Something miraculous happened the other day. For the first time in years, you read a word.
You were never a great speller or reader. You grew up in an Italian family in New York in the forties. Your grandmother forbid English from being spoken in the home, and your public school forbid anything but English from being spoken in the classroom. Words spanned two languages, two households, and enough stubborn Italians and stubborn schoolteachers to halt any progressions you made in either direction. Your handwriting was a joke in our house, because it looked like unintelligible chicken scratch. You couldn’t spell and didn’t mind. None of it mattered so long as you could paint.
After your stroke in August 2013, you woke in the hospital after almost three months on various life-support machines. The first thing you did was mime for a pen and paper. When the nurses gave you a set, you promptly started to draw. And draw. And draw. Random letters and numbers made it into the drawings, which were at first nothing but squiggly lines. But this was as close as you got to reading.
The doctors encouraged you to attend rehabilitation for reading and writing, but you insisted that you didn’t need to fret over something like that with “the time I have left.” Every moment was devoted to painting and strengthening your muscles to walk again. When you were released from the hospital shortly before Thanksgiving 2013, you still refused the written word. My first love was needless to you, but I didn’t say anything. After everything you’d been through, who could argue with those five little words? “The time I have left” is a short sentence with a big punch.
I let the words go, and here we are. Years later, still without the knowledge of how to read and write. You manage well enough. I programmed your cell phone with speed dials and you memorized the numbers for each of us. Your bills are paid in cash and a walk down the street. When your health insurance comes in the mail, you call me and I pass the word to G to come by and read it over with you. You are amazingly, astoundingly, self-sufficient.
Sometimes I find myself sad that I can’t share a book with you. I can’t drop one in the mail and talk with you about it when it arrives. I’ve contemplated the best way to send you an e-reader and set you up on audio books, but how to explain an iPad to someone who can’t read? How will you know how to navigate it? What if you get confused? Who will help you with it?
And then, a few weeks ago, you called me.
“Ash! Ash, you’ll never guess,” you began. “I was standing on this corner, on this street corner, you know?”
Already I’m picturing it. The cars racing past, the winter wind cutting through the buildings, horns blaring.
“And there was a bus coming, and I was waiting, and you know the front of them? With the things that scroll?”
I imagine the city bus pulling up to its stop, and you on the curb, waiting. Maybe you’re wearing a Steelers sweatshirt and your coat, a pair of faded jeans and your old loafers. Do you have on a baseball cap or a toboggan? Is there snow on the ground, caught in the curve of the curb and the road? These are the things that pester my mind while you speak.
“The things that scroll:” the electronic message boards announcing the bus route on the front of the bus, above the window.
“I know what you mean,” I say, and you plow on.
“Yeah, those things. Well, I was standing there on the corner and the bus was coming—”
And here I’m nervous, Dad, because I picture you so small on the street, with your cane, which I just found out for the first time that you use now, and it rocked my entire mental image of you. My Father, a man who never walked with a cane, an instrument of someone either injured or elderly. My mental image is still all askew—
“—and I looked up at the scrolling thing, and I knew the word!”
“I know! Can you believe it? I knew the word…and then it was gone.” You laughed, thoroughly entertained. “Oh, well. But you know, they might come back. I told the doctor about it, and he said you never know. Stranger things have happened before.”
There it is, your wisdom. You find it in everything. And I can’t help but think that sometimes, stranger things aren’t strange at all. Maybe, if we pluck a slightly different word free, maybe they’re little miracles instead.
I hope that whenever your miracles happen, Dad, you’ll call me. I want to know about every word you find again, even if it’s just for a moment. I want to hear about the little seeds that spring to life, despite the fog that sometimes clouds your mind. And when the chill of the wind whips across my cheeks, too, I’ll think of you and your newfound words, your reminder of strange, miraculous things happening every day just out sight. The slow, slow progress of a seed, just about to bloom.
Stranger things have happened, Dad, and will again. Just wait and see.