My father suffered a debilitating stroke eight years ago. It robbed him of intelligible speech; the ease of communication; his ability to drive, daily bike rides, and virtually every previous pleasure known to him. It left him dependent on others—a cruel sentence for an erudite intellectual, a fiercely competent and independent man.
Even before his stroke, my father and I sat in the space of silence. I’ve longed for meaningful, emotion-filled conversations and sometimes, simply a way in— topics of interest—cars, bicycles, nature shows. I’ve learned over the years; however, that silence is a place of comfort for him, perhaps now even more so. Communicating is frustrating, 24 hours of impossible charades and no cheats.
Weeks ago I sat in the back yard with him, basking in the southern California warmth of the morning sun—the temperature so perfect that I couldn’t discern the difference between my own body and the ambient temperature. I glanced his way to see him open-eyed and unconcerned with my gaze. With a close friend or a partner, silence is comfortable because you feel the balance between flowing conversation and the peace of silence. You know you’re with the right people when you can sit together without an exchange. The energy is calm. The silence is as meaningful as the words between you. Yet, after forty plus years, I hadn’t grown comfortable in the silence with my father.
With a verbal exchange no longer an option, I wondered if I would ever have the opportunity to break through. Little did I know that a childhood mountain-town destination would put those worries to rest.
Idyllwild, an artistic mountain community, has always held a special place in my father’s heart. He attended Camp Roosevelt as a child and later served as camp doctor at “The Med Shed” where my little sister and I received baths in the kitchen sink. Over the years, our family rented various cabins during hike-filled summers and snowy inner tubing winters. Years passed; adolescence took its hold; my interest waned. My father; however, continued his annual trek to the mountains to ride his bike and enjoy nature and solitude.
Decades later, we reinstated annual trips to the mountains. For a handful of seasons, my younger sister and her family accompanied my father. I remained absent due to geographical factors. And then, my sister unexpectedly passed away. The trips to Idyllwild came to a halt.
I didn’t think I could take my dad to Idyllwild. Again, the concerns over awkward attempts to communicate filled me with anxiety and gave me pause.
A month ago, I let the worry go. I thought about my aging father. I sat with him as he ate his daily bowl of Raisin Bran and asked him if he wanted to go to Idyllwild. A “Disneyland” nod of joy said yes. I had one objective—to bring dad back to his happy place and allow him to experience the joy of earlier, healthier carefree days. I couldn’t put him on his bike, but I could coast along the mountain roads and share space with him in a way that I hadn’t for years.
We set out. I sat in the driver’s seat, my dad alongside me. Sinatra and Peggy Lee crooned on the radio around the each twist and turn. I relied on his directional hand gestures for lefts and rights. We retraced old bike routes, lakes and childhood haunts. Every so often, I would glance at my dad who was gently tapping his foot to the lyrical tunes. He was at camp again.
We shared sloppy conversation and silent dinners. We watched “Father Brown” and “Antiques Roadshow”. We smirked at one another. Those treasured days in the mountains opened up a new channel of communication between us. I grew more comfortable in the space between gestures, nods, and occasional speech. My stubbornly independent father softened and accepted my assistance. I found the much sought after balance between conversation and silence. My dad always had it. Idyllwild delivered its magic and I am forever grateful.