THREE SMALL WORDS
by Paul Lamb
Three small words. Just three syllables.
“Don’t tell Mom.”
What brother might say to brother, but less likely from father to son. Words calling for trust and, in the same breath, betrayal.
“Don’t tell Mom,” David had said, though cautiously, leaning toward Curt, his confidence barely above a whisper. Odd, too, since they were outside at a noisy intersection, rounding the corner where the old DX station once stood across from the hospital, where no one would hear their words and fewer would care. At first Curt wasn’t sure what his father had said, but his next words clarified. “Not a word. It’s just, I’ve been having this pain in the right side of my chest sometimes. When I run. Then it goes away. It’s probably nothing. I’m seeing the doctor next month to get it checked. So don’t worry.”
Curt had been needling him earlier, urging David to join him on a run around the old neighborhood to see how things had changed since he’d moved away. But David had declined, suggesting their walk instead, then adding genially, “Though I guess running with a doctor is about the safest way I could do it.”
“Does it hurt now?”
David paused their steps and took a deep breath of the cold air. “No, not now.”
Curt, whose work often called for him to read between the lines, decided not to parse his father’s murmurs, but he didn’t forget them either.
His father, who had always been an elemental man, who for years had loaded trucks for a living, who had the physique of a man twenty years younger, who was, in short, invincible, had chest pains. Angina. What the doctor in Curt might reasonably expect, the son in him didn’t want to believe. When had Dad become mortal?
It’s easy to believe that your parents are unchanging, he knew. That they’re static. But the better part of him knew that as long as they were alive, they were changing. It’s only when they’re gone that they truly become fixed.
“It’s not right, keeping this from Mom.”
“I know. But it’s probably nothing. I’ll talk to her after I see the doctor.”
Curt had learned the toxic consequences of secrets, of unspoken truths, coming out to his father much later than he should have, or could have when he found, to his great relief, not a moment’s hesitation in his father’s love. But too many years of guarded silence by the son and gnawing doubt in the father had left their legacy, a chasm that remained difficult to span despite their love, and so the many gentle intimacies that father and son ought to be able to share were still too often strained and hesitant. That his father had shared even this much had surprised Curt, after the shock of it had subsided and he could reflect during their frosty walk around the old neighborhood. Was he scared; was that why he told him? Was it more than “probably nothing” but he didn’t know how to say it? Was he trying in his measured, cautious way to open the door a little wider to his son? Or might he have said nothing at all had he not been chiding him?
As was often the case between them, opening that door did lead to a spilling of more words during their walk. Guarded and indirect, but potent with a meaning Curt knew he had to divine.
“I don’t feel old,” David had continued. “I don’t know what that even means, really. I feel like I’m the same person living in my skin that I was yesterday, and last year, and even fifty years ago. The face in the mirror doesn’t change much from day to day.” A few strides of reflective silence that Curt didn’t want to interrupt so his father would continue, which he did.
“But I have noticed something lately. My memories are old, if that makes sense. I was thinking about a conversation I had with my buddy Jon and it wasn’t last month or even last year. It was more than twenty years ago. I can’t be sure if what I remember about my life is true or if I’m just remembering it the way I want it to be. There are a lot more years behind me than in front of me, and I won’t be able to do all of the things I’ve always imagined I could. Not because I physically can’t so much, but because there isn’t enough time. I probably won’t ever go back to Italy with Mom, though we talk about it as if we could any time. I won’t get a 5K PR anymore. I won’t read all of those books Kelly is so eager to talk about. I mean, that old beater could be the last truck I ever own. Does that make any sense?”
“Sure,” Curt conceded, focused as he was on people at the beginnings of their lives, pausing not only at such unexpected musings about this other end of life but that such musings had come from his father, a man Curt sometimes had to remind himself was more complex than he seemed behind the simple mask he never fully shed before his son. Yet such aging concerns weren’t unique to David, Curt knew as he unwittingly did his best to banish them. He considered offering some confident, clinical dismissal, but he was interrupted before he could speak.
Not far ahead the bells of St. Luke’s tolled the late afternoon hour. When they had first moved to Richmond Heights, Kathy had dragged younger Curt there, and even David on rare Sundays, but only enough to persuade her far-away mother that she was still “practicing.” David waited for the bells to finish, their resonance to fade before speaking again.
“There’s going to be a last trip to the cabin. I’ll come home one time, put away the gear, wash off the grit, scratch the chigger bites, and it will be the last time; I won’t make it back. I won’t know it when it happens, but I know now that it will happen. I never used to think this way. I guess that’s hard for a young person to understand.” He was silent for a few steps, giving Curt the chance to speak, but no words came, so David continued. “I have to make choices now. I see that. I can’t do all of the things that before always seemed out there, available. I’m not getting frail. That’s not it. It’s more that there just isn’t enough time left to do everything. I need to start being selective.” Another few steps, their gloved hands shoved deep in their coat pockets.
Their feet had taken them as far as the bridge over the interstate, a demarcation in Curt’s youth that his bike rarely took him across – though he had once gravely announced to his parents that there was another Sunset Avenue across the highway, that the street where their home sat had been cut in half – and it was a demarcation neither man felt inclined to cross that Christmas afternoon.
But something uneasy stirred inside Curt now, something visceral that predated his medical training and existed well before the protective sarcasm he had cultivated for as long as he could remember. Why had his father mentioned the cabin? Or rather, the unpleasant concept – yes, the reality – of a final visit, of an unthinkable time when David Clark would never again return to his cabin? If there was anything holy in Curt’s universe, it was the cabin and his father’s immense presence there.
He had no words. Nothing glib. Nor anything clinical or comforting to offer his father. Curt suddenly found that it was he who needed soothing as they took turns kicking the same stone down a sidewalk in the neighborhood where he had grown up.
“Not soon, certainly,” Curt mustered.
David let the words lie between them, unclear what his boy’s reference was.
“You’re going to wear those new chainsaw chaps Santa brought a bunch of times when you cut firewood at the cabin, Dad.”
On task now, David said, “And these fancy new gloves Sprout gave me.” He held his hands before him. “That sure is a bright orange!” Accustomed to leather gloves that he’d wear until the fingertips wore through, and would then toss in the fire, the fancy work gloves his grandson had selected for him would need to prove their worth around the cabin. He gave a muffled clap. “Didn’t get the new chainsaw I was hoping for though.”
“Mom said you have to pick that out for yourself.”
“Still my birthday coming up in March.”
So, back to the warmth of the house on Sunset, where Kathy had been indulging Clarkson – all day in his pajamas – with treats and unstinting attention and had extracted from her grandson the promise of at least one postcard from his upcoming trip to the Bahamas with his dads. And where Kelly still savored his wistful astonishment at a family that lived and loved so unlike what he had known. And where Curt could retreat for a time from the unwelcome, discomfiting thoughts of his father’s mortality.
David had spoken no more of his mild complaint or his reluctance to run, having steered their conversation to an upcoming trip to Kansas City to see Kathy’s mother and his own plan to skip out and spend the weekend at the cabin after dropping her off. “They’ll be more relaxed without me around,” he’d said and by which he meant – and Curt knew – that Kathy’s mother had never fully accepted him as her daughter’s husband.
That alone, Curt thought, could be enough to cause heartache in a hale, stoic man. His clinical side was already hectoring him, urging him to discover what ailment his father had that made his chest hurt sometimes on a run, because if he knew, he could make it right. Maybe his dad had mentioned it because he really wanted medical advice. Why else share such a personal concern with his son, which too rarely happened, when he hadn’t even told his wife? Better to tell a doctor about something that might be nothing than to alarm the woman who loved him more than anything? Except that the doctor also loved him.
And because of this, what was Curt’s next move? He wasn’t a gerontologist; he was a pediatrician. What did he really know of his father’s physical life? He didn’t even know the name of his dad’s doctor. If he dared to speak to his mother, would he be violating a patient’s trust? He didn’t think he had any HIPAA constraint in this, and perhaps there were some obligations even greater. But how could he begin to make a diagnosis – if that was what he was being called to give – based on a few whispered and then dismissed words?
Because it was asked of him, Curt didn’t speak of it again during his visit. Christmas gifts were marveled at, including the bag of marbles Clarkson treasured most, and Curt saw with new and startled eyes the stethoscope David had given the boy, urging him to have a listen to the family heartbeats. Old stories were laughingly shared with Clarkson. Cheer was enjoyed in moderation, Curt noted with watchfulness, but then his dad had never done anything in excess. Curt witnessed no shortness of breath. No hand to chest or sudden grimace. No lapses in conversation, beyond the reticence Curt had always known in his father. There were no cryptic glances between David and Kathy, but then, she didn’t know.
When their long Christmas day came to an end and it was time to leave, Curt made himself say “I love you,” but only at the last moment and only into David’s shoulder as they hugged briefly at the door, Sprout and Kelly already waiting in the running car with their holiday loot. It was the best he could summon and he felt a failure.
Then he was gone.
But the three small words remained. And what felt now like a duty nagged at him.
Curt did, however, have a place to begin whatever it was he felt he had to do: an old photograph of his father as an infant. Scribbled on the back were the words “Our Davey. Healthy again!” Some affliction in his infancy, at a time when he couldn’t remember and those who could were long gone, might be playing its hand now. It was not much, but it was a start that a pediatrician could work with.
It could have been anything, of course. Or nothing. He’d seen plenty of children present with ailments both common and surprising, but mostly common. Most were treatable – most were not even all that serious – and most children would fully recover. Have healthy lives with no memory of their little bout, just as his father had no memory. So what might a long-shot, long-term affliction be that could creep up on his father more than half a century later? Myocarditis from a lung infection? Pneumonia? Whooping cough? A host of other, more exotic assaults on the infant’s body in the darker days of medicine? Think horses, Curt, not zebras. Surely they had vaccinated the boy. Nonetheless, he wanted to find some moment, some event, some thing in the past that could be blamed and attacked and conquered rather than admit that his father had been mortal all along, was now simply getting old, and had a finite number of days as all men do. That he wouldn’t be around for Curt forever.
And how could he find this thing? No formal medical records were kept for that long. The state didn’t require it and the files of some family doctor’s office from decades past – not that he could ever hope to learn who that might have been – would have long since been shredded or burned or simply carted off to the dump.
And, no, Curt would not allow himself to assure himself that, had his father’s sickness been severe enough, his parents would surely have explained it to him when he reached an age able to understand. Unlike, say, a peanut allergy or a limb foreshortened by a bad break and thus always in mind, his affliction might have been, once defeated, gladly left in the past. His grandparents might not have even known how severe it was, just as Curt couldn’t know that it wasn’t.
He was without further resources, except perhaps one more. In David’s tidy basement, with whitewashed walls and a floor kept swept whether it was needed or not, stood an entire wall of metal shelves filled with neatly labeled storage boxes, just as a man who managed a warehouse would be expected to have. Was it possible that in there, amidst what little had been salvaged from his grandfather’s lifetime accumulations and from all of Curt’s own fun and folly, was a thin, brittle envelope containing little Davey’s medical records?
But if what he sought was there, would it be any of Curt’s business to see it? Did he have any right? Or should he just push past such inconvenient ethical concerns and push ahead, impelled by his love? For too long he had been an aloof, inadequate son; was this his karma then? That when he and his father truly needed to bridge the gap between them, his father might not be around much longer?
Yet here he was again, with a new secret he had to keep, one only grudgingly shared with him, and one that he knew could easily fester as an infected wound might, which, perhaps, is what it truly was. Whatever else Curt may have been doing all of those years keeping his big secret, he was also giving his father an example of how it was done.
By the time the three got to their condo, Curt had dismissed his doubts about both the illegitimacy of his interference and the very real fact that occasional chest pains might not be diagnostic of anything serious at all. What he felt instead, all that he could feel, was urgency. Little time, less information, a reluctant patient, a doctor outside of his field, and a son desperately wanting back into his father’s life while there was still time.
The car wasn’t even fully unloaded before Curt had his plan worked out. He would return to his father’s basement, on a day and an hour when he knew no one would be home, and search the boxes for what he wasn’t certain even existed or that would tell him anything worth knowing if it did. Such were the wages of his love.
And if he were asked, if his father, so meticulous in this thing, noticed a slight shifting of his boxes, how would Curt explain his trespass? That he was looking for his race medals to show Clarkson? Or that he needed an old textbook? Or his own medical records? But would he lie to his father? Would he do that?
He needed to enact his plan soon. How could he revel on a beach, indulge his son and his husband and himself in mild hedonism, with such a question nagging at him? More importantly, how could he allow his life to go on without first doing everything he could to ensure that his father’s own life would go on? Whether his obligation was to himself or to his father, Curt didn’t know and didn’t pause to analyze.
His opportunity came soon enough. Only days after Christmas, Curt found his chance to visit the silent basement of his childhood home one afternoon when no one was around. He’d even taken a cab so his car wouldn’t be parked out front for the duration. He ignored the evidence that what he was doing must be wrong if he needed to do it with such stealth and walked silently through the house, not turning on any lights or touching anything, descending the basement steps carefully so they didn’t creak and be heard by people who weren’t even there.
And it was only here, in the farthest, deepest corner of the little house, that Curt finally pulled the chain for the bare-bulbed ceiling light before the wall of boxes. The mechanical click seemed to echo throughout the house.
Were there a hundred boxes before him? More? Was his mission too massive, too daunting to accomplish? Where in all of this might a single fact be, a single fact that could explain everything or explain nothing, or that might not be there at all? Worse, what else might be waiting for him in the boxes? What other things might he not want to know? One visit would not be enough he saw, and the starting gun had fired.
Curt studied the boxes, labeled with neat, hand-written notes and organized, he soon found, in sensible groupings. Three boxes marked TAXES with successive years bulleted beneath. INSURANCE PAPERS. HOUSE REPAIRS. MOM’S ART SUPPLIES, which gave him a pang, understanding that she’d never really had the chance to pursue her talent. A box labeled SWITCHES AND SOCKETS AND STUFF. One that read simply ITALY, which he guessed held his parents’ keepsakes from the trip he and Kelly had sent them on. Then came a series of boxes about him. CURT’S SCHOOL PAPERS. CURT’S TEXTBOOKS. CURT’S AWARDS. CURT’S TOYS. Even several boxes labeled CURT’S BABY CLOTHES. He touched these labels lightly as though to absorb some essence from them. Anyone could take it as evidence that this child Curt was truly loved, but this was something he had already known. He felt tempted to abandon his search and delve into Curt’s life instead.
He didn’t, but a part of him soon wished he had as his search grew more perilous. What could three boxes opaquely labeled CABIN possibly contain? What was there to know about the stolid, old family cabin, which had always been there and always would be, that he didn’t already know? Were there secrets even there? Did he want to find out? But that too, he reminded himself, would have to wait for another time.
Soon he was among boxes simply labeled DAD, and while this seemed more likely territory, the number of them gave him pause. His search of just these couldn’t be completed in a single visit, not unless he stumbled upon whatever it was he sought – and he wouldn’t even know what it was until his eyes fell upon it – in the first box.
And quickly he saw his misconception. This DAD in the first box was not his father, David, but his grandfather, Joe. Curt thought that all of this, or at least much of this, had been lost in the move, when they had yanked his grandfather from his tiny but familiar house and put him in an even tinier, less familiar apartment, which hastened his decline, though none of them was ever willing to acknowledge this. It had been during this culling that Curt had come upon the photo of his infant father. “Our Davey. Healthy Again!” The haunting photo that, he realized, had steered him into medical school then and taunted him now as a problem he might never be able to fix.
He made a quick survey of the dozens of remaining boxes. “C’mon. Give me one that says DAVID’S COMPREHENSIVE MEDICAL HISTORY – FROM BIRTH TO PRESENT. ALL IN PROPER ORDER AND EASILY SEARCHED.” No such box awaited him. But nor were there any that suggested they were close to what he was after. Nothing labeled DAVID or MEDICAL PAPERS or even DAVID’S STUFF.
Where to begin? How to begin? He struggled with the immensity of his idea. The futility of it. That he might never find what he wanted or worse that he might not want what he found. And that he had discovered a deep well of sneakiness within himself to attempt such a thing. Why couldn’t he just discuss this with his father, outright, the way two adults should be able to? The way a father and a son who really did love each other should be able to?
“It’s not there.”
Curt froze. The wall of his father’s boxes was before him and his father’s voice was behind him, but he didn’t dare turn. He was caught with his hand in a box and he felt five years old.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I am.”
Time to come clean. Curt turned to face his father.
“Then tell me.”
“Tell you what, Curt? That the medical records from my childhood are gone or that I have no idea what it was that nearly killed me as a baby?”
“I’m that transparent?”
“You’re my son. I guess I can understand a few things about you.”
So it was not to be had. That thing in the past he wanted to throttle and defeat. There was to be no simple solution to an ageless problem. It was out of his reach. Out of both of their reaches. As clear and as final as that.
“I don’t want you to die, Dad.”
“I know, Curt.” He smiled. “I don’t either.”
And with those three words, the man who was never good with words, spoke exactly the right ones. Curt threw himself on his father and cried, “I love you,” then dissolved in his embrace until the two of them felt like only one person.
About the Author:
Paul Lamb lives near Kansas City but escapes to his Ozark cabin whenever he gets the chance. His stories have appeared in Aethlon, Foliate Oak, Magnolia Review (nominated for a Pushcart Prize), Halfway Down the Stairs, Little Patuxent Review, and others. He rarely strays far from his laptop.