FOR THE DRUNK AND BROKEN-HEARTED
By John Thomas Tuft
“Daddy, I don’t like sleeping down here anymore.” Tears form in the corners of her eyes and trickle gently over soft cheeks. “I really try, Daddy. I pray to God to make me not afraid. I squeeze my eyes shut real tight and think about Jesus. But then I hear funny noises and my tummy jumps up and down.” The speaker is my youngest child, Jenn, and at the time she was maybe six or seven years old. I look at her, my tired body sagging into her mattress as I lean against the wall. My mind is blurred and my emotions are weary of my own fears. Mind you, she is thirty-five now, but I can still feel the eyes of this little girl looking to me to make sense of the world, grant security and be worthy of her trust.
Earlier that year, Jenn had decided that she was ready to occupy the bedroom in the basement of our home in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. It has its own bathroom, and she would no longer have to share a closet with her older sister or even breathe the same air. If you have siblings, you know that’s a real thing. Perhaps more importantly she was out of the reach of the torments of her big brother. Everything went well at first. She enjoyed the adventure of having her own little corner of the house. Barbie dolls lined the shelves and the desk held her art supplies and books. She had never been keen on going to sleep early, but now she was lying awake until midnight every night, afraid and lonely. Innumerable trips up and down the stairs from our second floor bedroom only served to increase my frustration level. I didn’t understand what had changed for her.
We had tried threats, pleading, promises of a birthday party, anything and everything we could think of. We even purchased a baby monitor so we could hear her calling. The theory being that it would give her more of a sense of security. It did not. “Daddy, I want to be upstairs with you guys. Even Bunman doesn’t like it.” She held up a small stuffed rabbit to my face so that Bunman can confirm that this is how he truly feels. “But honey, we’ve moved all your stuff down here and your sister deserves her own room, too. You’ve been down here a long time now.” Big sigh. “I know, but I miss you.” I want to convince her that this will go away, she will grow out of it, that fear and struggle can be worthwhile. But I know how weary I become of my own daily struggles. Of how much I want to cry out in the night and wonder if anyone cares that I hear funny noises and my tummy jumps up and down…
I think back to earlier in the day, when the halt leading the lame, I filed into the swimming pool area of physical therapy with my compatriots. Carla has been suffering terribly for seven months. She finally decided to go to another doctor whom she is hoping will decide to operate to relieve the unrelenting pain. Most days she is lively, kidding the rest of us, beating back her own urge to scream with a biting wit and hilarious sarcasm. Today, she is quiet, limping more than usual, the pain etched deep into her face. Aaron is walking without his cane. He has decided it is time to do without it, to push himself a little harder. Summer is coming; the second once since his injury and surgery. Everyone else is going to be active, playing hard, working up a sweat in the garden. Aaron’s goal is to get through the summer without his cane. The fight with constant pain helped end his marriage. He needs a way to fight back.
Jody is our fearless leader. She is waiting to hear about being accepted into grad school to become a licensed physical therapist. She listens to our complaints about doctors and pain, pills and pain, life and pain. Fortunately, she never says, “No pain, no gain.” If that were true, those of us in that pool would be billionaires. In the warm water, we kid each other, taking bets on who hurts the worst when the therapist does deep muscle massage to prod knots of tissue to let go. They snap back into painful braids before the drive home is completed but she insists on this torture. In the water, we can actually sense each other’s jolts when the motion of the exercise makes our nerves fire. Aaron is making progress, so his reward is he gets to work harder and longer to push through. Carla and I float at the side, cheering him on. Sometimes the only dignity we can muster is that of a shared struggle.
Back in the basement with my daughter I say, “Tell you what, Jenn. When I’m upstairs in my bed, I will whisper your name. You might not hear me with your ears but believe me. I will be thinking of you and whispering so only you can hear.” She thinks it over briefly, knowing that she will have to keep dealing with her fears. “Okay, Daddy. Tell you what. I’ll whisper your name, too. You’ll hear it in your heart. I’ll be whispering just to you.” Some days, for the lost and alone, the hurting and the fearful, for the drunk and the brokenhearted, it is the best that we can muster. I will whisper your name. So that only you can hear it. In your heart. All I ask, is that you, too, will whisper mine….because sometimes I hear funny noises, and my tummy jumps up and down.
Words are magic and writers are wizards.
Adapted from Tell Me Where It Hurts, an unpublished manuscript by John Thomas Tuft