I cannot tell my father I love him. I did not tell him on his birthday or on Father’s Day, nor on the forty-plus Father’s Days that came before the last one. I did not say it hours before he went in for risky surgery a few years ago, nor when he turned fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty or eighty-five. The years tick by and my anxiety deepens. But my longing to clear this mysterious hurdle is eclipsed by an equally mysterious clumsiness, his and mine.
I comfort myself by remembering that the things we do are more meaningful indications of love than the words we speak. I spend hours preparing a pot of his favorite soup, challenging myself to slice the onions thinner and thinner each time, because that is how my father likes onions in his soup. “Don’t,” he says. “It’s too much work. Maybe you could show me how and
I can make it myself.”
“Sure,” I say, loudly so he can hear me, but it never happens, because if he makes the soup himself, something will be lost. The sliced onions, fragrant and thin as leaves, are as close as I can get to a declaration of love.
Early one morning I set my camera with its longest lens on a tripod near his flower garden. There is a picture my father wants desperately, of a little yellow bird he saw twice at the feeder. Hours later I get the shot, of the bird in mid-air extracting one shiny black seed. When my father takes it to the garden store and gives it to the man who sold him the birdseed, the man hangs the picture in his store and my father feels famous. This is almost enough for me. I have all but spoken the words. Why, I ask myself, can’t it be enough?
He roasts a single sweet potato in the oven during the middle of a day, tending to it every few minutes. After a couple of hours, he unwraps it like a treasure and mashes it with butter and salt. Then he offers me half. Between mouthfuls we talk about the summer storm they’re predicting. “Man, I love a good rainstorm,” he tells me, as if I don’t know. Soon a roaring downpour fills the house with a heady, ancient smell. “Man, oh man,” he says, smiling, and we carry our empty bowls to the kitchen so we can look out the back screen at what it’s doing for the tomato plants.
As a girl, I helped my father plant his tomatoes, beans and radishes in rows of flawless geometry. He’d crouch with his big, veined hands in the earth, brushing back a piece of black hair that fell in his eyes every few seconds of every day despite each morning’s dousing with a few squirts of Vaseline hair tonic. He’d pull a pack of Kents from his breast pocket, letting one and then another dangle from his lips as we pressed seeds into the soil with our fingers, the smoke scribbling nonsense in the damp air.
Today his cough is thin but deep and frequent, always there. In the morning, still in bare feet, he counts out ten cigarettes and sets them in a neat row on the fireplace mantle. The very idea of such restraint galls him. But toward evening he points proudly to the one or two that remain. He holds up eight, nine fingers. “That’s all I smoked today,” he says, brushing back the same stubborn hair, now white. I want to say, “I love you too, Dad.” Instead I say, “Wow Dad, I’m impressed. That must have been really hard for you.” We are experts, both of us, at finding comfortable substitutions.
Today the tomatoes are planted against the house because a daily walk across the yard and back is unthinkable. I imagine my father wakes every day hoping to find old age was just a dream, and that the possibilities of a life not yet lived are still before him. When he finds they are not, he makes a pot of strong coffee and drinks it full of cream and sugar, looking out at the weather.
My father does not say whether he is afraid of being old. And he does not say I love you. Like me, he knows our actions mean more.
But words give us sure footing. They confirm our assumptions and, in their profound simplicity, provide our greatest comfort. So now when I visit, which is never as often as either of us would like, my old father looks at me with his young eyes and says, “I’d love a bowl of that soup.”
And I answer, “Coming right up.”
PATRICIA BELL PALMER freely admits that she is originally from Long Island, New York. She teaches soft skills for business in corporate and college classrooms. She has an M.A. in education from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from New York University. As the reality of an increasingly empty nest sinks in, she has again begun to explore the joys and challenges of writing.