11: Silence Is Golden

11: Silence Is Golden

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Dad

Silence Is Golden

The older I grow the more I listen to people who don’t talk much.

~Germain G. Glien

My dad sat in his rocking chair. The chair bucked, agitated just like he was as he plucked peanuts from their shells and popped them into his mouth. He glanced at me every so often, grimacing. It seemed from his furrowed brow that he was the one who was slogging hour upon hour in a swimming pool, counting tiles and laps, with arms like lead, heaving for breath and somehow, getting slower!

“Just a plateau, Kath,” my dad said. Plateau my you-know-what. I was actually getting worse.

“How am I supposed to keep this up?” I sat on the couch across from my father, my arms hugging my legs to my chest. Each breath tripped over the sob before it. “I’m not getting any faster!”

My dad rose from his chair. My heart seized a little bit. He’d had enough of my weeping and was making an exit. But then I felt his strong hand grab the back of my neck and squeeze, giving me a little shake on the scruff. He’d done this a million times throughout my life. It was his answer to other dads’ bear hugs.

“Are you working as hard as you can?” he said.

“Yes!”

He stopped squeezing. No more words. That couldn’t be it. I looked up at him from my curled position on the couch, waiting for magic words, the sentiments or advice that would immediately reveal my next steps toward becoming a faster swimmer. He was my father after all, and pep talks were his specialty. It had always seemed as though he’d had a crystal ball that doled out advice that actually worked. But this time, silence.

“Well,” he started squeezing again. “You wake up tomorrow and you go back and work even harder. Oh, and trust God. A little faith helps.”

I shrugged out of his grip and gaped at him. “That’s it? I’m working as hard as I can. So that’s it? This is the best I’ll ever be?”

A tiny hint of a smile did not cancel out the warmth in his eyes. He had told me my entire life I could be anything I wanted if I set my mind to it and there I was doing just that and still somehow drowning in my own mediocrity. Could he have been completely wrong?

“Dad, I mean it. Is this the best I’ll ever be?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Is this as good as you can be?” And then he was gone, to help my mother with a clogged toilet.

I woke up the next morning and was back in the pool working as though I had a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Working hard had already been forged into the creases of my brain. Even if I wanted to quit, I couldn’t. And there in the pool surrendering to the very thing that frustrated me so much, I found my answer.

•••

Seventeen years, a Ph.D., husband, two children, and a multiple sclerosis diagnosis later. . .

I was back on my parent’s couch for a visit. This time my two toddlers crawled over me, around me, on me, squalling for attention. I wrapped them in my numb arms and felt grateful they were too young to notice my silent tears or realize that I couldn’t feel their soft skin with my prickly fingertips. As long as my warm body was near, all was right for them. They had no idea what multiple sclerosis was or what it meant to me.

My dad sat across the room in his rocking chair, narrating the TV news as though I couldn’t hear it myself. “Damn politicians!” the rocking chair moved with his mood.

My dad glimpsed me every so often and caught my gaze with a forced smile. I waited for his encouraging words, his worldview that’s tethered to his heart by the belief that anything is possible with a little faith and hard work.

Sitting there, I floundered in my self-pity, wondering where those sentiments were. He’d offered them through my swimming life, as I scratched through full-time work and Ph.D. studies, premature births of two children, and while I waited to see my writing published. But this time, with my immune system attacking the coating on the nerves of my brain, he had nothing to offer?

I closed my eyes and laid my cheek on the top of my daughter’s head, sniffed the baby shampoo and listened to her coo and sigh at the pleasure of merely being alive.

Then I felt it. My dad’s hand on the back of my neck, squeezing. And I waited for the words. But none came. A few more squeezes and he was gone to the kitchen, foraging for his favorite shelled nuts. I remembered all the times he’d offered his advice.

And I realized that as I got older he said less and less about how to handle things. He passed me on the way back to his chair, and there it was, the squeeze on the back of the neck. The one that said everything he couldn’t.

~Kathleen Shoop

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