Lost For Words

Author: Mark Dunphy

On one of his weekly hospital visits to his Grandad, Nathan gets more than he bargains for. He is four years old and has not said a word in his short life. His Grandad has some advice that could change his life forever.

Nathan didn’t like the hospital. He didn’t like these weekly visits at all, if the truth be told. He would rather stay at home and play with his Playstation or play hurling with the rest of the kids on the road. He would even rather do his homework than come every Saturday morning to see his Granddad. Maybe that sounded very harsh but Nathan didn’t have a very good relationship with his Father’s Father and didn’t want it to continue.
Peter parked in the same spot as last week, and the week before that and the year before that. That was part of why he hated these visits with his Dad. Everything was the same. The same car parking spot, the same grey building, the same time, the same “Hello’s” as they passed the nurses in the hall. But none of this was why Nathan hated the visits. They were part of it of course but not the main part.
“Granddad will be looking forward to seeing you, Nathan,” said Peter as he held his son’s hand.
They were in the elevator making their way to the fourth floor and the ward where Mick now lived. Nathan wasn’t too sure how long his Granddad had been in the hospital but it seemed like forever. The smell of the ward hit Nathan as the elevator doors creaked open. The smell of old death. Everything was spotless on the ward and you could probably eat your dinner off the floors of the place but to Nathan, the whole place held an atmosphere of foreboding. He dreaded going to this place and he knew that all the patients in here dreaded being there.
Sister Cathleen nodded at them as they went down the hall and his Dad stopped to chat with her for a minute or two. Nathan squirmed out of his hand and began looking at the pictures on the wall. He went straight for the spot where his own masterpiece was pinned to the corkboard. He had drawn it in school a couple of months ago and when showed his Dad, he had cried. It was the first time Nathan had seen him cry. Actually, it was the first time he had seen any adult cry for that matter. He didn’t like it and it started the waterworks in him also. The result was a smudge in the bottom left hand corner of the picture caused by a combination of their tears.
However, he was extremely proud of the picture. In his opinion, it was the best one he has ever drawn. The house was a good copy of his own home and he had cut out the yellow sun from an old corn flakes box and stuck it in the middle of a rainbow sky. The green grass and pretty red tulips on the front lawn completed the colour scheme. It was the fact that he had drawn both himself and his Granddad sitting on the front porch drinking orange juice together and laughing that had caused his big, burly Dad to cry.
“Come on Nathan.”
He walked towards Peter who waited for him by the door to the ward. Both of them walked together to the very last bed on the right-hand side of the room. The sheets on the bed were clean and white and almost entirely flat. It was as though there was nobody in the bed, but underneath the sheets lay Michael Crowley. As always, Nathan sat in the nearest chair to Granddad’s weary face.
“How are you today Dad?” asked Peter.
As usual Granddad said nothing but only grunted a response. Today he looked older than normal, certainly far older than his 77 years. Nathan cracked a smile. It was more for his Dad than for himself. He didn’t feel happy. He didn’t feel comfortable. The whole ward was populated with old men and the air was heavy with a sense of doom. It wasn’t a place to get better, it was only a place to die. Nathan was only four years old but he knew that much. He knew Granddad was never going to see the outside of this hospital. Dad knew it too but wanted these visits to go on as long as possible. He came here every day before work and after, to talk to Granddad. Nathan was glad he was only forced to come once a week.
“Nathan’s here, Dad. He’s getting big isn’t he?”
Mick twisted his head and looked at his grandson. The white hair on his head danced ever so slightly as he eyed up the boy who sat in the chair next to the bed. In years gone by, Nathan imagined those eyes where as blue as the pacific ocean. Now though, they seemed jaded and sometimes Nathan wondered whether Granddad saw anything at all.
Granddad’s hand slithered out from under the sheets and reached for Nathan. He swallowed hard as the wrinkled, bony, liver-spotted arm closed down on his smooth-skinned hand. Granddad’s touch always felt like very old, very delicate paper rubbing against his skin. It felt damp too, clammy.
Mick tried to lift himself up on his elbows to get a better look but couldn’t quite manage it. His face was gaunt and getting visibly thinner every Saturday. The cancer inside of him was eating him alive day by day.
Nathan knew it. Peter knew it. Most importantly, Mick knew it too.
He tried to speak but all that came out was a raspy croak. He reached for the pad and pencil that always lay on his locker. His blotchy face grew redder as he struggled to get the pages under control. He scribbled something on the page and handed the pad to Nathan. He didn’t know what it said. After all, he had only started the alphabet in school and although he knew all the letters and their LetterLand characters – he couldn’t string words together yet. Nonetheless, he looked down at the words on the page and smiled up at his Granddad. The least he could do for him was smile.
Dad took the note and read it aloud.
“Have you spoken yet?”
You could almost see the tears beginning to form in his eyes. Nathan simply stared ahead at his Granddad. A gap of over 73 years between them but yet they were the same blood and shared the same affliction. Neither of them has spoken a word in over 4 years. Mick was simply unable to utter anything – the cancer in his throat putting paid to any chance of conversation. He felt that he had spoken his last words on this earth a long time ago. Nathan on the other hand simply chose to remain mute. He had a special needs teacher in his class but he didn’t really need her. After all, he understood everything Ms. Needham said and was always on top of his school and home work. Just because he didn’t speak didn’t mean he was stupid. Some of the other kids made fun of him because he was so quiet but they could say what they wanted – Nathan was strong enough to ignore them and to know that they weren’t important in his life. After all, who were they? He only saw them for a few hours a day in the confines of his class. None of them were his friends and he didn’t want to be pals with them anyway.
Nathan was pretty sure that he could speak at any time but he chose not to. He wanted to keep his words and make sure that they lasted a long time. He wanted to hold on to them and not waste a single utterance throughout his life. Even though he was only four years old, he knew there was a lot of talking going on around him without anybody really saying anything.
He looked at his Granddad and their identically cobalt blue eyes locked in to each other as he gently shook his head.
The raspy croak of what was left of Granddad’s voice was what Nathan has been forced to hear every week of his life without fail. Every Saturday morning and then extra runs on birthdays, Father’s day, Granddad’s wedding anniversary, Christmas, Easter. He wasn’t old enough to harbour the feeling of resentment but that was one of the emotions that was stunting his development.
The sun pierced through the ward’s windows reaching in vain for the floor’s linoleum surface. The gap was just too wide, the strength, the intensity of the rays a shade too weak to penetrate the cold floor. It was clean, but that bloody floor was certainly cold. Nathan could almost feel the icy grip reaching through his Total-90 Nikes, clambering upwards to try and seep into his bones, chilling his body until it turned to pure ice.
Words were the furthest thing from his mind at the moment.
Mick nodded towards his son and scribbled again on the pad. Peter read the words, looked quickly at both his Dad and his son and with a quick rub of Nathan’s hair got up from his chair.
“I’ll just step outside for a couple of minutes. Keep your Granddad company son.”
And then he was gone. And Nathan was alone with a 77 year-old man who couldn’t talk. He himself wouldn’t talk. He couldn’t read his notes either. This was going to be a long few minutes.
At first, Nathan looked around him, actively seeking out something else to focus his eyes upon. Surely nothing could be worse than his Grandfather? Wrong. All around the ward lay nearly dead men, every one of them closer to death than life. The inevitable air of inescapable destiny filled up the room like thick molasses. The only way any of these guys were getting out of this building was to be carried out – feet first.
Mick put both of his gnarly hands on his Grandson shoulders. It was everything he could do to not pass out. Nathan was right. He knew he was going to die and sooner rather than later. There was no way back from his current position. Never again would he do any of the simple things in life. Wake up in his own bed, walk to the park to talk to his buddies
(or were they all dead now too?),
read the newspaper whilst sitting on the front porch – a tall glass filled with beer next to him. Its funny what you miss in life when it is nearly at an end.
However, he wanted more than anything to pass on something to his one and only Grandson. He didn’t have money and the house was his own son to do with what he pleased. His entire worldly belongings fitted neatly into the locker next to his bed, save a few cardboard boxes stored in his otherwise empty garage. But Mick never put much impetus on materialistic things throughout his life and he certainly wasn’t going to change now. His testament would not be a monetary one but rather the passing of advice between one old man and one young boy.
Hopefully, it would prove more valuable than all the gold in Fort Knox.
The boy stayed very still, his shoulders trembling ever so slightly under Mick’s feeble grip. He stared at the old man and Mick was sure he could see beyond the physical and into his very soul. His strength would not last long so he wanted to get through this as quickly as possible. Reaching deep within his small reserves, he forced himself to croak the first words he had spoken clearly in Nathan’s short life. It hurt his throat like scorching coals raking down the inside of his neck, searching for all the possible nooks and crannies to injure him as much as was humanly possible. But still he persisted. If this was to kill him then so be it, but he had to get these words out.
The sound of his own voice certainly startled him after so long without hearing it. He spoke in his dreams of course, as well as in his thoughts but the subtle mechanisms of his ears had not heard the real tones of his words for over five years. And despite the wrenching torture he had to go through to get them out (or maybe it was because of it) – his words sounded like those of a stranger.
But if the sound of his voice sounded strange to him, that was nothing to the expression worn by the boy.
Utter shock etched his face when the old man spoke. The forehead wrinkled, the wispy blond hair seemed to stand on it own and the blood ran from his cheeks leaving them pale and wan. It was as if Nathan’s face had aged 30 years in a second. And even then he looked like a guy in bad shape. The boy and the old man could have traded places in the ward without anybody even noticing.
Still, Mick vowed to struggle on, forcing his twisted, cancer-ridden vocal chords to generate another flurry of words. He knew he that he hadn’t long and he wanted to get the words out as quick as he could before they were lost forever. It was a tremendous battle to force them out.
“I need to tell you something.”
The little boy’s eyes never wavered from his Grandfather but remained as big as saucers and as intent as a eagle. He was hooked and too scared to move. Mick shifted again in the bed to try and make himself a little more comfortable. It didn’t work.
“Your Dad loves you Nathan. You know that don’t you?”
Nathan nodded almost imperceptibly.
“Your Mom too.”
Another barely noticeable nod.
“But you don’t speak. Why?”
If Mick had somehow expected an answer to this then he was sorely disappointed for Nathan did not utter a word. The words were killing him completely now. Every syllable was taking a few hours from his life, hours he didn’t have to spare. Yet he persisted. His life was over but the kid’s life had not begun yet.
“My whole life I spoke too rarely. I was always the quiet one at the back of the class, the subdued one at the lunch table, the muted one at the pub. Now, I want to talk for as long as I want and I can’t. These are the first words I’ve spoken in 5 years and they will also be my last. ”
Mick gasped for breath and took a sip of the piss warm water that constantly stood on his locker beside the bed. It didn’t help. Nathan remained stock still under the spell of his suddenly talkative Granddad. The room temperature went up a couple of notches and he could feel the clammy onset of perspiration building up underneath his Manchester United jersey. He couldn’t move.
“Promise me this Nathan. Don’t be the one who stays quiet. Don’t be the one who stands back and let things happen. Don’t be the one who doesn’t get involved, doesn’t stand up for himself. Make sure you get your point across and always, always be yourself. Words are there to help us do this. Use them.”
Mick flopped on his back once more, his arms falling from Nathan’s shoulders like dry sticks. His throat felt like it had a hot poker, wrapped in barb wire plunged deep into its crevices and was been pulled and ripped by the angry hand of cancer. The pain was excruciating, the tears coming from his eyes – those of agony. His heart was about to implode with the sheer force exerted on his body. Mick, for the first time since he came to this God forsaken hospital, prayed for death to take him. But the Grim Reaper remained off stage for a while yet. Waiting. His time would come – certainly – but not at this minute.
He turned his head to the side and looked at his Grandson. Their deep blues locked once more in an impenetrable stare. Both of them were helpless.
Mick uttered the last words of his long life.
“Promise me Nathan that you will speak. Your Dad loves you and so does your Mam and they want what’s best for you. Don’t ever be lost for words.”
He couldn’t speak any more even his entire life depended on it. The pain was too much, the agony too unbearable, the cancer too strong.
Nathan was relieved that the speech was over. With every word, he could hear the pain as well as the words reverberating in his ears. It was killing his Grandad as each word was spoken but yet he wanted to listen to what he had to say. He simply nodded to the old man when the oratory ended. Again it was an almost imperceptible nod, but a nod nonetheless.
His father returned and upon seeing the exhausted body in the bed summoned the nurse immediately. Within a minute or so the bed was surrounded with hospital staff and Nathan stood forgotten about in the background.

A week later Mick Crowley was dead. A small gathering of family and friends stood around the grave as the pallbearers lowered his body into the sodden ground. The rain fell straight down in relentless sheets, pooling in the mucky grave. Everybody wore black, everybody felt black. It was the second time Nathan had seen his father crying and on this occasion it was worse, far worse.
He had no tears himself but he did feel sad inside.
The priest was saying a few prayers by the open hole in the ground but Nathan could barely hear him over the din of the lashing rain. They had taken a full ten minutes to get from the church to the graveyard and he was already soaked to the skin. In fact he could not have got any wetter. He stood right next to his Dad, the strong arm of his father cradling his shoulder trying desperately to give him some comfort that he didn’t require. His Dad was in more need of solace than he was.
As the mourners filed away when the service ended, only Nathan and his Dad remained by the grave.
As usual he was silent.
Dad, though was saying his last goodbyes to his father.
“Thanks for everything Dad. You were always good to me and I hope I made you proud of me. I love you Dad. Enjoy Heaven.”
He looked down at his son and with puffy red eyes, surveyed his son with a sadness that he had never experienced before. He wasn’t looking forward to the obligatory pub and endless stream of sympathetic well-wishers.
“Let’s go son.”
Nathan, however, stayed where he was and looking directly down at the soaked coffin said his first words.
“I’ll always remember what you told me Grandad. I’ll never be lost for words again.”
He then looked up at his stunned Dad and gave him a tight hug around the waist. Even in this most desperate of times, Peter managed to smile a smile that lifted his heart no end. He gave his son a quick toss of his hair and turned towards the graveyard exit. Suddenly the pub didn’t seem as ominous as it had done moments earlier.