Saturday, September 15, 2012

The talker and the silent type

"Well, beat the drum and hold the phone, the sun came out today."

My mom was a talker. My dad was the silent type.

I said my mom was a talker, as if she isn't here any more, which in a way is true. Dementia is a little bit like death. The person you knew is gone. Mom doesn't have much to say any more. She still knows who I am but that's about it. Our conversations are about 45 seconds long, and replayed on an endless loop. I'm fine, she's fine, there's nothing much to say. Her days are all the same now. She sleeps a lot. She eats her 3 meals. She sits. She naps.

But back to the talking. Mom abhorred silence like nature abhors a vacuum. She talked about her day, people she knew, current events, cultural events. She told stories from the past, and it didn't matter that you'd heard the story a hundred times before.

My dad was quiet by nature and ill at ease in social situations. So, he found a coping technique. He told jokes. He told them well, articulated them clearly, paused properly before the punch line. Everyone loved his jokes. Everyone but me. My standard reaction to one of his jokes was to say, did you make that up, knowing full well that he didn't. I don't know where he got them but he always told them and it didn't matter that you'd heard the joke a hundred times before.

At home though, he mostly held his peace and listened. Half listened. My mom would be going on and on about some event or about people she knew, who did what to whom, and I could tell my dad had tuned out. I asked him about it once, and I'll never forget his answer. He said, is it more important that she talk or that I listen?

My dad was a smart man, and I miss him, although in some ways I still have him. I can hear the sound of his voice in my head, anticipate what he'd say in some situation or another. I feel like I could pick up the phone and call him, never mind that he hated the phone and would never answer it. He and my mom had a signal. If she needed to reach him, she'd let the phone ring twice, hang up and call back. Then he'd answer.

When my brother and I were searching my parents' apartment for the title to his car, I kept catching myself starting to say, let's just call Dad and ask him where it is.

For a quiet man, with solitary pursuits, like reading and working on his stamp collection, my dad was a strong presence in his life and in some ways stronger since his death. I actually find myself listening to his advice now and following it.

Tonight I asked myself, for the umpty-umph time, is it more important that he talk or that I listen.

My husband is a talker. He abhors silence like nature abhors a vacuum. He'd probably be surprised to hear that, I'm sure he thinks of himself as the pensive introvert, just as I think of myself as an average conversationalist and I'm surprised to hear that people think of me as very quiet. But when it comes to the two of us, even my husband would agree that he talks circles around me.

And what does he talk about? Well, of course we have the typical conversations, how did our days go, what the kids are up to, what we should have for dinner, where should we go on our next vacation. He shows me the latest coins he's purchased and I show him any cool new beads I've made. We talk about the cats and the house and the yard and the cars, the books we are reading and the movies we watch together.

That leaves a lot of room for the vacuum effect. So he fills it. He talks about sports. Baseball mostly, He gives me the latest statistics on the Yankees and daily updates on various individual players. He analyses the chances of which teams will be going to the playoffs. He was obsessed with Lance Berkman for the longest time, until Lance had the good grace to go on the disabled list and sit out the rest of the season.

Of course I hear all about Jeter and A-rod and Mariano, and his idol of idols, Mel Stotlemeyer, who at least had the decency to retire in 2005. And Ichiro. And Hunter Pence. And Roger Clemens, who hasn't played in the majors since 2007, but recently, at the age of 50, resurrected his career with a minor league team.

And if it sounds like I care, who am I and what did I do with Liz? I know all of these things because I am under continual assault with a barrage of information of no earthly interest to me. And it's hard sometimes. I once said, if I give you a million dollars will you promise never to tell me what Lance did at bat ever again. But mostly I listen.

The ironic thing is, I loved baseball as a kid. It was one of the strongest bonds between me and my dad. We couldn't talk to each other. My dad couldn't or wouldn't engage in any discussion about life and the things that make it challenging and real, But he took me to dozens of Mets games, explained all the trivia and ritual that make baseball an intrinsically fascinating sport, taught me his unorthodox method of keeping score, and shared peanuts and popcorn and crackerjacks with me.

It was a very healing thing, because once my dad and I went a whole year without speaking to each other. I was about 14 and very hormonal and I honestly don't have any recollection of what ticked off the year of silence. I'm pretty sure we said things like, please pass the salt, but I'm not even positive about that. My dad had a stubborn streak so I got mine honestly but we were two mules in a stalemate.

As an adult now, I think my dad should have put an end to it. As an adult in that situation, I would have hashed it out with my kid. We'd have come to some resolution or agreed to disagree, but it would have ended with my telling my kid I loved her and moving forward. I think how horrible it would have been if something had happened to one of us and we'd never made our peace.

But my dad couldn't do it. He wasn't able to articulate feelings or verbally work through an issue, at least with me. In the end I was the one who held out the proverbial olive branch. We never did talk about it though. We began awkwardly to make the small talk of life again. And then there was baseball. Thank heaven for that.

Sometime after the Mets won the series in '69 and I went off to college, my interest in baseball waned. It flickered again in the '80s when Mike Scott briefly made the Astros look like a real ball team. But while I never regained the passionate interest I had as a teenager, I never forgot most of the rules (although they changed some on me) and the trivia. Like the fact that in 1927 there were two unassisted triple plays on consecutive days after which none occurred for 40 seasons.

I guess you could call me a fair weather fan. If the Astros ever got competitive, I might even bother to learn the names of the players on the starting roster.

In the meantime, I'm just phoning it in. I take a deep breath and try to let my husband's unremitting play-by-play roll off me like water off a ducks back.

And I ask myself, is it more important that he talk or that I listen?

"Put me in coach, I'm ready to play today,
Look at me, I can be centerfield"
John Fogerty

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