This is not the post I wanted to write. But right now, not far from me, my father struggles with the first really, really awful (physical) pain of his existence.
I can do very little. His pain flows through, in some form, to me – as pain and happiness do to those we love.
I sit, I wait, I watch. And I remember other times when I sat and watched him. I wrote about them close to the time I started this blog. The essay was published in Krista Tippet’s On Being blog. Now here it is, with minor revisions.
I wake up in the middle of the night, as I often do, and walk slowly down the steps of the long stone staircase. I am eight years old. I come to join my father, who sits at his desk in his office, listening to a man’s voice coming from a very small radio. The sound is muffled. The words sound detached. Sentences go up and down in a rhythm foreign to my ears. I do not understand what it says.
My father smiles at the sight of my face peering through the crack of the door.
“So, you’re up.”
That is all he ever says, and I am free to come in or go back to bed. I like that freedom. I sit on his reading couch; the leather is cold to the touch at first, but softens as I sink into it. Soon he forgets I am there.
But not today.
Today he smiles less openly. He asks me to sit facing him. As I do so, the voice that says things I don’t understand stops, and a melody fills the air. It is always the same, this melody; it is beautiful, and I sometimes carry it into the light of day like a fragment of a dream.
“It may be a good idea not to sing this melody outside our home,” he says.
Suddenly I recall my mother’s look of concern as I left for school that morning, bag full of books, the melody drifting from my lips.
“Not outside this house,” he repeats. “Will you remember?”
I nod. The radio voice is back on. I hear the word “Portugal,” once, twice.
“What is he saying? Is he talking about Portugal?”
My father looks troubled by the question.
“This is the BBC radio service, in English,” he says, slowly. “He is telling us what is happening around the world, and in our country, too.” There is a long pause while he chooses the words. “Our country is not ….” He tries again, his voice more gentle now, “Our country is ruled by Salazar, you know that, right? Well, he does not think freedom is a good thing.”
“Freedom to do what?”
“To read what you want, and think what you want; to choose who leads the country. There are many countries where people are free to do just that; where they don’t have to be afraid.”
The leather under me goes cold and hard again. My hands curl and cry with sweat. My heart thuds against my chest, trying to fly from the question searing through me.
“Will they take you away too, like they took Maria’s father?”
He buries his face in his hands. I am looking at his hair. I want to pin him down and not let him ever leave this room.
He looks up.
“That may happen, yes; and if it does, I want you to do one thing for me. Will you do one thing for me?”
I nod again.
“Here is what I would like you to do: If anyone asks you where I am, hold your head high and tell them …This is what you will tell them: ‘My father is in prison because he believes in freedom.’”
We are looking in each others’ eyes now and I see it all clearly: I cannot hold my father in this room, nor can I hold my heart still. I cannot even hold on to me. I watch my childhood leave so suddenly there is no time for remembrance or reckoning.
“Will you do that?” he asks. “Can you do that?”
His urgency demands an answer. And a voice I do not yet know says,