.
One day – by fluke – he heard When I’m Sixty-Four by the Beatles. It was love at first listen. My nine-year-old fell, and he fell hard. I’m still not sure what it was about that song that hooked him. Whatever the trigger, we were wholly unprepared for what was to come.
Whenever that song played, a light went on in his hazel eyes. The boy who rarely smiled wore a huge, goofy grin. The boy who stood rigid now choreographed a meticulous routine. "Birthday greetings, bottle of wine … "
“Look!” I tugged at my hubby’s sleeve. “He’s dancing!” I was hardly able to contain my delight.
Jackson eventually progressed from the Sgt. Pepper album through the Beatles’ entire back catalogue. All the while, Sixty-Four refused to let go. It played on repeat. And every night an elaborate performance took place on our living-room rug. Spurred by his newfound interest, I went out on a limb and bought tickets to a Beatles tribute at a downtown theatre. The tickets weren’t cheap. Jackson was practically allergic to crowds and noise. Family outings and vacations often went up in a smoke of screams and stares. We had almost given up on trying to do “normal” things as a family. Now I expected him to sit through a two-hour afternoon musical. Clearly I was deluded.
When matinee day came, I braced myself for catastrophe. Surrounded by audience members of all generations and armed with an arsenal of fidgets, overpriced popcorn and earplugs, by some miracle we made it to intermission. But the prognosis wasn’t good. There was nothing to do but sit tight on our plush seats in the back row and pray.
At the all-too-familiar sound of clarinets, my son bounded to his feet. While Jackson watched the stage, I watched Jackson. Rapture. Ecstasy. Those are the only words that adequately describe the look on his face as he moved through his memorized sequence. I cried on the spot. Music had the power to do this to a person. Somewhere along the way, I guess I had forgotten.
From that moment, my son succumbed to full-blown Beatlemania. Each CD insert was thumbed until dogeared. In the car, we listened to Abbey Road again and again.
“Did you know Come Together is four minutes, 20 seconds long, which is exactly double All Together Now, which is two minutes, 10 seconds?
“Mom, who sings Within You Without You?”
“I think it’s George, honey.”
Five minutes later, the same question. Not because he forgot (he knows every track the Beatles ever recorded), but because he liked to hear me say it.
Now the sound of clarinets sets my jaw. I feel the hot flash of annoyance as I beg him to choose another song. Any other song. He plays It’s All too Much. And it truly is.
For a time, I was thankful. His special interest was not Minecraft, nor vacuums or trains. My son was finally passionate about music. And not Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber, but the Beatles. Hearing Penny Lane again carried me back to the lazy summer afternoons of my own childhood …
One of the markers of autism is impaired communication. But thanks to four guys from Liverpool, my nine-year-old – who ordinarily doesn’t do conversation – was chatting up a storm.
“What are those black holes in A Day in the Life?”
“Did Yoko Ono really break up the band?”
“Mom, who sings Blackbird?”
“Honey, you know it’s Paul.”
“Did you know Something is three minutes, two seconds long which is exactly double Golden Slumbers, which is one minute 31 seconds?”
My eyes glaze over as I stare into the oncoming traffic.
The Beatles brought my family together – until one day, connection gave way to irritation. Sometimes I take cover in another room to avoid the music. In my dreams, I Want to Hold Your Hand plays on loop.
I don’t know when Beatlemania will leave my house, but part of me hopes it will be soon. If Penny Lane comes on the radio while I’m driving to pick up my son, I rush to switch it off and savour the silence filling the car. Someday, I will be able to listen to John, Paul, George and Ringo. Someday, I will listen and remember the wonderful gift those guys from Liverpool gave my family the year Jackson was 9.
That day hasn’t come yet, but someday it will. Maybe when I’m 64.
Julie M Green lives in Toronto.