Every night, my dad reads to my boys.
I’m not sure when this routine began. I know that for a long time after Shawn died, I was an active participant in bedtime for Austin and Tommy. Sometimes I read to them, or I laid on their beds as I watched them fall asleep. But slowly, my dad took over the routine. Because Claire goes to bed a bit later now, I’ve started to sit in the room with them while my dad reads their bedtime story.
And that is what I’m doing right now as I write. I am listening to the sound of my 72-year-old father read to his grandsons. I am listening to the sound of a voice I’ve heard constantly throughout my life.
It is a voice I know from many years of my father reading to me – Anne of Green Gables and Little House on the Prairie and the Secret Garden – a voice that is low and with a little bit of a hum. It is his reading voice, one that says, “be still and listen.”
My dad sits on the floor tonight, reading Harry Potter. Austin is in his bed, and my dad leans his back against the edge of the bed while Austin peers over his shoulder, reading the words in the book. Every once in a while, Austin asks a question (“is he talking about Harry or Sirius?”) and my dad answers briefly. If he asks too many questions, my dad stops answering, and says, “listen,” with a firmness to his voice.
Tommy and I are on the top bunk, and Tommy stares at the wall. He is sleepy, and I’m not sure he is following the story. He is still so small, and his blinks are getting longer and longer, but when I look at him and smile, he smiles back.
Really, I am a bit like Tommy. I am not really listening to the plot of Harry Potter. I haven’t been listening for any of the nights that I’ve sat up with Tommy on his bed. I never stay for the whole story, as I have to make sure Claire gets to bed and the alarm is on and there is an extra glass of water for Tommy by my bed for when he comes in at 2 am.
But like Tommy, I love sitting up here, listening to the sound of my dad’s voice. I get that it’s a bit strange. How many other 41-year-old women are in my position, sitting on the top bunk of a child’s bed listening to the sound of her father read Harry Potter, night after night?
At times, there are words in the book that are difficult to understand, and my dad always stops and defines them. “Do you know what perplexed means?” he asks Austin. “No,” Austin says. “Confused,” my dad replies, and keeps reading. Maybe Austin will remember this word and maybe he won’t. I think, at that moment, how often I speak like this when I’m reading to my children or even to my students.
I hear Austin ask another question about what is happening in the book. “Just listen,” my dad says, but his voice is quieter this time. He knows that sleep is coming soon for both boys, and there is a slowness in the cadence of his voice. But he is also engaged in the story, and he keeps reading even as the boys fall quiet. He stops defining words now, knowing at least subconsciously that this is not the time to do such a thing.
I’m now sitting down on Austin’s bed, as Tommy is asleep. I can see only a tiny bit of the top of Austin’s head, but he is still, and probably will fall asleep before the end of the chapter. He may not remember a lot of what my dad is reading right now. Tommy won’t remember it at all, if he’s even understood anything at this point. The night is getting later, and it’s time for me to go and check on Claire.
My dad has also been reading to Claire, though that is not at bedtime. He reads to her in the in-between moments, from his medical books or from whatever book she is reading. She likes to lay on his chest as he reads, snuggled up next to his side.
I can hear his voice as I sit in Claire’s room. She asks me to read the next chapter of Little Women, and I say yes, but I ask her to tell me where she is in the story. What is happening to Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy? For the life of me, I cannot remember any of the details she is recounting, though I know my dad read me the book multiple times when I was a child.
I can’t remember much about any of the books he read me, to be honest. I can’t remember what happened to the boy in The Little Prince or why the garden was hidden in the Secret Garden. I only remember the sound of his voice, the same voice he is using now.
I can hear my dad finish the chapter and put the book away. He speaks softly to Austin, and then groans a bit as he gets up from the floor. He is not a young man anymore, a fact I often forget except in these sorts of moments. He had grown old since he first read to me, but the cadence and the hum of his voice are the same. I know he would be incredulous to learn that I cannot remember any of the plot lines of these books he once read to me. But I remember other things, things that are not part of the specific details of any book or definitions in any dictionary.
Be still. Listen.