Bob Smith and his first-born child, my cousin Alan, never had what you and I would call a normal conversation. But I suspect they “talked”more deeply in their own father-son ways.
Alan’s tongue and body were held captive from birth by Cerebral Palsy. He never spoke a word that I could understand.
Each morning Alan’s mother, my Aunt Gertrude, and his father, my Uncle Bob, lifted Alan from his bed, cared for his morning needs with tender respectfulness, carried him downstairs to the kitchen for breakfast. Sitting on his father’s lap, the spoon and fork came to his mouth from the hand of his father. Uncle Bob would then carry Alan to the parlor, the back room on the first floor of the house on Porter Street, where Alan would lie until lunch. Uncle Bob came home from the Oxford County Court House for lunch every day to be with Alan, Gertrude, and Alan’s young brother and sister, my cousins Dennis and Gwen. He would go to the den, lug Alan to the kitchen, feed him lunch…. Repeat, repeat, repeat at dinner. Carry Alan upstairs, prepare him for bed, and, as I imagine it, say a prayer that Alan could hear and understand but could not speak. He did that for 14 years.
My time with Uncle Bob and Alan dates back to my earliest years. Every summer I stayed at my uncle and aunt’s house for a week while the rest of my family stayed with my grandparents. My relationship with my cousin Dennis, only six months older than I, was special enough to separate me out for special time at the house on Porter Street.
Looking back on it now awakens me to the sense of heaviness that came over me watching Alan, seeing the joy in his eyes and the contorted smile that broke out on his face, and listening to the moans of greeting and sheer delight that came from his palsied vocal chords whenever he and I would see each other after the long year’s absences between my family’s vacations.
There was a bond deeper than words. The bond of eyes and smiles. The bond of kinship and shared joy, as well as sorrow. I always wondered what was going on in Alan’s head. Aunt Gertrude, an elementary school teacher, claimed he was very intelligent, but there was no way to measure it. Had he been born 40 years later Alan might have been a Stephen Hawking “talking” by other means, but he wasn’t. He was born in 1939. And if there was a silent bond of awkwardly expressed love between two cousins whose visits were annual, how much deeper and familiar was that bond between the father and his son?
I’ve often wondered what it was like being Alan. I’ve scolded myself in times of self-pity, and sought the deep courage and joy that emanated from Alan.
I’ve also marveled at Uncle Bob, a wrrior in the trenches, fighting despair over Alan’s plight, what might have been and would never be for him, rising to the daily-ness of it all, some days resenting it, some days wishing he could take his family of vacations like other families, some days finding comfort and courage playing a great sacred music piece on the organ of First Congregational Church of South Paris where he served as Organist and Choir Master for 40 years. Perhaps the familiar hymn tune “Serenity” set to John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem “Immortal Love, Forever Full”, encouraging the love he bore for his speechless son:
Im-mort-al Love, for-ev-er full,
For-ev-er flow-ing free,
For-ev-er shared, for-ev-er whole,
A nev-er ebb-ing sea!
The heal-ing of [Christ’s] seamless dress
Is by our beds in pain;
We touch Him in life’s throng and press,
And we are whole a-gain.
At the end of really good days when joy was high with thanksgiving for the father-son bond with Alan, I imagine him walking down Main Street to the darkened church, taking his seat on the organ bench with the lights out except for the organ light, his feet pumping the pedals, his fingers flying over the keyboards and reaching for the stops to play the Widor Toccata he played every Easter, a lush oasis “in life’s throng and press.”