Ode: Eavesdropping on my father, I didn't like what I heard

May 17, 2017

Credit Ally Karsyn

I’m putting my socks and stirrups on when the phone rings. My dad and I had just come inside from the backyard. We’d been throwing baseball to warm up for my game later that day. This is our ritual. I’m a freshman in high school. 

The phone rings several times before I can reach it.

“Hi, is your dad there?” a woman asks.

I tell her to hold on. At the end of the hallway, my parents’ door is closed. I knock.

 

“Dad, telephone,” I holler through the door.

He yells at me to find out who it is, so I turn around and walk back down the hallway to my room where I pick up the receiver resting on my bed.  

I know I said to her, “May I ask who’s calling?” because I was trained well. 

She responds with a name that’s been lost with time. 

 “Okay,” I say, and tell her to hold on. 

““Just tell him to call me back,” she interrupts me, although it now sounds like she’s crying.

“Alright then,” I say.  

“Let me get a pen and piece of paper so I can get your number down.”

“He’s got my number.”  

Now, I’m 15 years old at this moment in my life—old enough to know that this pit in my stomach means something’s not right.

She sniffs her nose. “Just tell him to make sure he calls me as soon as possible. It’s an emergenc—”

“Hello.” My dad picks up the phone in his room.

“Ronnie, Ronnie, thank God!” I hear her pant. 

Looking back, the dramatic me wants to say that maybe this was the last moment of my childhood. It wasn’t the words; it was the tone—it perked my ears, raised the hair on my neck, and made my stomach sink even deeper. It made me hollow.

“I thought we talked about—wait a minute, crap, hold on.”  

I hear my parents’ door creak open down the hall.  

“Ryan,” my dad yells, “did ya hang it up?”  

I’m paralyzed.  I don’t know what to do. Years spent listening to preaching about good manners told me to hang up the phone, but something else told me to listen, to hang on. The latter won, so I lie.

“I hung it up already!” I yell down the hall.

I scan the room. My wooden door is cracked halfway. Posters of Larry Bird and Eric Davis and Ken Griffey, Jr. line the walls. An American flag hangs over my bed. Next to it, a picture of a Marine in his dress blues. At the bottom, it reads, “THE FEW, THE PROUD, THE MARINES,” in bold white caps. I’m up out of the chair and perched on the edge of my bed ready to hear what I shouldn’t.

After moments or minutes—I’m not altogether sure—I carefully hang up the red phone and bury my face in my C-3PO pillowcase. I hear the hardwood floor creaking underneath the carpet as my dad makes his way down the hallway to my room. 

He knocks and opens my door in one gesture. At first, he only sort of half peeks in, but then he slides sideways through the door to the foot of my bed.  

“Hey bud,” he says, “I don’t think I’m gonna be able to make it to your game later. That was a woman who works for me on the phone. It looks like I’m gonna have to go into the office in an hour or two.”

I want to cry when I look at him but I don’t. He says it with such a straight face.    

“You understand, don’t ya bubba?”

“Yeah,” I say. “I understand.”

He closes the door. I close my eyes. I hear the wood beneath the carpet creak as my dad walks away.

A confession: I don’t really remember if this is exactly what happened. Did I listen to the entirety of their conversation together or just a moment? Did I hear something then that’s sparked this catastrophic glitch in my hardware now? Is it why I keep needing knee surgeries? Is my body paying for my silence? A part of me thinks I’m making all this up. When I hung up the phone, I didn’t entirely comprehend the contents of that conversation or the weight that it carried. 

Maybe it was just the way she said, “Ronnie.” 

I remember thinking that maybe I should confront him or tell someone. But I couldn’t be sure then and I can’t be sure now, so what am I supposed to do? Has the statute of limitations expired? What do we do with the questions we cannot answer?

I bring mine here to you.

Seven or eight years later my parents divorced. I learned about it as I was driving with my girlfriend to an Oysterhead concert in Lowell, Massachusetts. A week earlier I was talking with my older brother on the phone and he laughed and asked, “Why the hell are they still together anyway?” It was a good question. There was love, I’m sure, but by this point it’s face was pretty unrecognizable.

A couple of weeks after it finalized, I received a manila envelope in the mail from my dad. He sent me a copy of the divorce papers because he thought the “three of us boys should have copies.” Included in the envelope, directly behind the Decree of Dissolution of Marriage certificate was a photocopied handout of credit protection tips.

Welcome to adulthood.

I see now how a part of me wants to remember the worst of my dad. As a defense mechanism, it’s a way I can cope with and understand my own problems and mistakes. And in the absence of hard evidence or definitive proof, my impression fills the gap. It’s complicated, though. I love him. And yet, could he teach me to be honest and true when he wasn’t? Could he teach me how to love a woman or show me how to do my part to make love stay when I saw my parents fight without ever making up? 

And now the harder questions: should he even have to? When do our lives become our responsibility?

I’m 39 years old, but sometimes I’m still just a scared little boy burying his head in a C-3PO pillowcase. 

I can’t get it all figured out. I’m still stuck in the middle—pacing hallways back and forth, delivering messages I should’ve never been privy to in the first place. 

And yet still, I’ve learned this much, I do know this: dwelling on flaws isn’t fair to either of us—to him because he’s more than just the bad he’s done in his life; and to me because I’m giving away precious inner peace and power to forces beyond my control. 

So can I let it go? 

Maybe this is what it means to be an adult—taking responsibility, learning to respond, not react, owning choices. Maybe I’m just tired of being so mad.

Really I just want to understand my dad so I can better understand me. 

Cue the Hallmark music.

But, what now? Where do we go from here? Do we have to confront the past before moving ahead into our futures? Can we keep some things to ourselves? Can we live with a few unanswered questions? Can we survive with a little less light?

I don’t know. Maybe the best any of us can hope for is just a little more time, even if we know there will never be enough of it; or maybe we can seek a little bit more quiet in a world filled with noise. Probably I can live without seeing the path laid out before me.

My dad taught me how to swing a bat, to shoot a basketball, and to drive a car. He taught me how to shave and shine shoes and showed me what it meant to love the road. 

He gave me this life and this once chance to figure it out. 

So I bow and thank my teacher.

I lean and listen in.

I’m not ready to hang it up.

---

Ryan Allen is an associate professor of English and writing at Briar Cliff University, where he also serves as a nonfiction and Siouxland editor for the Briar Cliff Review. His work has appeared in a variety of magazines, alt-weekly’s, and academic journals. He is the co-owner of Lumin Therapy, which promotes the therapeutic integration of the mind, body, and spirit through the practice of yoga and mindfulness with special populations.

Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. It is produced by Siouxland Public Media.

The next event is 7 p.m. Friday, June 2 at ISU Design West in downtown Sioux City. The theme is “Stigmas: An ode to the power of opening up.” Tickets are available at kwit.org. For more information, visit facebook.com/odestorytelling.

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