Loco Parentis: Beyond Words

The heart really does have a language all its own

The Phillies toy with Dad in late August, looking like they’ll make a run for it, then collapsing, then rising from the dead. He watches with the closed-­captioning on; he’s stopped wearing his hearing aids. There isn’t much he wants to hear: not the nurses asking, “What’s your name? Your date of birth?” each time they switch shifts. Not the physical therapist nagging him to do his leg-lifts. Not the doctor, who has no cure for what is ailing him: age.

My house is quiet, too, in Marcy’s absence. Doug and my son Jake speak when necessary; Marcy spoke for the joy of it. Doug used to say, with a nod to Aristotle, that she abhorred a vacuum. Sometimes the silence seems vast. I find myself lingering in the kitchen after the dinner dishes are done, listening, through windows that are still wide open in an autumn of uncanny warmth, to the spaces that punctuate Mario’s garden cell-phone conversations, knowing she is filling them.

This isn’t just a language barrier between him and me. Words are how I make my living. They’re also how I stake my claim with people: I tell funny stories, crack bad puns, spout quick comebacks. Bereft of this, how can I make any sort of impression on Mario? “He’s scared to death of you,” Marcy confides. I want to win him over, but I’m handicapped. And, Joey ­Vento-like, a little resentful: I’m too old to learn Spanish. He came here; let him learn English. My grandparents did.

One weekend, he’s driving out to see Marcy when his car breaks down. He flags a passing motorist, calls Marcy on his cell phone, has her interpret for him: Can the man drive him to the college? No, but he can take him halfway. One of Marcy’s friends has a car; a bunch of them pile in and go to fetch him from the halfway point. The next day, on the phone, my daughter negotiates with taxi drivers and the auto-parts store for him. My blood pressure rises as she calls and recounts this story — what a mess! Such inconvenience! What a load of trouble! But she’s laughing, indulgent, unfazed. And I remember, hazily, that when you’re young, everything is an adventure, especially when you’re with someone you love.