The respirator pulsed with the trip-hammer rhythm of a base drummer pounding thoughts out of my head. Just as well. What is there to think about at this stage? Or to talk about, as if I could, masked as I am. My wife squeezes my hand. Sandra doesn’t need words from me, as we sit mute in the front row of this heavy metal concert of beeps and burps. If I can’t speak, I’ll simply entertain quiet memories of times when I could.

How about all those years working at R.C. Mahone at a drawing board? Slide rules and T-squares and needle-sharp pencils…before computers. Designing tail lights and ashtrays and turn-signal levers for Fords. Seventeen years. Then one-day my department head called me into his office and told me I was on the bubble for the latest lay-offs. The next two weeks were like being on death row. Finally, the call came. My boss fiddled with his pencil, wouldn’t make eye contact, muttered and mumbled trying to soften the blow. But, before he could finish, our department head, barged in, face flushed, a sheaf of printouts in hand, rattling on about YTD reports as if I wasn’t even there.

Every day, as I stood in line at the unemployment office, I replayed that scene. I should have spoken up and said something like, “Hey, pal, give me my moment on the gallows here, huh?” Hell, I was going to get fired anyhow, what’s the worst that could have happened? Was I keeping my dignity? Just slow on the uptake? Or was I unused to confronting management?

Talk about talking, what a difference my next job made. Teaching drafting at a community college had me blabbing all the time. I never knew I had it in me or that I could enjoy interacting with the students the way I did. But it wasn’t just the students. There was an instructor in the nursing program, Marlene. You know how they describe some FM stations as ‘easy listening’? Well, Marlene was FM but more importantly she was an easy listener in turn. And after all those years staring at a drafting table, she got me chatting at coffee breaks, lunch and between classes about my children, what we did on vacation, what new car we were shopping. But a subject that never came up was our marriages. Definitely no spouse sniping. Amateur marital counselling was off-limits. I liked her and I got the impression she liked me too. But somehow, we felt safe in each other’s company. A carefully calibrated balance. But then she got a divorce. I guess I shouldn’t have been irked. We had established the ground rules and played by them. Still, it was a surprise. Talk, talk, talk and never an inkling of major undercurrents in her life.

I’ve managed to reduce the thud-thump of my respirator to the muted sound of a dripping faucet by pillow-muffling my ears. Audible but ignorable.

Sandra interrupts my reverie with, “Ha! This is interesting.” I turn my head to see her look up from her novel. “A lady is asked if she thinks her recently deceased husband is with God. She answers, ‘that would be nice.’”

I anticipate her expression, so familiar when our girls were little—eyes up to one side, lips torqued in thought. Then she nods. “Some interesting presumptions there…

1. That there is a God

2. That there is an afterlife

3. Granted 1&2, that her husband would qualify for the heaven part.”

I raise my eyebrows, wishing I could speak. We’ve always enjoyed serious, prolonged discussions. But then, what would I really have to say on the subject? No one really knows what goes on after the light goes out. Not really. So, I close my eyes, squeeze her hand and absorb the throbbing thump pulsing through me.

One thought on “Beyond Words

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