To say that Lio ‘loves’ his school somewhat misses the point. He lives for his school, it is the most important thing in the world to him (don’t worry, I appreciate my luck). Every morning he wants to be the first one there and every afternoon he wants to be the last one to leave. All the stress and anxiety, all that research and school visiting, all that negotiating in all those meetings has paid off better than I had imagined it might. The secondary school he’s at, a college about 15 minutes from home, is not only visually appealing, surrounded by acres of green, but I get the sense that they really understand him there. The teachers push him and support him in just the right balance and, at least at the moment, everything seems close to perfect.
He likes what he’s learning, but he is also blossoming socially as well. He’s got lots of opportunities to shine and show off, like the school’s Christmas play, A Christmas Carol. Lio got cast as Topper, the love-struck and drunk guest at Fred’s party. His scene got the biggest laughs of the night, by far.
Music remains his favourite subject. On the piano he’s reached the stage where he’ll just sit down on his own and practice for a bit, and then have a noodle on his own around the keyboard. He’s taking a break from piano exams though (which is fine with me—he’s been tested enough in recent years). Studying the exam pieces was getting in the way of him learning the pieces that he was really keen about (he’s got a thing for slightly ethereal music by Chopin and Enaudi, but also the Blues). He’s started composing his own pieces too, following a sequence that he likes, repeating it and then changing it. A few weeks ago, when Harvey (one of his best friends) had his appendix out, Lio put together an evocative little tune for him. He may still have some trouble with subtlety and subtext in his English homework (like some other 11-year-old boys), but he has absolutely no problem expressing himself with a piano.
While he continues to play trumpet at school and on the weekends (and even once with the BBC SO), singing is starting to take over as the second string in his musical bow. He sings in his school’s chapel choir, and last year he heard about the National Youth Choir, which performs in churches and town halls around the country, provides singers for important events and does things with the BBC. He did an audition for them this Autumn and has just been offered a place. He’s (rightly) proud of himself, and I am too.
Last week we went to see both his physiotherapist and his orthopedic surgeon. He’s got 3.5 to 4 cm difference between his left leg and his right leg now. This is causing him some pain in his back and some awkwardness in his lift shoes, but in the grand scheme of things these are quite minor. Based on what we had gathered from previous appointments we had been planning on having another round of leg lengthening to start this summer. But this time the senior surgeon said, ‘You’re in good place right now. Maybe in another 18 months.’ Then, when Lio bent his knee so that his heel touched his backside, the surgeon said, ‘You’ve got to be happy with that.’ I am. Absolutely delighted. We can manage things for the next year with an increase to his shoe raise and see where we are then. Initially I left that appointment not knowing what to think. I had been psychologically preparing for the big six-month long lengthening process to begin sooner rather than later and while this does feel like a reprieve of sorts part of me just wants to get on with it. There is the potential (huge) added benefit that by the time Lio’s leg is ready for the procedure there may be a bit of new technology that could do the lengthening internally rather than have the external frame with its horrendous pin sites needing cleaning every day. This is certainly something worth exploring, even if Lio says he’d rather have the external frame because he knows what to expect. But we’ll wait and see.
The other thing to consider is the timing with Lio’s next school exams (GSCSEs). If we wait too long on the leg he could find himself in a frame when he’s meant to be taking these ‘extremely important’ assessments. The seemingly never-ending flood of tests and test prep that has engulfed our corner of the world strikes me as more and more crazy. I think back about how we were encouraged to sweat about the SATs tests last year (the tests that they take at the end of primary school in the UK). And we did sweat them—but given that every secondary school has its own tests for placing students in the right groups anyway, I find myself asking whether or not all these assessments are more for schools than they are for students.
Lio and I snuck off to Morocco for a quick break during his Autumn half-term holiday. We had booked a ticket for Morocco seven years ago and we were meant to be there (Lio, me and his mother) the month after the accident happened. Lio remembered this and would periodically ask when we were going to go to the desert and take a camel ride. We finally managed it this year; the whole experience was intense and strange and beyond what he or I was expecting. The deserts were as barren as they were beautiful. The markets were startling, the food delicious and colours stunning. Parts of it though are still teetering on the edge of the Thrid World and many (maybe even most) people that we met had never traveled more than 50 miles from the places of their birth.
Lio took it all in, absorbing it like a sponge. He went surfing for the first time in his life, helped me (genuinely) navigate through the insane outskirts of Marrakesh and did finally get to ride that camel. When our guide corrected me that in Morocco they have ‘dromedaries,’ rather than ‘camels,’ Lio laughed and reminded me about it for the rest of the trip.
Lio and I also left a poppy for his mother on a windy sand dune in the Sahara. Lio’s grandmother, Sasha’s mother, had been making tiny porcelain poppies in memory of Sasha (whose last writing about beauty included some lovely meditations on poppies). She then asked friends and family to take them and leave them in places they thought were ‘beautiful’ on their travels, then take a photo which she put into a book and I put up on the web. We left the last one of these poppies on a golden dune outside of Merzouga with views across the desert into Algeria and before we had said our good-byes and slipped away into the evening the sands had completely consumed it.
I think I might have found something in the desert too. In recent months I’ve been fielding more and more questions about and requests for a next book. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to do a sequel but have been kicking around a bunch of topics all related to our story (height, Ritalin, single parenting, etc.). On the edge of the desert I happened to meet a man named Ali with four-year-old twin sons in tow. He and I had a long chat, and in spite of a significant language gap and massive cultural differences it was clear that there was a common thread running through our experiences. I went away thinking that my next project was definitely going to be about fatherhood—a history of the idea, a narrative, or maybe just a collection of all the arguments I’ve had with myself and all the things I’ve learned a bit later than I would have liked in recent years. It will be nice to get stuck in to a new creative project. I’ve been missing that feeling of making something concrete.
Tomorrow we leave for Christmas with Lio’s grandmother in New Jersey and my phone app tells me to expect snow. Lio is already asking when he can go sledding with his cousin Kevin.