The Unspoken Words

by Iris Syndergaard

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    “Oh, good grief! I’m supposed to be at a meeting. May I take the car?”

    Layna Cahone ran lightly up the front steps of the house and into the living room. “Dad,” she called, “are you home?”

    “In the kitchen.”

    She went to the kitchen doorway. Her father stood by the stove, stirring something in a small pan. “I knew that you’d be too busy again to fix supper,” he said, “so I opened a can of soup.”

    Layna felt a quick stab of guilt. She had thought having just herself and her father home would be rather enjoyable. Charles was in the service, and Mother had gone to help Anne with her first baby. Layna had promised that she’d see to it that her father had adequate meals and clean clothes, but she realized now that she’d been pretty lax.

    “I’m sorry I didn’t get here earlier, Dad,” she told him, “but I was talking to Debbie and forgot the time. You want toast with your soup?”

    “Never mind, dear, but it would be nice if you would—”

    “Oh, good grief,” she cried, “just look how late it is! I’m supposed to be at a meeting—decorating committee for the dance. May I take the car?”

    He inclined his head slightly toward the hook behind the door where the car keys hung. Hurrying out, Layna thought briefly that her father must have had an especially tiring day. The lines around his mouth appeared deeper than usual, and his skin looked gray.

    For a moment Layna paused with her hand on the car door. She really should go back and at least fix him dessert; but then, remembering the confusion in the school auditorium—decorations half finished, no decision made on the music—she climbed into the car and drove away.

    Darkness had fallen before she reached home again. All the windows were dark. Wondering where her father could have gone, Layna turned on the kitchen lights. His soup, uneaten, was on the kitchen table. A cold chill went through her.

    “Dad?” She flipped on a lamp in the living room. Her father lay on the couch. His hands, clenched into fists, were on his chest and his eyes were closed. Layna ran to him and bent down, realizing at once that he was fighting desperately to breathe.

    “Oh, Daddy,” she cried, “what is it? What’s the matter?”

    His eyes opened. “Heart,” he gasped hoarsely. “Doctor—”

    Layna rushed to the phone, grateful that emergency numbers were written down, because her fingers shook so badly she had trouble dialing the doctor’s home number. She breathed a silent prayer of thanksgiving when Dr. Shannon, answering, said, “An ambulance will be there in just a few minutes. I’ll meet you at the hospital.”

    But even though she knew that little more than fifteen minutes had passed before she and her father were speeding toward the hospital, Layna hadn’t known a stretch of time could be so agonizingly long. She looked at her father, lying half conscious on a stretcher, telling herself over and over, “I wouldn’t know what to do if my father died.” What would life be like without the good, quiet man whose gentle strength had supported her every day of her life? She knew that a world without him would be not only empty but frightening.

    At the hospital her father was wheeled down a long, busy corridor. After she could no longer see him, Layna stood, not knowing what to do, until a nurse came to ask if she could register for her father at the front desk.

    In the office a woman asked, “Does your father carry insurance?” and Layna remembered the card he carried in his wallet.

    “I’ll have the orderly get it and bring it to you,” the lady said.

    The sight of the wallet, handed to her a few moments later by a young man in a white coat, made Layna intensely aware of the seriousness of her father’s condition. She took the wallet, feeling the soft leather, worn smooth, and after giving the woman the necessary information, she went to call her mother, who assured her that she’d be there by morning. Then she sat in the waiting room, holding the wallet tightly, as though she could gain comfort from something that was his.

    Thinking of how many important things the wallet held, Layna remembered a picture that she knew her father had carried for a while—a snapshot of herself and Charles and Anne taken in the mountains one summer. Wondering whether the picture was still there, she opened the wallet. As she did so, a tightly folded piece of paper fell out.

    Absently she unfolded it. As she read the brief paragraph, she knew with a stabbing sense of her own failure that a letter she had seen in a newspaper the week before, one that had touched her, had also been seen and saved by her father.

    She read the clipping again: “I have lived nearly fifty-five years and have worked hard to care for my family. My children have all they need. Why can’t they see me as a person who loves them and needs their affection? I’d gladly give every cent I have if my son or one of my daughters would only take my hand and say, ‘I love you, Dad.’”

    Layna folded the clipping carefully as tears streamed down her cheeks. Oh, Daddy, she thought, don’t die. I want a chance to say what I’ve been too thoughtless to say to you all these years.

    Slowly the hours passed. Layna rested, eyes closed, remembering many little things about her father, such as the day when she was in her early years at school and had complained because he absentmindedly took steps that were too long, and then how, smiling, he had shortened his stride to fit hers. She thought about one of her birthdays; he had come home from work looking a little sheepish because the stuffed tiger he’d bought for her was too big to wrap.

    She remembered big things, too, like the time she’d had her appendix out and had awakened to see her father sitting beside her bed. She had known immediately that she’d be all right. She thought of the nights when she’d gone on dates and he had told her, “I know we can trust you.”

    Just then Dr. Shannon came into the room. Jumping up, Layna ran to him. He put his hand on her arm.

    “Everything’s fine, Layna,” he assured her gently. “Your father’s resting.”

    After drawing a shaky breath, Layna asked, “Can I see him?”

    The doctor nodded. “Yes, but just for a minute.”

    Slowly, feeling almost shy, Layna entered the room where her father lay on a high, narrow bed. How strange, she thought, to see him so quiet, this big man who was always busy and interested. His face was white, but the worry lines on his forehead seemed eased, his eyes composed.

    Pulling a chair close to the bed, Layna sat down. She looked at her father and smiled, then covered his strong, work-worn hand with hers.

    “Daddy,” she said softly, “I love you.”

    Illustrated by Ginger Brown