Wednesday Words – Fathers and Sons

the_hardest_fightI regarded my father from across the table – his moist, soft eyes deep-set among the folds of skin dripping from his high forehead. I had watched his eyes retreat beneath these folds and his forehead stretch into a vast expanse of pale flesh since I was a child, and studying both now (mottled freckles chart the constellations of a distant galaxy, silver arthropods extrude from the furrows of his brow) I know he has seen my face grow from newborn-soft to the half-hewn stubble I wear these days; indeed, that is part of the problem.

“This is my work, Dad.” I hear my own voice as if at a distance, the emphasis on work and not the stronger possessive, yet still relieved to note that I’ve outgrown the adolescent stressing of the last syllable.

He makes a sort of grunting noise and rolls his lips away from his teeth several times rapidly, giving the appearance of chewing but I know it’s to work saliva in between his lips and his gums. The dentures dry him out.

And now he looks over my shoulder, those sparkling eyes seeming to notice something in the distance yet not so focused as that. It’s a tiny gesture I’ve seen him make a thousand times, this off-centered glance which used to startle, then intimidate, and finally frustrate me (startle when I thought he’d really glimpsed someone or something approaching, intimidate when I would try, as a teenager, to argue with him, and frustrate when as a young man I decided it was a calculated dismissal of my presence).

Nowadays I understood that he was merely thinking of what to say. It was a stalling tactic, useful because of the contrast it offered to his frequent and deliberate eye contact. That it destabilized his conversational sparring partner was merely a happy accident. This train of thought led me to my grandfather, the boxer, who would have appreciated the analogy. He was spry and thin like me, and I imagined him dancing around an oafish lumberer like my father on the balls of his feet, bouncing his weight easily from one side to the other, always in motion, always seeking the easy jab.

Fights are never won in single blows, my father had explained to me. A good boxer waits for the right opportunity before he swings, else he risks tiring himself in the early rounds. In point of fact there is the slightest of distinctions between the right opportunity and the wrong one. When a boxer sees the right opportunity he must be instantly and totally committed to the swing; rare is the man who can so readily shift between patient observance and purposeful attack.

My father’s eyes found mine again. “Well…” he began, “I don’t have to like it.”

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