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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 baby-toothed grin.

"Daddy, play!"

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 done in.

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.

 


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