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Sad

Dad didn’t even look up when I entered the room. Selfishly, I preferred it like that. 


When he first contracted the virus, he would gaze up from his bed with pleading eyes as he prattled on incoherently. 


“Di-di | di-dah-di-di dah-dah-dah di-di-di-dah di | dah-di-dah-dah dah-dah-dah di-di-dah.”


Every day. Every, single day in the beginning stages of his decline, that’s all I heard from him. There was still light behind his eyes back then. They begged me to listen to what he was saying, even though it was without meaning. 


I’d respond… as well as I could. 


“I love you, Dad. It’s okay... I’m here and I love you.”


For a while my mantra would placate him. He would close his pleading eyes as though he’d been heard. But as the disease progressed, it seemed as though my words had as much meaning to him as his dis and dahs had to me. As the disease worsened, my words seemed to grate at him the same way his ramblings irritated me. Before long, silence became the only currency of value in our exchanges. 


On this day, like every other day, Dad said nothing to me. His eyes were closed. The only sound in the room came from his fingers tapping against the headboard of his bed. Gentle tapping. The same rhythm, day in and day out. It was so familiar to me that it seemed to melt into the atmosphere. Its steady beat belonged to that room just as much as the air in there did.


That room had once served as our dining room, filled most weekends with amiable banter between friends and neighbors. When the virus started spreading, the occasions for dinner parties soon dwindled. 


We had heard news reports and secondhand stories of distant acquittances contracting the virus. It sounded horrendous… The slow loss of faculties, culminating it the complete loss of language. The reality of the disease’s intensity didn’t strike home until Dad was diagnosed. When he called to tell me the news, I was shaken by the voice at the other end of the line. 


The man who had raised me was gregarious and outspoke. He could hold a room with one of his outlandish stories about his time overseas in the Navy. Talking with him could send a bolt of electricity through even the most mundane man. The voice on the other end of that call wasn’t my dad’s. It was timid and exhausted. Dad grasped for words like a man in the night searching for his keys. 


Though he remained independent for a few months after the diagnosis, once his vocabulary regressed to an elementary level we converted the dining room to a bedroom so he could stay with us. 


Over the course of the next nine months, Dad deteriorated more quickly than the doctors had expected. He went from verbal to nonsensical to near mute before I even had time to register each passing stage. This morning, while on a house call, the doctor said it would be wise to call the family home to say our goodbyes. Dad wouldn’t be with us much longer. 


I had just finished making a flurry of calls to my sisters and to Dad’s Navy buddies, but I knew the most difficult conversation lay before me. I dreaded it. I walked over to the small sofa at the foot of Dad’s bed and prepared myself to call my baby boy, Alex… who was not such a baby anymore. He was a 19-year-old cadet at the Naval Academy, who every day grew to look and act more and more like Dad. 


The two had always been inseparable. Alex’s first words were Pop-Pop. Growing up, Alex would follow Dad around like a shadow. While other kids were learning “Ba-Ba Black Sheep,” Dad taught Alex every verse of “Anchor’s Away.” When Alex’s friends were learning to drive, Dad had already taken Alex up in a glider to teach him how to fly. It was no surprise to anyone when Alex chose to attend the Naval Academy with the intentions of following in my father’s footsteps to become a Naval Flight Officer. 


Now, it was my duty to tell my son he would soon have to walk through this world without his hero. How do you separate the shadow from the man? I ached to ask Dad what to say, but my words would have as much weight to him as air. So, I sat there in resentful silence with nothing but Dad’s tapping to keep me company.


When I heard Alex’s breath on the other end of the line, I stumbled over my words. I stammered the same way Dad did when he first called to tell me his diagnosis. All I got out was:


“Alex? I… oh… I don’t know how to… Alex? Come home, honey. It’s time to say goodbye to Pop-Pop.”


My baby’s voice started to quiver on the other end of the line. I hadn’t heard him cry since junior high. My heart melted.


“Okay Mom. I’ll put in for bereavement leave right now. I’ll come as soon as I can… Mom, please tell Pop-Pop I love him, okay?”


When I hung up the phone, I sobbed so uncontrollably I felt as helpless as a child. I wanted my dad back. I wanted him to protect me from the world, from this nightmare, from this disease… but he couldn’t even protect himself from it. As I wallowed in my own self-pity, I felt a hand on my shoulder. Though he was as weak as I’d ever seen him, Dad had sat up in bed and was holding me gently.


“Alex is coming home to see you. He loves you… we both do… so much.”


Dad’s eyes remained dim, no sign of recognition. I grabbed my phone and scrolled to a picture of Alex and then a picture of our house, and I said it again.


“Alex is coming home to see you. We love you.” 


Dad’s eyes showed life. His fingers tapped more energetically at the news. We sat in silence waiting for Alex, both in tears. As we waited, our fingers strummed together the same beat which had filled the room for months after our voices no longer did.


Dad’s fingers stopped the same time his breath did. 


Alex didn’t make it back home before Dad left us. He got in well past midnight. He slept in Dad’s room on the sofa by Dad’s bed. I slept upright in the armchair beside them both. The next morning, I found myself softly singing Dad’s words from the early days of the virus. It was without meaning, but familiar and comforting nonetheless. 


“Di-di | di-dah-di-di dah-dah-dah di-di-di-dah di | dah-di-dah-dah dah-dah-dah di-di-dah.”


Suddenly, a sound so gentle and meager stopped me as forcefully as a car crash. Tapping. Gentle, familiar tapping. I looked over at Alex. As though in mid-dream, he was tapping the foot of Dad’s bed with his fingers.


“Alex, Alex sweetie. Wake up! Get up! What are you doing? How do you know that rhythm?”


“I’m not asleep, Mom. I was just responding to you.”


“I didn’t say anything, baby!”


“You were singing. You were singing in Morse code, Mom. I had to learn it at the Academy. I was just responding.”


Then he tapped the foot of the bed.


“I.”


More taps.


“Love”


A familiar finale of taps.


“You.”

December 22, 2022 20:38

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