My father can play three songs on the piano. One is Debussey's Clare de Lune. The other two are also classical pieces. I have no idea which ones. But I would love when we would go to my Aunt Laurie's house-- immense and modern, with huge rooms and (to my eye) impossibly high ceilings, her baby grand sat in sharp relief against the white walls and white shag carpet of her white living room-- and my dad would play.
I sat next to him on the piano bench, almost too eager to breathe, barely containing myself for the length of his short repertoire. He didn't know the entirety of any of the three works, but he knew enough to keep us all transfixed. Before the last note died, I would burst out "Again, daddy! Play it again!"
And he would. He would bring his large hands-- so much more comfortable holding a golf club or a cup of coffee-- he would bring his hands up and begin to play. And for those few minutes, I was mesmerized by his hands, fluid and graceful, saying everything that mattered, everything that he couldn't say: Of course I'll it play again. I love you.
Dad wasn't much for words. Used to make me crazy. Read this, Dad; can you believe what it says? Watch this, Dad; what'd'ya think? Listen to this, Dad-- what do you say?
I guess so.
I don't know.
I was like a puppy all during my childhood and adolescense, jumping and wagging and slightly desperate for his attention. Notice me, Dad. Engage. Talk. Debate. Argue. Something. Anything. And mostly, I would skid head first into the wall of his quiet.
But when I asked, he would lift his strong hands to the keyboard and play for me, one more time.
Years later, long after I had moved out of their house into my own, we would joke about it (well, "joke" in the very-few-words-but-still-shared-sentiment of my dad's world). After I had talked to my mother for however long she would grant me, after the obligatory how-are-you-what's-new-are-you-dating-anyone back and forth of our conversations, she would invariably end our call with "Here. Your father wants to talk to you," and she would hand the phone to my father.
"Poor Morry," I would say, laughing. Morry was my grandfather, my mother's stepfather. Her mother would do the same thing, every time. Whenever she was done with her part of the conversation (always in some weirdly truncated shorthand, so worried was she about the toll charges that she was sure would bankrupt her or us), she would shove the phone in Morry's hand, insisting that he wanted to talk to us. After a painfully uncomfortable and mostly silent minute or so, peppered with pat questions and unheard answers ("How are you, Papa?" "Fine, fine.") that trailed off into gentle sighs that filled up the remaining space, until we could all (thankfully) hang up.
"How's it going, Morry?" I would tease my father.
"Fine, fine," he would say. I could hear his distracted smile loud and clear.
"You don't wanna talk, do you, Dad?"
"Not particularly. Everything ok?"
"All good, Dad. I release you-- you can hang up now. Love you."
And so it went. I understood the why of his reluctance at some point, finally. He made his living with his words. If he wasn't talking to a client, he was arguing their cases in court. He spent his days talking, so by the time we picked him up at the train station at 5:45 every night, Monday through Friday, week after week after month after year, he was done talking.
Dad lived in a world that merely shadowed our own, intersecting it in the background and the in-between times-- early morning just before leaving for the train or the golf course; dusk and dinner, sitting at the head of the table, inhaling whatever meat-and-potatoes dinner Mom had made. My brothers were lucky. They had Indian Guides and Little League, smaller and infinitely more tender points of intersection. I was always so jealous that they had found this private, boy-language that engaged our father in a way that I never could.
For me, almost always, he was a silent, bread-winning presence, a not-quite stranger who came and went according to his own rhythms. Every so often, I would find the bridge between our worlds and be filled with the music he coaxed from the piano, a language all our own.
We grew comfortable in our every-so-often conversations. They rarely veered from the gentle paths we had carved for them. "How's it going?" "Fine, dad. Go ahead, Morry-- you are released." What more needed to be said? Love was wrapped around every letter, every vowel in those short sentences.
My story would end here, in that gentle back and forth game of verbal shorthand at which we had become so adept. It would - it should - but doesn't. Apparently, those warnings they slap on the side of a pack of cigarettes are true: smoking is dangerous for your health. For Dad, it became true in spades: throat and tongue cancer. When he was diagnosed, we were told that if he had to get cancer, this was certainly the best one to get, since it was mostly curable and survival rates are quite high. Of course, an 89% survival rate is high until it's used in connection with your dad. Then it's impossibly small, while 11% looms larger than mountains and sky together.
After a year of chemo and radiation and hope and prayer (not necessarily in that order), the doctors found that while the tongue cancer had been eradicated, the throat cancer seemed to have snagged on his vocal chords, wrapping them in strands of ugly, deathly cells. There was no choice but to remove the voice box. And so, on September 10, 2012, dad underwent a trachyectomy.
I went to visit him, shortly after his surgery. He was still raw and tender, still a little lost and unsure. Always a man of small conversations and few words-- he was wrapped in silence. We had gotten him a white board to write on. We wanted to get him an iPad or Tablet. He refused them all. He was too impatient, too used to the rhythms of talking and vocalizing. He would start to write, and then his fingers and thoughts would tangle, and he'd push the board to the side, waiting mutely for us to fill in the blanks.
And then he would bring up his large hands, swirling them through the air between us, fluid punctuation to whatever he was trying to say. Impassioned, expressive, swooping movement meant to be his voice:
Ferris wheel, ferris wheel, fireworks!
Or something to that effect. I read his hands about as well as I read his lips. I realized, though, that the words didn't matter. Or didn't matter much. I was transfixed, once again, by his hands, saying everything that ever needed to be said-- everything he had always said-- I love you.
Love you back, Dad.
Happy father's day.