My mom is currently in Japan, halfway through an eight-day trip to visit her siblings. Eight days of what I’m sure my dad is experiencing as bliss, during which he won’t be scolded for wearing old clothes or nagged to turn the music down. Eight days during which he won’t be forced to make conversation that he doesn’t want to make or listen to inane chatter that he doesn’t want to listen to. Eight days of peace and quiet.
That’s what my mom is worried about. Before she left for her trip last week, my mom texted me:
Could you call papa and talk to him occasionally. He need to talk someone, otherwise he will be forget to talk. Talk is very important for old people.
My dad is not what you would call a big talker. He is the epitome of the absent-minded professor, someone who exists largely inside his head and perhaps as a consequence is a tad socially awkward in the world outside his head (i.e., the real world). My mom credits herself with having provided him much-needed company, conversation and common sense over the years.
Certainly she is the chatterer of the two of them, a characteristic that seems to have become more pronounced in the past few years. My dad, meanwhile, has stayed as equally non-communicative verbally as he has always been. You know how sometimes people are shy and stilted in their conversation when you first meet them, but once they get to know you, you can’t get them to shut up?
Yeah, that’s not my dad.
Since college, it’s been easiest for me to converse with him over e-mail, where I could inform him of the goings on in my life via type. He would subsequently send me screens worth of copy filled with his opinions on the latest in American politics, occasional education on science minutiae, effusive descriptions of the owl that was nesting in the tree in front of the town courthouse and so on. No awkward silences. No trying to figure out a topic that would keep the conversation rolling. It turned out my dad and I had plenty to talk about, as long as we didn’t actually have to talk.
And then this request comes in from my mom. In her absence, and with my brother living in London, it naturally made sense for me to be the one to provide my dad with the opportunity for verbal communication. And yet… the prospect of those awkward silences as we each try to think of something to talk about… the inevitable blankness of my brain as I scramble for conversational topics… the guilt of abruptly cutting my dad short so I could end our phone call…
I didn’t really want to call him.
But call him I did, last Friday. And we actually chatted, for more than just a couple of minutes! I told him about Billup’s recent bout of illness (but reassured him that she was now OK). He wanted to know whether the rest of us were healthy (we were). I asked him about the weather by him (some snow, but only a couple of inches, unlike those poor people living in the Northeast United States) and how he was holding up on his own (YouTube has a lot of the obscure music he likes, and now he could listen to it all as loud as he wanted).
It felt almost easy, this conversation, and I was happy to be connecting with my dad. At the 20-minute mark, I thought with chagrin that I’d have to find a polite way to sign off, as I had to get back to work, when suddenly he interrupted:
“OK,” he said abruptly—the way people say “OK” when they are ready to hang up.
“Oh—” I halted mid-sentence, thrown by this sudden change in our conversational flow. “Oh, you have to go now, Dad?”
“Yup, thanks again for calling,” he said. He really did sound appreciative… but also sounded like he wanted to get off the phone.
“Oh, OK, Dad. Um, I love you.”
“I love you, too. Bye.”
And just like that, my dad hung up.
In the ensuing minutes, an unwelcome thought floated into my consciousness. Here I was, thinking I was doing my parents a favor by calling my dad and spending some time on the phone with him.
Could it be that he hadn’t wanted to talk to me any more than I had wanted to talk to him??
Worse yet: Did he stay on the phone, not because he enjoyed catching up with his daughter… but because he thought he was doing me a favor!?