There is a fine little poem by a young Chinese America n poet from Chicago, Lee Yung Lee, which talks about the relationship of a father to his son.
Entitled A Story it runs something like this:
Sad is the ma n who is asked for a story
and can’t come up with
His five year-old son waits in his lap: “Not the same story baba!
Not the same one, a new one!”
The man rubs his chin and scratches his ear.
In a room full of books
In a world full of stories he can recall not one.
And soon he thinks
This boy will give up on his father.
And already the man lives far ahead
he sees the day the boy will go away. “Don’t go,” he says, “hear the alligator
Hear the angel story one more time. You love the spider story!
You laugh at that spider. Let me tell it!”
But the boy is already packing his shirts he is looking for his keys.
“Are you a god,” the man screams, “that I am mute before you?
Am I a god, that I should never disappoint
But truly the boy is still here. “Please, baba, a story!”
It is an emotional rather than a logical question.
It is an earthly, not a heavenly one.
And it posits
that a boy’s supplications and a father’s love
add up to silence.
Lee’s poem is about the inadequacy and inarticulateness of a father before his son. The poem reads just as well however when one substitutes mother-daughter, mother-son, father-daughter, or even wife-husband, husband-wife, or friendfriend for father-son.
One person’s supplication, be they child or adult; and another’s love too often add up to silence and disappointment. We are all, in the end, inarticulate in love and we all, ultimately, cannot not disappoint each other.
It is valuable to reflect on this occasionally, especially in relationship to those with whom we are most deeply bound. I think of so many situations where our supplications add up to silence.
Almost daily we find ourselves sitting across from our spouse, family, children, relatives, neighbors or friends in a situation which calls for a new story and we can “recall not one.” There is supplication in everyone’s eyes and in the very situation itself… “a new story, baba, not the old one!” But the supplications and our best intentions add up to silence.
We are mute before each other or we tell the alligator story again… we talk football scores, shopping, neighbor gossip, fashion, the weather, the latest TV show, but what’s important is not spoken.
And so our children sit on our laps as infants and toddlers, and then come home to visit on vacation and weekends, and we visit a family member or a friend in the hospital, and husbands and wives sit across from each other at a table, and parents agonize as they lose a closeness to their children as those children wrestle with the restlessness of puberty, and families gather for birthdays, anniversaries, and other celebrations and, too often, we feel like saying: “Are you a god that I should be mute before you… Am I a god, that I should never disappoint you!”
There is no shortage, ever, of supplication. Mostly though we can only repeat a few timeworn stories. “Let’s talk about sports! Have you heard this joke?”
Suddenly everyone’s packing to leave and we say: “Don’t go! Hear the alligator story again!” But truly they are still here and saying only: “Please, baba, a story!”
Iris Murdoch begins perhaps her greatest novel, The Black Prince, with a foreword that contains the words: “I have known, for long periods, the torture of a life without self-expression.” Nowhere is this torture more felt than in relationship with those dearest to us.