Words Once Spoken
by Carole Bellacera
The photograph stared at Alan from his desk--the one
of him and his father in the community swimming pool at the park. It had been
taken on his 12th birthday--the last one Alan celebrated before things changed between
them. Later that summer, Alan accidently kicked a soccer ball through a plate
glass window of their house and in the fall, his mother died at an intersection
during an evening thunderstorm.
Alan thought of those things as if they were connected, and in a strange way, they
were. If Alan hadn't kicked the ball through the window, his mother wouldn't
have had to take the part-time job and if she hadn't been working, she wouldn't
have been out on the rain-slicked streets that night. Alan knew that was true.
Dad had said so. His words had seared into Alan's brain, burning through the
tissue, branding into his memory to remain there forever.
It had happened the night of the funeral. Dad had been disconsolate at burying
his wife of 17 years. Alan was engulfed in pain, too. It had never occurred
to him that his mother might die while he still lived at home. That was something
for the far-off future...when his own kids would be teenagers. Now that she
was gone, Alan felt guilty for having grown away from her in the last year, even
though he knew it was something all boys did as they hovered on the threshold of
adolescence. Alan always thought she'd be around if he needed her. But
in a split-second, everything changed. She would never be there to see the
girl he would marry, the grandchildren he would bring her. His family of three
had become a family of two.
The night of her funeral, Alan stood in the doorway of the living room, peering
through the darkness at the forlorn shape of his father as he sat in his easy chair
smoking one cigarette after another. The only light in the room came from
the fireplace near his chair.
It scared Alan to see his father smoking again. He'd quit two years earlier,
not because of Mom's nagging, but because his doctor had discovered he had a potential
heart problem. Alan thought of that as he stared at him. What if his
father died, too? He'd be all alone.
Alan walked into the room and stopped next to the end table. "Mom wouldn't
like it if she knew you were smoking, Dad." He grabbed the half-empty
pack of cigarettes.
His father's eyes were watery. "Give me the cigarettes and get out of
here, Alan. I want to be alone."
"No way," Alan said, his heart skittering inside his ribcage as
he defied his father. It wasn't something Alan did often. But he told
himself he was helping him. Mom was gone. They had only each other now.
Alan couldn't allow him to damage his heart because of his grief.
His father's mouth tightened with anger. "Give me the cigarettes."
"No." Abruptly, Alan threw the pack into the fireplace. Then
he looked back at his father. "Mom would've wanted me to do that."
His father was silent for so long, Alan actually thought he wasn't going to reprimand
him. But then his face crumbled and he spoke the words that would live on
in Alan's brain for the rest of his life.
"You little punk, don't you realize it's your fault she's dead?
If you hadn't broken the window, she wouldn't have started working to help us catch
up on the bills. If it weren't for you and your carelessness, your mother
would still be in this house with us tonight. Now, get out of here.
I can't stand looking at your face."
Alan ran out of the room. The tears didn't come until he was safely behind
the closed door of his bedroom.
Alan held the framed photo between his hands, staring at the smiling face of his
father. They'd been close back then--both of them into sports--typical father-son
things. But something had gone out of their relationship on the night of Mom's
funeral, never to be recaptured.
With Mom around, they'd been a close-knit family. There had always been some
activity planned--pot-luck dinners, family gatherings and holidays. But with
her gone, Dad lost interest in all the things they used to do.
Eventually, the two of them began to adjust to a life without her, and life went
on. His father had tried to make up for his cruel words of that night by saying
things like, "We have to stick together now, son. It's not going
to be easy with Mom gone, but we'll just have to struggle through."
He'd followed that statement by joining a Stop Smoking Clinic and gradually gave
up the cigarettes. But he never actually brought up his accusation.
And that hurt Alan worse than ever. Because if his father couldn't apologize
for saying it, then he really must've believed it--that Alan was responsible for
his mother's death.
It was Alan's son's 2nd birthday. They were giving him a little party out
in the back-yard, complete with a barbecue and a miniature chocolate cake for Dylan's
tiny hands. His wife, Amy, decorated a big cake for the adults. Of course,
Dad had come over for the party. He was crazy about Dylan and always enjoyed
playing the pampering grandpa.
The summery smell of charcoal lingered in the afternoon warmth as Alan and his father
sat in the shade of the covered patio and watched Dylan splash gleefully in the
shallow kiddie pool on the lawn. Dad sipped his tall glass of iced-tea, his
eyes twinkling. Dylan grabbed a small plastic ball and flashed Alan a big
Dylan heaved the wet ball at Alan. It plopped onto his stomach, leaving a
splotch of wetness on the cotton fabric of his T-shirt. Alan laughed and jumped
up from the lawn chair.
"Okay, boy. Now, you're gonna get it."
Alan stalked toward his son with a mock frown of anger on his face. Dylan
gave a giggling screech so loud that Sam, their Golden Retriever, cringed in his
spot under the shade tree nearby. As Alan approached the pool, Dylan scooted
over to the side, laughing, and playfully splashed Alan with water. Soaked
already, Alan stepped into the pool and scooped the squirming, giggling baby into
his arms and nuzzled his sweet neck just below his blond curls. The toddler
squealed like a banshee and wriggled to get free. Alan released him, his ears
After plopping Dylan back into the pool, Alan returned to his chair and grabbed
his glass of iced-tea.
His father cleared his throat and said, "You're a good father, Alan."
His voice sounded odd. Alan turned to look at him. He was staring at
Dylan but his eyelids were blinking fast...like something was bothering his eyes.
His Adam's apple bobbed once, twice. Astonished, Alan realized his father
was fighting to hold back tears.
"Just remember one thing," he said. "Think before you
speak. There are times when anger or...pain...takes over and the words are
out before you know it. And once spoken...words can do a lot of damage."
Alan's throat tightened with emotion. He struggled to think of something
to say, but his mind was blank.
"Even a good father can make mistakes," his father said. "But
the worst mistake of all is not being able to apologize for them." Then
before Alan could say a word, he said, very softly, "I'm sorry, Alan.
I didn't mean what I said that night. It was my grief talking."
Finally, Alan found his voice. "I know, Dad. I knew that all along."
And it was true, he realized. Deep inside, he'd known that. But hearing
his father say it made all the difference.
The back door slid open. "Who's ready for birthday cake?"
Amy called out.
Dad was already up and striding over to the pool. "I am! Just let
me catch this slippery little seal and we'll be all set."
Amy and Alan laughed as the soaked fisherman hauled in his squirming two-year-old
catch and carried him to the picnic table. As Amy lit the two candles on the
cake, Alan's eyes fell on his father holding his grandson upon his lap. They
began to sing "Happy Birthday."
After all three of them blew out the candles, Dylan's chubby hands clamped down
into the chocolate gooiness, a look of sheer delight on his baby-face. Over
the baby's blond head, his father smiled at Alan.
Alan smiled back.