First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
Today’s First Person is part of a week-long series on fatherhood.
I am working at my desk when my father calls. I know I shouldn’t, but I always worry when he calls. He is 92, he lost an arm in the war, most of his life has been spent dealing with debilitating phantom pain, and now he is confined to a wheelchair.
“I am reading the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and I can’t figure out what the title means,” he says. “I don’t think anyone in the play is named Virginia Woolf, so I read a couple of her novels, can’t remember which ones, but I still can’t figure it out. What do you know about the play’s title?”
I am at a loss for words. It is a Tuesday morning and I am not really prepared to discuss Edward Albee’s intentions in titling his play. And, my dad is reading a play? And a difficult play at that? Who is this person?
“Perhaps you need to look into Virginia Woolf’s life, read her biography,” I offer. “I believe she committed suicide by drowning in the Thames River. Could that have something to do with the title?”
“Humph,” he says. I am not sure how to spell that sound, but it’s his standard retort when he is not satisfied.
“Maybe the title is a riff on that old nursery rhyme, Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” he suggests, in a thoughtful sort of tone I am not accustomed to hearing from him.
And “riff”? Where did that word come from? It has not been in his vocabulary before.
I mention that one of the pleasures of reading is the raising of questions, the searching for answers and sometimes not really finding just one answer or any answer at all. I tell him there are probably a million doctoral theses and critical writing on this very subject, and most likely none of them are correct. Maybe Albee didn’t know, perhaps it just came to him one night that it would be a good title, create mystery, attract readers, foster unanswerable questions for generations to come.
“Humph,” he makes that noise again. “It will be easier to look it up on Google.”
My dad lost his arm during the Second World War. As a child I was not that curious as to what had caused this loss. He could do everything all the other dads could do: He played a good game of golf and skied the most challenging slopes; he drove to work and home every day in some cool sports cars with standard transmissions; he swam in our pool with no inhibitions about the stump on his left shoulder; he danced gracefully with my mother to the music of Sinatra and Ella; and he mixed a mean martini, which he would tuck into his breast pocket when he danced. For most of my childhood, I thought dads with two arms looked kind of strange.
But there was one thing he could not do, and that was read a book. Holding a book open with one hand, and then turning a page, is almost impossible. Try it yourself. It can be especially difficult if you are confined to a wheelchair and are 92 years old.
He would tell me, sort of laughing, but sort of not, that he would completely lose it in frustration when he was trying to hold a book open. He would have an itch in his nose, and as he tried to scratch it, the book would fly out of his hand across the room, now closed with his place lost and far out of his reach. And it always happened, he would tell me, just when he was getting to “the good part.”
His transformation into a reader is due to the timely invention of the digital book, that wonderful device that allows him to manage and enjoy a book with only one hand. He particularly loves finding those “free” books, the old classics, the titles we all know we should have read but haven’t. Hence the Edward Albee and the Virginia Woolf. He tells me he has read most of Dickens, the wonderful novels of Nevil Shute (Shute was also a pilot in the Second World War), and even some James Joyce. James Joyce?
As we discuss, unsuccessfully, the meaning of the Edward Albee title, I think that maybe this is the opportunity to connect more closely with my father. He can’t have a lot of good innings left, and one day he will be gone.
Maybe one day I should turn up and read with him, quietly, peacefully, perhaps talking about what we are experiencing. It might be good companionship for him. Possibly Dad and I will solve the riddle of Albee’s title. I don’t think it will change our relationship. There will remain the long-standing formality, the slight distance. We still shake hands when we get together, and I am not sure I have ever hugged or kissed him like my brother. But my brother lives in California where everyone kisses and hugs everyone, constantly.
I also recognize that I, too, am aging. I worry about how I will productively spend my time as I become increasingly irrelevant in my career, in the world and to everyone else. But as I consider how my Dad is spending his final few years with his books, as he maintains this new curiosity, a search for answers, some truth, that sense of innocence he is finding in his reading, I can only believe there is hope for me, too.
A few days later, he calls me again. He tells me he watched the NBA All-Star game the previous night.
“There was this fellow Drake, a musician, performing during the game. He seemed like a nice young man, so I downloaded a couple of his songs. I quite enjoy them. I think he does what they call rap,” he said.
My Dad, listening to Drake. Knowing what rap is. Now that is another story.
David Mills lives in Hamilton.