If you've been reading my posts or listening to my podcasts, you might've heard me say before that Tess's progress can be slow. Maddeningly slow. There's rarely, if ever, a ka-chow moment.
Recently, though, I saw progress. With my own eyes. In a hallway and in a series of offices, on a Thursday afternoon in the town of Windham, Maine.
For years we worked on this thing with Tess, a thing called object permanence. Do you know what this is? Before we had Tess, I'd never heard of it. I guess that's because our first kid Dana had it early on, so much so that it tended to piss me off, actually.
Object permanence is understanding that objects, things in the world, keep existing, even if you can't see them. So if Dana, age 1, is trying to chew on my phone, and I hide it behind my back, he climbs around me to grab the phone, because he saw me move it there and he knows that's where it is.
Welp, Tess didn't do that. Not for a long time. She'd be like early Dana, and try to chew the phone. But when we'd move it away, she didn't follow it. She didn't know it was there. It was like it stopped existing for her. She didn't try to get to it. It was just--poof--gone.
And as tough as it was with Dana, to try in vain to keep our fragile and important shit out of his hands, as a parent you actually want your kid to have object permanence. It's a vital developmental step, when you get there. Because along with object permanence comes stuff like motivation. And people being absent, but you still being able to think about those people. And the ability to conceive of the future. For example, you're sitting in the kitchen, and you think: GODDAMN, I want a pastrami sandwich. You picture that sandwich, maybe based on one you had at some other point in your life. And you really want to get that sandwich. So you then go about making that happen.
Without object permanence, Tess didn't have goals. She wasn't motivated by anything that wasn't directly in front of her. And if you think about it, that's a pretty big limit on the way you go through life. You only play with the toys that are put on the floor for you. You only eat what's on your plate. You only hang out with the people who come to you. You can't ask for other stuff. You can't seek out new people. You can't even go look for them. You're stuck. And you're also really complacent. You live every waking second in the present. There's no past. No future. You can sit in one place for an entire day. Your entire existence is pretty much just a big...whatever.
This was painful. We worked on it. Back then, Tess's vision was a question mark, but we knew that she liked yellow objects. We'd sit with her, bring out a rubber ducky, and catch her eye with it. She'd reach. She'd be all about the rubber ducky. But then we'd put it behind our backs. And she'd stop reaching. Like it never happened. Bringing it back out would spur her to light up and reach for it again. But then, back behind us it would go, and she'd forget again. This went on for a long time.
They worked on it at her school too. And finally, finally, she got it. A while back she got it. And now she has it, like a mofo. The phone thing? Where she wants to eat it, and I hide it? She follows it with eagle eyes and dives without warning -- under the couch pillow, into my pocket. And then it's an iPhone snack. I do not always realize when this is happening. Nor does my wife. Just yesterday I heard a crunch, and discovered Tess, her incisor locked onto my wife's phone screen, trying to widen a hairline crack. Oops.
So the funny thing is, with goals like object permanence, I've tended to see them standing on their own. Not so much as part of the big picture.
And the other day, I saw something so, so cool. Check this out. Tess goes to therapeutic horseback lessons every week. She rides horses. Her facility specializes in helping folks with disabilities. Riding horses helps with everything from balance to motor control to problem solving. There's a physical therapist named Sarah who's worked with T for years. Sarah walks alongside the horse, or sometimes in front or behind, with another two or three people, and she adjusts Tess's form, moves her from kneeling to sitting, turns her backwards sometimes, and also holds up toys and things, to make Tess reach. Basically, Sarah pushes Tess. Makes her work hard in the saddle. The facility is called Riding to the Top, and we are really big fans of theirs. I gave a speech there at their auction last fall and essentially credited them with helping Tess learn to walk.
So we arrive there last week. And we're early. We're sitting and waiting for Sarah to come collect Tess, to help her get her helmet on, and to bring her out to the horse, to start the lesson. We're in chairs. But Tess doesn't want to be in the chair. She slides down, onto her feet. And she's off. I am very interested in sitting at that point. But Tess won't be contained. When I put her back in the chair, she wastes no time in sliding back down onto her feet. So I sigh and get up. I follow her.
Tess is a walking machine these days. She can go for long distances without breaks. She's built up quite a bit of stamina. Every so often, she'll get this drunken-sailor thing going on and will try to bounce her head off a wall or doorframe, so I kinda have to spot her while's she moving along, but generally she's good. And that's what we're doing, while she cruises around the room where the chairs are. There's some other adults around, and she zooms up to each one, coming close to them. Each time, I figure Tess is about to tear their book out of their hand, or take down their coffee, spilling every drop onto the floor. So I'm right there, ready to grab her. But virtually every time, she veers away at the last second. This prompts chuckles from these people. "Whoa, look out for her," they say. "Somebody's a busy girl!"
And then we're out of that room and in the hallway. She can't run yet, but she has several walk speeds, and in the hallway she kicks it into high gear. Until she gets to an office. She steps in, and I see that nothing good can happen in that room. There are computers and cords, a fragile-looking printer, a number of glass items arranged on desks. I want to hustle her out of there, but there's an office manager there who gives me a great big smile and says, "She's okay." Tess walks up to her, looks up, pauses, and then spins on her heel, back toward the door. The manager waves bye-bye, and we're back in the hallway.
This goes on for a while. There are like three offices with computers and stuff. Tess enters all of them. The people that she finds are welcoming and tolerant. They put their hands out, ready to receive her, as she scoots in for a hug. But the hugs don't come. Tess isn't interested in any of these folks.
And it's then that I realize what she's doing. She is looking for someone. She is systematically going through the rooms of Riding to the Top. She knows that that's where we are. She is searching for Sarah, her physical therapist.
In that hallway, Sarah materializes, and Tess goes right up to her, doing her happy hands. Have you seen this from T? It's one of my favorite things that she does. When things are going her way, when she's really excited, she smiles puts both arms up in the air and has this spasm of joy, a sort of jazz-hands paroxysm, sometimes accompanied by a squeal. And that's what she does when she finds Sarah in that hallway. Happy hands. Stops walking. Reaches right out for Sarah.
This is progress. This is what progress looks like. Tess has had object permanence for years. But she only just started walking reliably this year. And sometimes it's hard to tell whether she knows where she is.
Searching for a person requires addition. It's adding all this together. You have to know where you are. You have to think of that place as a location where that person is likely to be. You've gotta be able to walk, to navigate around computer cables and obstacles, to walk up to people and, when they're not Sarah, walk away. And most of all, you need object permanence, the ability to think of someone who isn't there in front of you. You have to break out of the present, have motivation. Create a goal. Formulate the concept of that person being out there in the world someplace, for you to seek. And find.
Want to see Tess do her "happy hands" thing? Click here.
Click here to watch my speech at Riding to the Top last fall.