I handed Dad his mug of tea, and settled into a chair across the kitchen table from him. "How are you feeling?"
"Not bad," he rasped, with a shrug. The hood of his ratty gray sweatshirt shifted and settled, revealing the very tip of a zipper-line of stitches running up the left side of his neck. I looked away and hung my head over the mouth of my mug, letting the lemon-ginger steam waft up my nose.
We chatted in small bursts. My work, his recovery, the weather, the house. I could feel myself bubbling, waiting for the tap to turn on our usual flow of conversation. But he held himself back, since every word strained his aching throat.
I drained my mug of tea. "How about lunch?"
"Great idea!" He grinned. "Let's ask your mom if she wants to join us." He lifted his chin and croaked, "Bar-baraaaa?"
This was a familiar ritual, a groove gently worn from daily use throughout their 30-year marriage. On any ordinary day, my father's bellow would set the walls and windows ringing, and produce the desired effect: a sharp, slightly defensive "What?!" from my mother.
But this time, no response. He tried again, hoarser and barely louder. "Bar-baraaaa?"
Nothing. I could hear the chatter of computer keys from the office on the other side of the hall. Dad's brows furrowed and his shoulders drew up. I could hear the sharp intonation of annoyance and confusion, even in the airy whisper that was all he could manage. "Bar-baraaaaaa?"
I burst out laughing. "Dad, she can't hear you," I said.
"Oh." He sat back, and his brows relaxed. A slow, sheepish smile spread across his face. "I guess not."
My father is a talker. He's charming and persuasive, a man of many opinions and unafraid to express them at length and with an academic's precision. He speaks in generalizations, in sound bites, in absolutes. Physically, too, he cuts an imposing figure: six feet four inches at his tallest, though he's starting to shrink with age.
I grew up watching my dad take the reins of any conversation. He was already loud, and simply by ticking up the volume a notch or two he could bring all eyes around to him. It was a trick that worked in all kinds of circumstances, from hundred-person community meetings to intimate family dinners.
Conversations with my father always stuck to a familiar rhythm. It didn't much matter the topic; everything always reminded him of an anecdote, a quote, a movie plot, a news story. That led to a long explanation, which led to a moral, always a moral. It's the cadence of a frustrated professor, and we referred to particularly heated conversations as his "lectures."
My mother and siblings and I would openly roll our eyes every time he started his script. "You know, when I was about your age…" "Did I ever tell you about the time…" "That reminds me — have you ever heard of…"
He didn't mind — he could laugh at himself too — but he also wasn't deterred. When he had a train of thought going, it was best to jump on or jump out of the way.
In our household, talking back was encouraged. "As long as it's clever or deserved," Dad would say. I could never resist the bait, and he and I would ping back and forth for hours, half-agreeing, half-arguing. But he had the upper hand in all of our conversations — he could simply raise his voice until I grew tired of shouting.
In 2011, Dad developed a cough — a tickling little thing that wouldn't go away. I remember it starting in the winter and lasting through the spring, but he insists it wasn't that long.
In May, he was scheduled for minor surgery. The surgeon noticed the cough and ordered a chest X-ray to check for infection. There was nothing out of the ordinary in his lungs, but the radiologist noticed an indistinct mass in his throat, nudging his windpipe out of place. Well, you're going to be under anyway, the surgeon said. Might as well open up your throat and take a look.
"It's thyroid cancer," my mother said on the phone the afternoon of the surgery. "They closed him right back up when they saw it. He'll need to go back in on Friday to get it all out."
The next day, my father's cell phone number flashed on my phone while I was at work. I picked up, fumbling the phone in my urgency.
"Hi, sweetie!" My father's voice — or something like it — warbled through the speaker. The sound of him on the phone was a cold shock. His voice had been reduced to a Mickey Mouse falsetto. "Looks like the intubation irritated my throat a little," he said. "Should go away in a few days."
But in a few days, he was back on the operating table. It was the beginning of a two-year cycle of surgeries and radiation. Twice he had his chest cut open and advancing tumors carefully scooped out. It was the kind of procedure usually reserved for open-heart surgery patients; the hospital gave him heart-shaped pillows to hug when he stood up and sat down, so that he wouldn't lean on his arms and pull out the stitches.
After each surgery, when we went to see him in the ICU, his voice would be reduced to that same post-surgery warble. After a week or two it would settle into an airy, crackling whisper, and stay there until the next surgery roughed up his throat again. At first, it was a slight shock whenever I spoke to him, hearing the richness and the melody drained from his voice. A paralyzed vocal cord, the doctors said. It might resolve itself. Maybe.