By Carmen Faulkner
In my family, which is to say my parents, my partner, our extended families, our close friends, everyone with whom we hug openly, we are bad communicators. We sometimes speak a language of passive aggression, finding it easier to make remarks about poorly spent time or poorly seasoned food than address problems directly. We might mention our jobs, which really means we need to talk about money. We may bring up relationships, which really means we need to talk about hope or heartbreak.
There was this time, awhile back, when our communicative ineptitude was exacerbated as my Dad was struck half-down by cancer. We talked then about logistics, about symptoms. We talked about the weather or color of the sky, attempting to synthesize our bleached hope for better days.
We didn’t say ‘How can I reach you?’ ‘What am I doing wrong?’ We didn’t say ‘I would be devastated if this was it.’ Or, ’I have and will continue to fail you.’ We shuffled around rooms, patted one another on the shoulder, sighed a lot.
During that time there were layers of lighthearted conversation masking love, masking difficult conversation, masking confusion, sometimes masking a bitterness that didn’t have a name. Sometimes when saying goodbye for a few days our voices would crack, and we didn’t really know why, but we’d make comments about beating traffic, mentioning that it ‘wouldn’t be long at all,’ until next time.
We didn’t say ‘What if I never see you again?’ We didn’t say ‘Why haven’t I said to you all of those things I want to?’
There were occasions, though, during those times, that didn’t feel like some sort of weight, like peripherals singed dark at the edges. My Dad is a guitar player. He has been since he was 15 and, rebelling against his family or society or schooling or some invisible monster, he became one with reckless abandon. He flung his life into musicianship playing full time, then part time, then full time again. He loved old rock and roll, jazz and blues, country. He appreciated the greats: Johnny Winter, Duane Allman, Miles Davis. He learned from them about rhythm and soul and blues, carrying their lessons into the bands of his youth, his adulthood, and into today.
After his treatments, when he was beginning to climb back up the rocky hill to health, he played his first gig in many months. He couldn’t sing, his voice left in a chemically-induced coma in a ditch somewhere, but he had his guitar. Our family was there, wide-eyed and nervous, wringing our fingers and smiling too much. We watched him that night, standing atop the cheap plywood deck, neon lights and plastic tarps advertising $2 Miller Lites, his thinned body clutching the guitar like a lifeline.
Led by his former band, he stood just to stage left, his body dimpling in and out of the bright lights. They began with light hearted country, and his eyes lit up with the casual effortlessness of if all. His fingers flew up and down the fretboard, his eyebrows arched, hips swaying back and forth. We smiled, all of us in our family, deep down into our bones and across rooms or universes into each other. We breathed. Was it the first time in a long time? We breathed.
Later in the set he began a Jeff Buckley version of Hallelujah and for a few minutes in that dirty bar the room was silent, suspended in some kind of time that doesn’t count down into the ends of minutes, but rather up into the heavens of them. The notes hung off each other, cascaded down staffs unseen into a haunting and beautiful weariness. In all of our eyes were tears, real tears of unapologetic sentiment. Something passed through us then, my emotionally bound family, a kind of hope or resolution or recognition. It may not have changed everything, all of our constipated conversations, but it did give us the space to breathe. That night gave us the space to try.
All of that to say that what it took to bridge gaps of understanding in my family was bits of mahogany and string and carbon fiber. It was years of practice and patience and guidance from teachers or professors or idols. It was art.
In my family, these issues, they are trivial. Petty dust-covered corners of human nature that could just as easily be swept up if we weren’t so stubborn. But we have larger issues, humanity, and in times of shouting and raging and raising of fists, I’d like to think that the answer could be the same as it was in my family. I like to think that if there were a gift that would transcend language and allow us to communicate, be it across borders or classrooms, across racial or socioeconomic or demographic divides, or even, to start, just across families adrift, it is this thing my Dad has. It is art.
Looking now down roads into years or futures I know very little, but I know this now. I will forever give my kids art, and hope that they learn to communicate with it as my Dad has.
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