I handed Dad his mug of tea, and settled into a chair across the kitchen table from him. “How are you feeling?”
“Not bad,” he rasped, with a shrug. The hood of his ratty gray sweatshirt shifted and settled, revealing the very tip of a zipper-line of stitches running up the left side of his neck. I looked away and hung my head over the mouth of my mug, letting the lemon-ginger steam waft up my nose.
We chatted in small bursts. My work, his recovery, the weather, the house. I could feel myself bubbling, waiting for the tap to turn on our usual flow of conversation. But he held himself back, since every word strained his aching throat.
I drained my mug of tea. “How about lunch?”
“Great idea!” He grinned. “Let’s ask your mom if she wants to join us.” He lifted his chin and croaked, “Bar-baraaaa?”
This was a familiar ritual, a groove gently worn from daily use throughout their thirty-year marriage. On any ordinary day, my father’s bellow would set the walls and windows ringing, and produce the desired effect: a sharp, slightly defensive “What?!” from my mother.
But this time, no response. He tried again, hoarser and barely louder. “Bar-baraaaa?”
Nothing. I could hear the chatter of computer keys from the office on the other side of the hall. Dad’s brows furrowed and his shoulders drew up. I could hear the sharp intonation of annoyance and confusion, even in the airy whisper that was all he could manage. “Bar-baraaaaaa?”
I burst out laughing. “Dad, she can’t hear you,” I said.
“Oh.” He sat back, and his brows relaxed. A slow, sheepish smile spread across his face. “I guess not.”
My father is a talker. He’s charming and persuasive, a man of many opinions and unafraid to express them at length and with an academic’s precision. He speaks in generalizations, in sound bites, in absolutes. Physically, too, he cuts an imposing figure: six feet four inches at his tallest, though he’s starting to shrink with age.
I grew up watching my dad take the reins of any conversation. He was already loud, and simply by ticking up the volume a notch or two he could bring all eyes around to him. It was a trick that worked in all kinds of circumstances, from hundred-person community meetings to intimate family dinners.
Conversations with my father always stuck to a familiar rhythm. It didn’t much matter the topic; everything always reminded him of an anecdote, a quote, a movie plot, a news story. That led to a long explanation, which led to a moral, always a moral. It’s the cadence of a frustrated professor, and we referred to particularly heated conversations as his “lectures.”
My mother and siblings and I would openly roll our eyes every time he started his script. “You know, when I was about your age…” “Did I ever tell you about the time…” “That reminds me — have you ever heard of…”
He didn’t mind — he could laugh at himself too — but he also wasn’t deterred. When he had a train of thought going, it was best to jump on or jump out of the way.
In our household, talking back was encouraged. “As long as it’s clever or deserved,” Dad would say. I could never resist the bait, and he and I would ping back and forth for hours, half-agreeing, half-arguing. But he had the upper hand in all of our conversations — he could simply raise his voice until I grew tired of shouting.
In 2011, Dad developed a cough — a tickling little thing that wouldn’t go away. I remember it starting in the winter and lasting through the spring, but he insists it wasn’t that long.
In May, he was scheduled for minor surgery. The surgeon noticed the cough and ordered a chest X-ray to check for infection. There was nothing out of the ordinary in his lungs, but the radiologist noticed an indistinct mass in his throat, nudging his windpipe out of place. Well, you’re going to be under anyway, the surgeon said. Might as well open up your throat and take a look.
“It’s thyroid cancer,” my mother said on the phone the afternoon of the surgery. “They closed him right back up when they saw it. He’ll need to go back in on Friday to get it all out.”
The next day, my father’s cell phone number flashed on my phone while I was at work. I picked up, fumbling the phone in my urgency.
“Hi, sweetie!” My father’s voice — or something like it — warbled through the speaker. The sound of him on the phone was a cold shock. His voice had been reduced to a Mickey Mouse falsetto. “Looks like the intubation irritated my throat a little,” he said. “Should go away in a few days.”
But in a few days, he was back on the operating table. It was the beginning of a two-year cycle of surgeries and radiation. Twice he had his chest cut open and advancing tumors carefully scooped out. It was the kind of procedure usually reserved for open-heart surgery patients; the hospital gave him heart-shaped pillows to hug when he stood up and sat down, so that he wouldn’t lean on his arms and pull out the stitches.
After each surgery, when we went to see him in the ICU, his voice would be reduced to that same post-surgery warble. After a week or two it would settle into an airy, crackling whisper, and stay there until the next surgery roughed up his throat again. At first, it was a slight shock whenever I spoke to him, hearing the richness and the melody drained from his voice. A paralyzed vocal cord, the doctors said. It might resolve itself. Maybe.
The surgeries came to an end. The radiation treatments ran their course. Dad was left with a few physical souvenirs: a long scar puckering up the side of his neck, a much grayer head of hair, and an apparently permanent case of laryngitis.
As he slowly climbed back to health, the loss of his voice seemed like a minor, if unfortunate, change. Compared to the full-body rush of relief when we learned he was out of the woods, this was a small price to pay.
That day in the kitchen, though, I realized there was something deeper going on. My father knew his voice was shot; he knew his roar had been reduced to a crackle. But it hadn’t occurred to him that its power had gone too. He had used his voice to get his way for so long that, when he no longer could, he didn’t know what to do.
When Dad was sufficiently recovered to dive back into work, he quickly got frustrated. “People can’t hear me anymore,” he said. “I can’t contribute to the discussion like I used to.” I declined to point out that “contribute” was perhaps the wrong word.
When his voice disappeared overnight, he found himself in a strange new position. He was so used to always being heard, and now had to learn for the first time how to enter a conversation without talking over it. Conversations around him acquired a new rhythm; I watched him stumble and fret as his companions raced right past him.
Part of me ached every time I saw him light up with an idea, then wilt as the opportunity passed. And yet I felt a little twinge of satisfaction too. He was finally feeling what it’s like to be talked over, ignored, silenced — something I, with my quieter feminine voice, had long learned to accept as a conversational price of admission.
One afternoon, well after the surgery scars had healed, I stopped by my parents’ house. They’d attended a film screening the previous night of a documentary film that had proved divisive among the activists in the audience. My father — uncharacteristically — had found the filmmakers’ extreme ideological stance off-putting. He’d felt the tension in the room as the film went on. “But I think people were too uncomfortable to complain,” he said. “I didn’t hear anyone say anything about it.”
“I did,” my mother said.
“When?” I recognized the sharp, skeptical shift in his tone.
“Afterward. A few people came up to me and shared the same concerns you had.”
“No, they didn’t.”
“Yes, they did. You weren’t there.”
“No, they didn’t.”
I could see the merry-go-round beginning to turn. “Dad, she just said people were talking about it.”
“Not to me.”
“That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”
“All I’m saying is, nobody spoke up about it!”
The three of us went around in circles, my mother’s voice rising in frustration until she was nearly crying. Suddenly, Dad stopped talking. He looked from one of us to the other. “I just noticed something,” he said. “You’re totally calm, and your mother is getting really upset.”
“Of course she is,” I said. “You’re telling her to her face that something she experienced, didn’t happen. What the hell did you expect?”
It was an outburst that, a few years earlier, would have sent him into an aria of self-justification. Instead, he absorbed what I’d said and sat back in his chair. “You’re right,” he said. “I’m sorry.” Then he motioned to my mom to finish her side of the story.
The adjustment happened slowly, over the course of months: Without the ability to jump in and redirect, my father was forced to sit on his hands. He had to listen for the patterns of other people’s speech, to wait for breaks in the conversation, little moments of silence where he could actually make himself heard.
“It’s amazing,” he kept saying. “I’ve actually had to learn how to listen.” By keeping a keener ear on the conversation, he could catch the thoughts of softer-spoken friends and colleagues. People he’d just blown right past before.
“I wonder how many of these folks are women,” I mused at one point. He looked a bit taken aback. “You know, I hadn’t thought of that,” he said.
It’s almost seven years since my father’s throat was cut open. With treatment and time, his voice has grown stronger, though it may never fully return.
As his voice has settled, I’ve noticed old patterns creeping back in. The muscle memory is hard to resist. He shouts across the house again. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. He monologues, when he’s got the energy and a topic to seize on. He tries to bluster over my mother, to wave off my siblings and me.
But the rhythm is different. We can get words in edgewise now. The dance among us, encoded in muscle memory over the years, has begun incorporating new steps. When I contradict my father, he’s slower to respond; when he interrupts, I can hold him off. Sometimes — increasingly often, it seems — he nods and concedes.
“I have no complaints,” Dad says now. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
It’s a grand statement, from a man given to them. But I take his point. When his voice disappeared, it cracked open a way of interacting — with colleagues, friends, even his own family — that he’d never considered before. And it made some of his most earnest, deeply held beliefs a bit less theoretical and more real. He learned what it was like to be silenced.
I grieved for my father’s voice when it went. There’s a part of me that misses the rumble, the richness, the songs and the bellows. But I’m learning a new side of my father, just as he’s learning it himself. And when he lost his voice, it gave me more room to hear my own.