Wavelength

a short story by Frank Diamond

Dad and big brother, Jason, got along well — great, in fact — except for those stupid occasional arguments that any two family members can have; the kind often forgotten before they’re forgiven. And that one argument that changed everything, that deviled Dad to the grave, even that, if taken out of context — that is, removed from when it happened — you really couldn’t call that much more than hurt feelings, the kind usually not voiced, a mundane emotional bruise that heals quickly. Life. It’s just a part of life everywhere, and everywhere includes even us, the Crane family. But Dad Crane never forgave himself, even though we had the recording, a recording that would make any reasonable person feel exonerated. So, of course, that leaves Dad out. 

Listen. I can just hear Jason: “You think too damn much, Ovis!” His nickname for me; means sheep. My name is Otis. Otis Crane.

Anyway, I digitized that recording long ago. It’s in the cloud and on several computer hard drives and on USB flash drives that I keep in my little home safe. It is also written down — in ink, and typed, just in case some super future artificial intelligence devours our collective online consciousness.

Jason left the message on our home answering machine (remember them?) as he paused on one of the floors of the South Tower. 

“I love you,” he says, his calm register ushering the bedlam about him into the background. “Just know that.” Then he coughs, in fact chokes for a few moments. He recovers, continues: “But I’ll be home. Tonight. I promise. No way I’m staying in the city. I love you all: Mom, Otis, Kathleen.… Whoa! OK, hanging up now. Gonna to call Diana.”

The noise that triggers that “whoa!” sounds like a bashed cymbal. I’ve thought about it a lot over the last 20 or so years and talked to experts and never really got a satisfactory explanation of what that noise might have been. We’re left only with the fact that it stops Jason’s message.

My brother did college on a baseball scholarship and his voice before that interruption calmly measures the challenge before him, like a hitter in the on-deck circle might take the measure of the man on the mound. Jason sounded like the super salesman he’d become, deftly closing the deal. And in spouting the list of those he loved, he certainly would have said “Dad” next. He would have. Everybody knew that except Dad.

And Diana? She was technically Jason’s girlfriend at the time but everybody also knew that he’d finally found the one. Poor Diana never got that call because the Tower fell and Jason became dust hovering over Manhattan.

When that happened, according to Mom, Dad fell as well. Fell and couldn’t get up, as that old commercial put it; couldn’t get up emotionally, that is. Dad had taken that day off from his job managing the stone quarry, because of his back. When the spasms hit, he couldn’t sit too long, stand too long, or walk too long. A day or two of the heating pad and ibuprofen, and he’d be good for another six or seven months. He refused to go anywhere near a doctor.

So, Dad and Mom had been together when they heard about the attacks. They left their full grocery cart in aisle 9, and hurried home. On that short drive, Mom kept trying to reach Jason by cell, but no. They got home, turned on CNN, and stood before the set. When it happened — it — Dad collapsed into his recliner. 

When you hear people say that someone “was never the same after,” I always thought that whatever tragedy befell the person precipitated the big dirt nap, a quick exit. But some people, they hang on. Dad hung on. He hung on to Mom, for one, and Mom hung on to me and my sister, Kathleen.

But, unfortunately, Dad also hung on to that argument. 

It was over the Philadelphia Eagles. Right? Dad season ticketed a lot of friends and family members to games over the years. Even I went: twice. (Mom went maybe three times. “I paid my dues,” she’d say.) Jason must have gone something like 50 times. And they were supposed to go the week after 9/11, to see the Eagles take on the Giants. A big game.

The Giants had won nine straight against the Eagles. But people in Philly were saying that this could be the Eagles’ year. (Of course, Dad said that every year.) Still, they had a hot young quarterback in Donovan McNabb, and a coach who just might be a football genius: Andy Reid. 

“What?” Dad shouted, when Jason called to say that he wouldn’t be able to make it. 

Dad was in the kitchen, and at first I turned up the volume of whatever it was I was pretending to watch as I worked on my thesis, but then I turned it down as it became clear this wasn’t just a squall. I learned later that Jason had to meet a client — a huge client — and that client wanted to see a Yankees game and nothing else would do. Jason wanted that deal, also in the category of nothing else would do.

“Call in sick!” Dad ordered Jason. “Don’t you have an assistant? But it’s Sunday! It’s the Eagles! You said you would!” 

It escalated, at least on Dad’s side. Jason kept calmly stating his case. I, at least, knew my brother. I knew Jason. Dad pretended not to.

“Are you my son?” Dad yelled. “No son of mine would give up the Eagles because of the Yankees.” I faked a cough, to try to remind Dad I was in the next room, but even if he had heard, my point probably didn’t register: Point being that one son of Dad’s would in fact “give up” the Eagles for a lot of things. Almost anything, in fact.

But Dad had momentum. “The Eagles are bigger than business,” he said. “Bigger than sales. The Eagles are bigger than … they’re bigger than … than ….”

“Than life, dear,” Mom said.

“Your mother just said that the Eagles are bigger than life. This is your mother saying that. Even she knows.”

Mom sang, “I am being sarcastic,” but too late, she had said it.

“Jason, get your priorities straight!” Dad yelled, before slamming down the receiver.

Mom threw the flag.

“Call Jason back. Make it right.”

“Meh!”

“You are being ridiculous.”

I’m being ridiculous?”

“Call Jason. Call your son.”

I did not fake-cough again.

I heard a kitchen chair scrape the floor, Dad giving the table one solid slap as he stood. Then a pause.

“OK, then!” Dad shouted, as if he’d won the argument. 

“There’s the phone,” Mom said. 

“Yeah, and it’ll be there tomorrow, too.”

“Tomorrow you’ll be working, dear. Wait. Oh, now I see. Your back. It’s your back again, isn’t it? That explains it.”

“Where’s that damn heating pad?”

Dad stomped down the cellar to his man-cave. This was September 8, 2001. Dad was 58, Jason 28. I was 24 and Kathleen was 22. Mom was 58 and a half. 

In the years since, I’ve learned a few things, and I’ve come to accept that about most things I am ignorant. So, according to Socrates, there’s hope. I am a high school English teacher and I read all the time. I married a woman as open as I am closed. Her laugh carries me along and I’ve learned to laugh with her. We have two young children so you either laugh or perish. 

I’ve come to think that wavelength plays such a crucial part in relationships. If you were to ask my father which of his children he loved the best, he would say — predictably enough, as most good parents would —- that he loved us all equally. That would be true. But there’s no question that Jason and Dad were on the same wavelength. They understood each other, liked the same things, approached life the same way. Same with Mom. Loved each of us. Equally. And I do truly believe that. But wavelength? Mom and Kathleen were almost the same person. I remember during Kathleen’s teen years how when other mothers would complain about their daughters and the fights and tantrums, Mom remained silent. Kathleen never gave anyone any trouble. She’s still that way. 

Where does that leave me, Otis? Left behind, but not really resenting it. In fact, rather relieved, after the first few disappointments. 

“Bring Otis,” I remember Mom calling after Dad when he was taking Jason to see a Phillies game. 

“Otis isn’t ready.”

Meaning I would be a pain in the ass at the game, acting my age — 5 — and squirming and not paying attention.

Dad had taken Jason to his first Phillies game when Jason was 4. But Jason liked baseball. Jason was sports. Not me. 

Mom held my hand in the driveway as they pulled away in Dad’s old Mercury Marquis. 

I cried. 

“Dad says you need to be a little older, Otis,” Mom explained. She read to me for a couple of hours that day and the tragedy of abandonment abandoned me in her first few sentences. When Mom grilled chicken for dinner, I got dessert beforehand: a bowl of vanilla ice cream. Unprecedented. 

The next time Dad went to a Phillies game, I cried again. But this time I cried because he brought me along and the first thing I noticed was that there were no TV announcers, whose banter I’d come to appreciate, even while I couldn’t quite follow it. (A preparation for operas I would be dragged to in later years.)

I love Dad. Dad loves me. But no wavelength.

Which leaves me struggling just a bit now as I sit in the chair in the hospital as Dad lies dying. His downfall has been sudden, and oh so predictable. I sat in this very same hospital about two months before and watched Mom die. Dad up until then would be what you’d describe as hale old. He exercised with the weights, walked, didn’t put on too many pounds in retirement. But after Mom, hale became frail like that. I mean just like that. Kathleen and I knew that would happen; had known forever. If Dad died first, Mom could conceivably continue for another 5, 10, or even 15 years. For Dad, we reasoned, it’d be more like 15 minutes. 

The medical history is stroke, recovery, heart attack, recovery, another stroke, and finally the big stroke. It was like an audition. It wasn’t suicide; Dad didn’t believe in suicide, but something inside of him had surely said, “I quit.”

Kathleen and I take shifts as Dad sunsets.

“Talk to him,” she says.

“Sure.”

“Really, Otis,” she says. “Talk to him.”

I shrug. Dad hasn’t said anything in two days and the breathing gets shallower. He’s on hospice and we told them to snow him. 

Kathleen says, “We don’t know if he can still hear. Talk to him.”

“OK. I’ll talk, already.”

“Good. I’ll be back quick. I just got to call home.”

Kathleen raises two teens, and her husband can’t keep a job. There’s always a reason to call home. 

I really try to talk to Dad. I do. I talk about my job. My family. How Dad’s brothers — my uncles — are doing and how they will probably be stopping by today. (They better.) I am a monologist, used to holding sway over advanced placement students. Young people who want to learn. Imagine. But I am not, as she who must be obeyed reminds me, much for small talk. They don’t call it small for nothing. And I now lay minutia before my shrunken father. I plow on through the tedium until I switch tactics. I do launch into a monologue. My riff on the The Brothers Karamazov

Dostoevsky takes on the big questions: morality, doubt, faith, reason. I leave out that the plot involves patricide, something I realize a few minutes in. After this, maybe I’ll go on to War and Peace or perhaps Remembrance of Things Past

It doesn’t matter, I think, as Dad’s face seems to set like drying concrete. 

But that’s not how this ends.

I spook easily, I am ashamed to say, a trait I was born with. Mom called me Startlebaby. I startle now when Dad’s eyes open.

“Jason?” he rasps,

“Oh!” I cry out. 

“Everything OK?” Diana asks, spinning into the room. Oh, I forgot. She’s a nurse, now. She stayed single a long time after Jason, but then married around 35 to one of Jason’s best friends. Mom and Dad went to the wedding, finding comfort in Diana finally working through her grief. Or, at least they pretended to.

I gesture toward my father’s wakefulness. 

“Yeah, that sometimes happens at the end, Otis. I’ll get Kathleen. I just saw her.”

I resist the urge to beg Diana not to leave.

Instead, I continue talking. “It’s OK, Dad. It’s me Otis. You need to look for Mom and Jason, now.”

“Jason?” He says it clearly, as if half of his face hadn’t collapsed into his neck in that final stroke.

Where’s Kathleen? Where’s Diana?

I reach, touch his hand. “It’s me, Dad. Otis. I love you. Kathleen will be here, too.”

“Jason? Forgive me?”

“He does, Dad. Jason forgives you!”

Dad doesn’t quite look at me, but his head tilts toward my voice. 

“Jason’s gone, Dad,” I explain. “Jason’s dead.”

“Oh, no!”

His eyes close, his head sinks further into the pillow. One of the machines beep.

I glance at what might be the gadget that shows the flatline. But there are at least five bright lines on a couple of different machines, and none of them appear to be flat. 

Where’s Kathleen? Where’s Diana?

“Jason?” Dad whispers.

Just let go. Please. 

“Jason?”

I grimace as if straining in the gym.

“Yes, Dad,” I say. “It is Jason. I am Jason.”

“Forgive me, Jason!”

“I do, Dad. I do forgive you and I love you.”

And this subterfuge that accompanies my father as he leaves this life connects me to him in a way I’d never felt before. Finally, Dad and I are on the same wavelength. 

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