ON SUNDAY AFTERNOON, our fifth day at Mass General, Tom and I sit in the waiting room at the shift change. A skinny black man wearing gray coveralls peers in and asks, “Is there a clock in here?”
“No,” Tom answers. “Don’t you have a watch?”
“I’m setting the hospital’s clocks back for fall,” he says in a Caribbean lilt, “and, no, I don’t have a watch.”
He looks straight at us and says, “My body tells me the three things I need to know—when to get up, when to go to sleep, and when to go to the bathroom. That’s all I need to know.”
He walks away, looking for clocks to change. Martin’s body is finding its own way to heal, despite the doctors contradicting one another about whether he is or ever has been in a coma, about how long his condition will be critical, about why his intracranial pressure is so high yet he is so responsive. We have begun to trust ourselves, and to settle into waiting, letting Martin set the pace.
Tom and I ask each other whether anyone else has seen the man who sets the clocks, the man who wears no watch and changes time. No one but us has heard his magic words. Perhaps there will be other miracles.
MARTIN HAS ALWAYS moved at his own pace. When he graduated from high school, Sarah made a video of interviews with his friends. Britten, whom he’s known since pre-school, laughed as she told about calling him to say she’d pick him up for a movie. He’d tell her, “I’m ready, I just need to put on my shoes,” and, when she got there, twenty minutes later, Martin was still putting on his shoes. He had to tie his laces before they could go.
Another friend told the camera how “chilled out” Martin was. She said that, when he drank, he just got quieter and quieter, sitting at the edge of the party, watching everyone else, and nodding to himself.
Martin was even born at his own pace, two weeks late. His fingernails were extra-long, and, because he’d stayed inside so long that he’d lost weight, he looked like a size six baby in a size ten suit of skin, wrinkled and waterlogged. When the doctor looked him over, he finally accepted what I’d been telling him—my baby was way past due.
Martin shut his eyes tight and feigned sleep, or perhaps he truly slept, as soon as he was born. Soon, with his parents and sister walking upright, talking, and using the toilet, he was trying to catch up.
As soon as he could crawl, he grabbed onto my jeans or my long skirt and pulled himself to stand. While I washed dishes, he stood behind me, swaying, until, tired from holding on, he let go and dropped to the floor.
When he began walking, Martin went outside barefoot, wearing a bonnet and a shirt to keep off the sun. The summer he was two, I found him standing by the water hydrant far from the house. He had climbed the big rock step beside the flower bed to reach the handle, turned the water off, carried the sprinkler with the hose it was attached to from the lawn into the house, and set the sprinkler on the floor beside Tom’s desk. When I found him, he was back on the step by the hydrant, reaching to turn the water on.
Was I not watching him enough?
Another day, I followed him when he walked from a friend’s dining nook into her kitchen. He pushed her step stool over to the counter, climbed up, stood on the counter, and reached for a glass on the cabinet shelf. My friend watched him and then said, “When I talk with you on the phone, and you say that Martin is getting into something, I always think you’re slow at keeping track of him. But you’re not slow. Martin’s just fast.”
Fast sometimes, and sometimes slow. He sets his own pace.