Ryan McCafee hadn’t spoken to his father in over twenty years. He’d seen him. He’d even exchanged words with him. He hadn’t spoken to him. They’d interacted millions of times, even come close, but to “no cigar.” It wasn’t for lack of wanting. It just never happened. If they’d been insightful, or traffic control tower workers, their perpetual status would be “failure to commit.”
Ryan knew his father’s health was failing him. He remembered the first phone call. Mom had called. He’d spoken to her. They’d spoken often, in fact. Usually, she was speaking. Ryan wasn’t immune though, his mother was simply a gusher. The type to call eight or nine times for trivial things. Then, on the ninth or tenth, she’d suddenly burst with joy, sorrow, anger– whatever she’d been bottling. Ryan always listened, waiting patiently. This was, after all, the person that had taught him to walk, tie his shoes, dance with girls– the sort of thing every good mother does.
For a while, Ryan thought that the source of it: maybe their inability to say anything meaningful was from lack of some paternal role. But, no. The more Ryan thought, the more he’d recalled his father teaching him to swim, to ride a bicycle, to get dates and tie a tie for them. He did everything in his factual, punctual way, but he did them. His instructions were short. His tone staccato notes. Others might have thought him cold. Ryan knew it was just his way. He’d watched Dad explain things to Mom, or anyone else for that matter, the same way.
If he thought hard enough, Ryan could almost see where the shift began. When the proverbial chasm opened. It was around his seventeenth birthday. He’d been caught drinking and getting high. Nothing unusual for the time nor place. His hometown was what some might’ve called “one-horse.” Most just called it boring, Ryan included.At that age, his friends agreed. A few got daring, and grew grass or smuggled it in from other towns. Everyone got a piece, and ended up lying around giggling and fat from junk-food.
They’d been doing just that in a friend’s basement when the party was raided by the friend’s parents. They took Ryan and the others out, lined ‘em up by the phone, and made them each call their parents. Most importantly, they were made to say why. The first kid that didn’t had the phone torn away and the situation explained. The phone returned to his ear and his face went white. The kid whose parents had done it didn’t even need to punish him further. The death-marches of his friends to the phones and their parents’ cars was more than enough.
Ryan’s parents weren’t particularly disposed to discipline, but even he’d feared the eventual return home. Rather than treat him like a wild-west outlaw, they sat him down to “discuss things.” It was like the sex-talk, but longer, and somehow ended with him feeling more ashamed. His parents had been disappointed, but that was it.
Still, if Ryan thought hard enough, the “silence” had begun there. Not totally. There was no hard-edge. No “boundary.” These lines were the real kind. Not the imagined ones on maps. The truth was, it started there, but the separation was a process. It left Ryan feeling as if he couldn’t honestly say he’d miss his Father once he was gone. He knew he would, but admitting it didn’t feel honest. There simply wasn’t anything more between the two than if they’d been strangers at a party.
Now, at thirty-eight, he lie in bed staring at the ceiling. He’d gotten another call: Dad was going. They weren’t sure how long exactly, but it wasn’t long. He was still active, still moving, but that was the “silent killer’s” MO– your death certificate was signed before you knew it was on the table. Then, a few days, weeks, or months later, tired from the fight, you were gone.
Ryan left the one-horse town over a decade before the call for the city. There was a liveliness to city-life he liked, no matter how exhausting it got. Mostly, the world was there. The jobs were there. Mom and Dad weren’t, but that was it. He’d gotten Mom’s ninth call around midnight: she was sorry to wake him, but on-cue, gushed. Ryan said he didn’t mind, wasn’t sleeping, and listened to the sopping utterances.
He’d done his best to comfort her. He’d never been good at it. She wasn’t much in need of it anyhow. She’d always been the strongest of them– the warm, goose-down during the family’s sorrowful colds. Ryan did his best out of obligation, knowing it would never be enough. She was grateful anyway. They ended the call with the promise that Ryan would sleep then drive to One-Horse in the morning.
He hadn’t lied. He meant to sleep, but just sort of laid there. He must’ve fallen asleep at some point though as he found himself sitting in a strange, white room. It looked like an airport terminal, a train station, or a harbor, but didn’t at the same time. As if it were nowhere, everywhere, and those places and more all at once.
Ryan had just enough time to get his bearings in the uniform ubiquity before the odd shape of a person materialized beside him. It shimmered, fluttered into form. Even before it was whole, Ryan knew it was Dad. Once finally corporeal, Ryan gave his father a deranged look. He knew he was dreaming. Yet he was too conscious of it. It was like the room: the more he tried to convince himself of one thing, the more it felt like the other.
This can’t be real, Ryan thought.
“It is,” Dad said.
“This,” he said with his factual way. His arms widened to encompass the place. “It’s real. As real as anything.”
Ryan craned his neck to eye every nook and cranny of the ethereal landscape. Dad’s tone put him at ease. Like everything else, this was his way of saying, “It is what it is. Whatever it is.”
“Okay,” Ryan replied aloud. “So, why’re we here?”
Dad eyed him, “I’m here to shuffle off. I ‘magine you’re here to see me off.”
The uncertainty gave Ryan pause. That pause lasted an eternity and a breath. However long it really was, he couldn’t say. All those emotions he thought they’d missed appeared full-force. Atop them were all the others he’d expected to have but hadn’t. He sucked in a pained breath that shattered the misty silence of that ethereal place.
Dad’s hand laid atop his shoulder. Suddenly, everything was muted. He found himself back where he’d been: Calm. Punctual. Like Dad. He exhaled a severely longer, deeper breath.
“One of us should speak.”
Ryan cleared his throat, “We haven’t spoken in twenty years, Dad.”
Dad nodded. “You’re right. But this’ll be our last chance. Might as well. Right?”
“Why was it that way?” Ryan asked for two reasons: One, it was a sensible reply. Two, if there was anything he felt could be worth speaking about, it was their lack of speaking.
Dad shook his head, “I taught you everything you needed to know, son. What I missed, your mother filled in. When I felt you were ready, I stepped back. Not because I didn’t love you, but because I did. I let you take command of your own life. I had confidence. I was ready to step in, if need be. But you’ve been immutable. When I thought you might falter, I waited. It took everything in me. But I waited. You stood tall. Every time.”
Ryan felt he knew the answer, but asked anyway, “Why? I spent years struggling. You couldn’t even say “congratulations” when I pulled through.”
For the first time in his life, Ryan’s father visibly winced. “It was a difficult decision. You might have resented me for it. We both know you don’t. If you did, I’d have been forced to step in. I knew, if you looked hard enough within you, you’d know I was proud. Now, you know I did it to help you be strong.”
Ryan felt like a broken record. “But why?”
Dad shook his head. He rose beside his son. Ryan found himself following suit. Suddenly the pair were walking along a long hallway. They stopped at a boarding hallway. Or atop the start of a train platform. Or the edge of a pier. Maybe it was all of them and more– or none, and less.
Dad hugged him, then stepped back. “A man’s life is his own. I love you, Ryan. I’d tell you to take care of your mother, but we know she won’t need it. She’s strong. You are too.”
With that, Dad began the walk to the end of the path ahead. As he’d materialized, so too did he flicker and flutter again to disintegrate.
A sudden growling from Ryan’s beside table tore him from the place. His phone was ringing again. He eyed the clock; he’d slept only a few hours. Darkness still pervaded outside. All the same, he knew. Even before he saw Mom’s photo. Or heard her sopping words. Or felt reality’s sting. He knew, but he was at peace. Dad was too.
Whether a dream or real, he understood. In the end, he decided, that was all that mattered. Like father, like son. Short. Staccato. Truth. Facts. Love.