My favorite part of calling my parents every day is the initial few minutes.
It inevitably goes like this:
The phone rings.
Eventually, on a good day, my Mom answers.
Me: Hi, Mom. How are you today?
Mom: I don’t hear a thing you’re saying.
Me: That’s because you need to turn up the volume on the phone.
Mom: I still can’t hear anything.
Me: Mom, push the button on the phone to turn the volume up.
(These last two lines repeat several times)
Mom: Wait just a minute. I think I need to turn the volume up.
(She takes a moment to find and push the correct button)
Me: How’s that?
Mom: Oh, much better.
With my Dad, the only difference is that he is usually the one to initiate the call to me. Since he is not aware that speaking on the phone generally involves some amount of listening, he doesn’t bother turning up the volume until instructed to do so. It seems irrelevant to him, since the talking part is what interests him about making the call.
My Dad has perfected the art of delivering monologues in the guise of dialogues, leading my sister and me to describe our interactions with him as “nonversations”.
I am no stranger to having difficulty hearing. In the past decade, I have gotten on airplanes twice, on journeys to get treatment and support for my ongoing eating disorder recovery. During both return flights, I experienced what is called “barotrauma”, where the pressure in the ear cannot equalize properly. The effects that I thought would be temporary turned out to be persistent. I lost 30 percent of my hearing in both ears, all of which is apparently yet to be found.
I do quite a bit of lip-reading. I rely on subtitles and captions for TV or movie watching. I frequently ask people to repeat themselves and to speak louder.
And I focus intently when having verbal interactions with others, in a concerted effort to understand their words as much as possible.
In this way, I perceive myself as being vastly different than my father.
In a recent and rare attempt to connect with him and share about my life, I offer to send him these writings I’ve been doing. He expresses great interest in reading them, and guarantees me that he won’t be bothered by anything I’ve said. And so – I go ahead and send all the pieces I’ve written thus far.
This is a bold move (admittedly, largely driven by the persistent child in me who somehow still yearns to be seen, heard, and known by her Dad).
Excited by his excitement, I spend an evening copying and pasting each piece into individual email messages, and then helping him figure out how to read them.
Eagerly, I leave him to do the reading on his own, and anxiously await his response.
I receive a phone call following his reading of the first few pieces:
Dad: You know – your sister and I have always had a very special connection. She understands me like no-one else does. She and I have always enjoyed things together.
Me: I know that, and it’s beautiful. I’m wondering if you had any thoughts about the writing you’ve read so far.
Dad: Yes. Your writing is very good. It’s down to earth. You don’t use any big words.
Me: Hmm… Any other thoughts or reactions?
Dad: Here’s what I don’t understand. You’ve done so many wonderful things in your life. You wrote music, you danced, you created plays… People won’t know about all of your talent if they read your writing.
Me: Well, Dad, these pieces were not written to be an entire autobiography. I actually already have performances that tell about my whole life. These pieces are about what’s been going on currently. And in terms of what people will know about me – I’m sort of hoping that they’ll think I have some talent as a writer.
Dad: Oh, of course you have talent. You’re a wonderful writer. Nobody could do it better. You know, I had a business where I had to create items. I never went to school for it. I hired people to work for me, and that’s how the business happened. I created so many funny things. Every day I had new ideas. My items could be found in novelty shops around the country…
And so it begins.
A day later, having read some more, the next call comes. He starts by telling me again about his connection with my sister, and how they have always gotten along so well. (I initially react with immediate irritation. Thankfully, over the years I’ve cultivated my capacity for curiosity and compassion. It comes in handy at a time like this.
I pause to imagine how hard it must be to read about his child’s life, and to realize he’s known absolutely none of it, despite “talking” every day. I intuit his unspoken need to feel that he truly understands, and is understood by, at least one of his daughters.)
Then he reiterates the observation that I don’t use fancy language, appreciating that I “tell it like it is” and that I write the truth, with “no bullshit”. (In another moment of maturity, I decide to take that as a compliment, rather than being annoyed at his oversight of my lilting linguistics and witty wise words.)
Another day passes. Here is where the tide turns.
Having finished reading all of the pieces, he can’t handle what he has read.
He doesn’t seem to have any problem with the stuff I wrote about him. The problem is the stuff I wrote about myself.
If you’ve been following this journey from the beginning, you know that my past 2 years have had no shortage of challenging circumstances. Unfortunately, my Dad has not been following this journey – from the beginning or the middle or anywhere for that matter – and it apparently came as a shock to realize that I’ve been dealing with a few things.
The next sequence of phone calls have a disturbingly different tone.
First I hear from my sister that my Dad is a wreck, and that he is coming unglued.
She tells me that he finished reading everything and that he was up all night in a state of overwhelming distress; that he couldn’t handle knowing about how much I’ve been through. She tells me that he is too agitated to function.
Then I hear directly from him. He tells me that he has never felt so depressed, that he can’t stop thinking about my difficulties, that it has gotten into his “kishkas” and that he can’t shake it. He explains that he has always been able to solve problems in his life, and that if he couldn’t solve them, he just didn’t pay attention to them. He expresses his desperate desire to want to fix the MCS for me, his belief that he is supposed to be able to make things better, his disappointment in himself for not knowing what to do, his overwhelming feelings of helplessness. And he admits that it was easier for him to not know about my suffering, to not have to think about it.
My heart softens and breaks open wide. This is how my Dad loves. He wants his family to be well, more than he wants anything else in this world. He cares so deeply that he cannot rest if he thinks about any of us being in pain. And so he has absolutely no ability to sit in the presence of our suffering, with nothing more to offer than his own open heart and loving presence. When I tell my Dad that it is enough for him to simply offer his love, he doesn’t comprehend what I’m saying. He is forever locked in the fix-it-or-forget-it-exists paradigm. I cry for him.
And I cry for me, as I sit with the little girl longing for the one thing that would meet a lifelong hunger – to simply be seen and held in love.
A few days later, my Dad magically moves on and puts the whole thing in that virtual vortex of memories to be forgotten. He stops speaking about the writing or our prior conversations. He is back in his regular routine, his “kishkas” seemingly settled down for the moment. When I call him at my Mom’s room in the nursing home, where he still spends his days, he reports that she had been waiting for hours for someone to respond to her call bell so she could be taken to the bathroom. He tells me that nobody came, and that he had tried unsuccessfully to help her himself, but that she couldn’t make it. Now an aide had finally arrived, and was cleaning up the aftermath. He adds that her lunch was never brought and that his efforts to get her meal delivered were also futile.
I have stepped back from the phone receiver. Something in me shuts down. I can’t stand listening to these words. I am completely helpless to prevent or correct the negligence that she faces every day. And I notice that I don’t want to hear it. It is just too hard.
In that moment, I recognize that the differences between my father and me are perhaps not all that vast.
I know the terrible frustration of being unable to comprehend what the person on the other end of the phone is saying.
I know what it’s like to comprehend all too well what the person on the other end of the phone is saying, and to wish that I hadn’t heard it at all.
I know the longing to be seen as smart and creative and talented and competent.
I know the tenderness and vulnerability of a human being yearning for connection and trying to get it by telling autobiographical stories.
This man whom I have perceived to be my polar opposite is very much my mirror.
Once again, my heart softens.
It’s hard to hear. And it’s hard not to hear.
And somehow the love at the center is larger than all of the hardness.
And subtitles are really good too.