by Peter H. Putnam, Jr.
In April 1998, my father is lying in a South Carolina hospital with a ventilator plugged into his throat. He has no voice. He once sang “Impossible Dream” in an impossibly deep bass voice, now this man has no voice. He lay prone, a child. He is no longer 6 feet tall, no longer the frightening, booming, hair-cutting, wisecracking, story-telling giant of my childhood. He is a a dying man in a hospital bed with no voice.
My mother, brother and sister had left the room for the cafeteria. Just me and my father were in the room alone with little time. How I had craved alone time with him!
Six months before, he was supposed to meet me at the airport. We were going to stop for a sandwich before driving home to the rest of the family. I was dying for it. I couldn’t remember a time when my father and I had had lunch alone. He liked my mom to with us as his emotional buffer. But this time, alone with him, we would talk. This time, each of us would say whatever it was that father and son need to say to each other to heal and to bless.
The plane landed. I pictured my habitually early father in the waiting area, pacing, eager to get to the next place. When he wasn’t waiting there that November day, when I didn’t see him there in his green jacket and jeans, his keys swinging impatiently in his strong, sun-browned hand, I knew he was sick. And I was angry.
I was angry at his sickness, yes, but I was especially angry because we would not have lunch alone together. I was Angry at him. Coward! I remember thinking. You whom I once thought was afraid of nothing, you are so afraid to be alone with your thirty-eight year old son that you got sick!
Well, we were alone together now in this hospital room, but both of us were silent. Voiceless.
Then his lips moved.
I blocked out from my mind the ventilator worming out of his throat, and I concentrated on his lips, just his lips. His lips were thin and chalky, not his lips at all, but the lips of an old, lonely, dying man that I didn’t know.
He was trying to say something. For the life of me, I could not understand him. I felt queasy pre-game jitters, stiffness, self-doubt. I felt the same mind-blanking panic that descends on me when, despite my five years of French, anybody speaks French to me: Je ne comprends pas! Je ne comprends pas!
This was never going to work. At the best of times we had spoken different languages, my father and I. He talked guns and business; I talked peace and poetry.
Usually, we had settled on the language of sports heroes — Jim Brown and Arnold Palmer when I was growing up, lately Barry Sanders and Tiger Woods — great sons who spoke the language of athletic success, I imagined, sons who made their distant, deaf fathers proud.
Just his lips, just my father’s thin, chalky lips were moving senselessly in the terrible whiteness of the room.
Once again, I was going to let my father down. Once again, he was going to let his son down. So much to say, and no way to say it, to hear it. Time was running out.
Then, suddenly, miraculously, we both fell into this space, this sacred space, where my father was talking in a language I suddenly miraculously understood.
I’m sure the hospital hum continued, but neither one of us noticed. Like the feeling of light entering some small Irish church, we had entered the country of dreams, where a real son at end of a real bed is listening to a real father, but something dreamlike was there, too, mysterious and deep.
I was reading his lips as easily, as gracefully as I read a Mary Oliver poem or a “Hamlet” soliloquy. His beautiful lips were moving, making meaning. All those years of throated words and infinite time, and nothing, for either of us, ever, like this. This language, what would this language be called?
“You’ve been having a dream?” I said.
He nodded fast. His lips moved again, quickened by my having understood.
“And you’re not sure where it’s from?” I said.
Yes, yes, he was nodding. His eyes were lighted with relief.
Then he told me about a boy, up in an attic, with something alive near the ceiling, high up, and frightening. “I’ve been in that room,” he lip-spoke.
“You’ve been in that room,” I echoed.
“But I can’t remember when,” my father said. His lips, his face suddenly collapsed. I had never, in my life, seen him look as he did then: so lost, so terrified. So unimaginably alone.
A sliver of a story came back to me from my father’s childhood. Alone on his birthday in some upstate orphanage, his Depression-strapped parents temporarily out of resources. Was that the room, I wondered, somewhere in the bowels of that orphanage?
And where had I heard that snippet from his childhood? Not from him, that’s for sure. A great storyteller, my father only told certain kinds of stories — funny golf stories, crazy kid fights that he and his brother got into it with the Lebowski twins down the block. He never told stories of scared little boys up in attics. My father didn’t go there. Or maybe, I remember thinking, he had never left there.
“I’ve been in that room,” my father said again. He was seeing it again, clearly, and he was terrified. This was one mystery he could not figure out with the tenacious, problem-solving intelligence he had applied to a lifetime of real estate deals and college education payments and trans-Atlantic plane trips.
“I’ve been in that room,” I echoed.
And then it struck me: I had been in that room! Me too! I could suddenly see the boy, maybe six, thin and dark-haired — like my father as a boy, like me as a boy — peeking up into that deep, distant attic corner, into the blackness up there. What was it? A balloon of sadness or shame smeared across the ceiling like grape jelly. Suddenly, I didn’t know where my father’s dream, my father’s emotions, my father’s childhood ended and mine began.
My father raised his head from the pillow and looked at me closely. It had been a minute, a lifetime, since we had last spoken. I looked into his eyes now. He was talking with his eyes now. Did I understand? he asked. Did I get it? Was it OK to be afraid?
Now it was my turn to nod. Yes, I understood. Both of us were boys once. Yes, I get it, Dad. I said with my eyes. Scared to death, scared of death. Yes, it’s OK to be afraid. lost and now found, together, in this lonely room.
He relaxed his head back to the pillow and closed his eyes. I felt grateful tears arise in mine. After almost 39 years of noisy, anxious silence, we had spoken at last — not about Willie Mays or taxes, but about what fathers and sons rarely speak about — our dreams and our fear, our sadness and our shame. Our death.
For a sacred moment, my father and I were fluent in the quietest, deepest, and oldest of all the languages, the ancient, almost forgotten language of Father-Son, the language of the blood, through which some primordial umbilical cord of love Father has always been — and will forever be — connected to Son.
Peer H. Putnam Jr. teaches writing at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, MI. He lives in Detroit with his wife Julia, son Henry, and daughter Lucie. His book, The Song of Father-Son: Men in Search of The Blessing, was published in 2006.