My Turn: I'm Still Listening for My Father's Words

Aphasia is an oddly beautiful word, like the name of a flower. I imagine it blue, with slender petals and delicate filaments, breaking through hard winter soil, because each word my father manages to speak is like a tender blossom struggling into the air. Dad's been diagnosed with what doctors call "dementia of the Alzheimer's type." The most frustrating part of his decline has been his aphasia, defined by Webster's as "loss or impairment of the power to use words." In Dad's case, this manifests itself as anomia, the inability to remember the names of things. Lately he's been calling his nightly can of beer "ink." Sometimes he calls it "gas," which makes a kind of sense.

It's summer, the time of my annual visit to the home my parents bought 43 years ago in Lemon Grove, Calif. Trying not to let my face betray dismay at how frail Dad has become, I pull a chair close to his recliner, facing him. I realize I've been holding my breath when I exhale as Dad begins to speak.

"Where is your father?" he asks, and I'm caught wordless.

As a child, I wondered what it was that made men mute. The men of Dad's generation, survivors of the Great Depression and a world war, were brought up that way: men didn't cry, nor did they express sadness, fear or embarrassment. Dad was a Kansas farm boy who drove with two pals from Waterville to San Diego in 1939 at the age of 18 to find employment. For men of Dad's generation, the action that spoke louder than words was work.

Dad supported eight kids working on his knees, repairing auto bodies. He came home every evening smudged, with swollen joints and hands that wouldn't clean. At our crowded table, he had words only for Mom. I eavesdropped as he told about his day: fenders, hoods and quarter panels, slick insurance adjusters and the new young guys who took no pride in work, filling dents with plastic while he smoothed and burnished rumpled metal nearby.

Dad's work ethic drove his life; when weekends came, he couldn't slow that workday beat. He mowed and edged, clipped and swept, watered, planted, then washed and waxed the car. Then he built things: greenhouse, fishpond, patio, fountain, fence, garage—even, once, a wishing well. Back and forth he moved across his measured turf, legs stiff with unregistered pain, ecstatic worry on his face.

One morning when I was 9, he heard me humming as I poured my cereal and said, "Sing before breakfast and you'll cry before supper." Coming from a man of so few words, that assumed real import. I never sang before breakfast again.

I collected my father's words like four-leaf clovers, waiting for the day we'd have our conversation. When I was 16, I took matters into my own hands one Sunday and went outside to where he was planting a shrub. "There's a football game on," I said. "Come in—I'll get you a beer." He looked confounded, conflicted, but he set his shovel down, wiped his hands on baggy jeans and started toward the house with me.

I brought him his beer and we settled in front of the TV. I was distracted, trying to think what I could say about the game. Our conversation could just go on from there. But after a minute Dad started fidgeting, set down his beer and stood up.

"Can't do it," he said apologetically. "Too much to do." And then he was gone.

Even when I'd moved 2,000 miles away, I waited for his words. It took 10 years, but sure enough, one day a letter came:

I still take out Dad's letter sometimes and reread it.

"Where is your father?" he asks me now, and I take his hand. It's rough in mine, still a workman's hand.

"You're here, Dad. You're my father, and we're both right here."

He smiles and I hang on to his hand, remembering those childhood Saturdays when I watched him out the window, moving back and forth across the lawn behind his mower. Sometimes it looked as if he might be singing to himself—I tried to read his lips, but he was always just too far away, and I could never be sure.