“I wonder what your parents said when they whispered,” I told her. They were in love. In a way like few other parents I knew. They were good parents, like mine.
Growing up, I did not know our moms and dads were so rare. I did not know that the sharp words that make children hide in the corners where, in some houses, common and made the children hide their emotions and made them hide their family from the rest of the world.
Julie and I are twins of different parents, separated before conception, born at the same time into John Kennedy's America. We grew up not knowing that other parents did not bother to whisper, that in other homes, the dialogue in our parents' hush was the every-day, out loud currency that curled children's ears, pounded them until they thought it was normal and they became numb to the pang. Numb, they carried that numbness into the conversations of their adult relationships—with a slew of predictable results.
What did they say when they whispered? The things, good and bad, that kids should not hear. Things those kids will only know when they old enough to unravel the code inside of their own relationships. And out of convenience, forget that it was a truth harbored by their parents—secrets so pleasant and so unpleasant.
Things too complicated to explain, to understand, even for the grownups.
It is too complicated to understand that mom and dad are so mad at each other that they wished they did not love each other so much so that they could let out the rage whose origin they can't really understand because it is not the love. The rage is a stranger on the other side, wanting to jump in and play and make life look like mom and dad did not love each other so much.
Things too complicated to understand. Things like being in love. Like what mom and dad share that kids don't get to see—at least not on purpose and not deeper than an unconscious touch, stolen glance or tiny kiss. As kids, we are lucky to hear our parents say, “I love you,” to the other, and show it. We are lucky to not know the details of what comes after or what came before that compels them to say and show who they are to each other. We are free of that burden. Not our responsibility—even as we take on that responsibility in our own lives.
They also whispered the numbers in the checkbook ledger and the worry and the caution. At the same time, they show us a frugality that attempts to spare their children from that worry in adulthood.
They whisper the intimate illnesses of neighbors, relatives or their own, but still show us how to care for and be kind to their suffering. And to be especially nice to their kids, because they were hurting, too.
They whisper the fights of neighbors or relative—fights made of the rage that did jump to the other side—the other side of the bedroom door that is mommy and daddy space. They whisper for moms and dads whose hurt is so much that they no longer love each other and the rage escapes. And somehow, we know that we should feel for the children, even if we are afraid to absorb those scary emotions.
When they can, they whisper their own fights. The quiet tension confuses.
Julie and I could not imagine living on that other side, the side of life where no one bothers to keep parent stuff behind the bedroom doors. Or sometimes it is just so much that it cannot be contained in that small intimate space. She and I grew up in houses where we would have never thought that we would ever find ourselves saying out loud to a parent—or at least to ourselves—“How can you share that with your daughter/son?” It is not a child's burden, even an adult child.
Julie wonders about the winter of losing her father. She wonders. We wonder. Losing him, did she also lose the love he shared with her mother? What questions where left unasked? What did he leave? He left her with with more than his memory of his childhood Cubs and the baseball glove that reminded her of why baseball is important, important even to one of the girls of John Kennedy's America, even in her great longing.
But what is the secret to that love? What is that answer? We still search for that, not knowing what questions we would or should have asked to know better. Or, in my case, what questions I am still not brave enough to ask to learn the lessons that hid behind the door. What is worse is that we sometimes forget the lessons we have already been shown, strong and good and that made our homes.
There is more to know. How to we find out? The reality of her father's passing: I know Julie's mother wished she could whisper that, but the news was so loud. Did Julie's ears curl? I still have the chance to ask, knowing I have some of the answers, knowing I am afraid of other truths. My mother, my father: they are waiting, waiting to lean over and whisper the answers in my ear. But not all of them. Because there are some things kids just should not know.