Why is it that men so often have little to say to the men closest to them: their fathers and sons?
My father and I never seemed to have much to say to one another. When I was growing up, he spoke and I listened. He had been raised by the clichéd-but -onored dictum that children should be seen and not heard—a rule in my grandfather’s household that extended even to meal times, when adults ate first—by themselves—at the dinner table, replaced by the children only after the grownups had finished.
There was no enmity between my father and me. We never argued, but we never just talked either. Most conversations between us had a specific purpose; to the point, then done. After I left my father’s house and went out on my own, all meaningful communication between us simply ended. My father respected my adulthood and refrained from unsolicited advising, lecturing, or otherwise telling me how to live, or not live, my life. This attitude was also a legacy my father’s upbringing; when your children go into the world, you must leave them alone find their own way.
As my parents aged, I would call home every couple of weeks. If my father answered the phone, we would carry on an innocuous chat for a few moments, then he would say, “Here’s your mom.” Having met our obligations, we were both relieved when he handed the phone to my mother. It was a system that seemed to work for us.
Then my mother died. No one to hand the phone to.
I wish I could say that being forced to talk to one another made us actually talk to one another, but it didn’t. It merely underscored the incongruity of our relationship, making our inability—our unwillingness—to communicate ever more protracted and awkward.
It’s not that there weren’t things to discuss—my father’s mental and emotional health chief among them. He had lost his life’s partner of almost 50 years and was patrolling the house in a purgatory of isolation, each room pungent with oppressive and immutable grief. He was alone.
And the best I could do was ask, “How you doin’, dad?” Unerringly, his answer was what we both wanted to hear: he was doing okay; he wasn’t. We both knew the truth but didn’t want to deal with it. I left the serious interrogating to my sisters: are you bathing regularly, dad? Are you doing your laundry and changing clothes? Are you eating? They could ask that sort of question; I had not the courage. For me to ask my father if he was seeing to his personal hygiene was—well, I can’t explain it but it just wasn’t possible. Men will know what I mean.
Still, if I failed to call him within a few weeks, the phone would ring and I knew who would be on the other end of the line. It seems we had a lot to not talk about. Perhaps what was important was the simple blessing of hearing each other’s voice; the sound carried meaning that words could not.
As I was raising my son, I determined things would be different—that during his years at home and beyond we would be able to carry on meaningful conversations in an easy and natural way. Now he is grown and lives a thousand miles distant. When he calls and I answer the phone, we engage in a brief moment of innocuous chat.
Then I say, “Here’s your mom.”