When I was a little girl, I was playing downstairs in our den one Saturday, listening to my favorite song ‘It’s a Small World’ and singing at the top of my lungs. Dad was working in his carpenter shop that took up a small corner of the basement. I must have played that record more than 20 times in a row. Over and over I sang and danced while Dad kept working. When Mom came home from running errands, she had bumped into a friend from years earlier and said to Dad, “It’s a small world.”
“You’re not kidding,” he said as he looked up at her and smiled. At that moment I realized just how many times I had played the song and that my Father never once asked me to turn the music down or change the record. He was so incredibly patient.
About four years ago, I noticed Dad was repeating himself more frequently. His short-term memory was fading and we learned that when he repeats himself, we shouldn’t interrupt him and ask him to talk about something else. When he’s telling those stories, that part of his brain that retains long-term memory is still working. Refusing to let him tell us what he wants to tell us can short-circuit that connection and cause that brain activity to cease.
At first, I really struggled with his redundancy and admit I did not handle this well. At times, when he started telling the same story for the third time, I would find a reason to leave the room.
But over time and with a lot of prayer, I started looking at it differently. I realized that listening is an art. And instead of listening with my ears, I’m learning to listen with my heart.
He may tell me the story six times in a row of how he happened upon an accident and saved a man’s life. And what my ears are hearing are the details of his tale. But when I listen with my heart, the message is very different.
When my Father tells me a story, I imagine what he’s really saying is:
“I feel so comfortable with you that I can talk freely with you. I enjoy your company and I feel secure in your love. I want to have a conversation with you and sometimes the best I can do is to tell you a story I’ve probably told you dozens of times before. But it means so much to me that you listen and don’t ignore what I say. When you make eye contact with me and nod in agreement, you’re showing me that I am important to you, despite this illness and what it has done to my body, I still matter to you. And that means more to me than you’ll ever know. That’s one of the many ways you show your love to me.
“You’re letting me participate in the conversation. You’re letting me engage my mind and my long-term memory. You’re speaking volumes to me just by sitting still and listening. I will always love you for that.”
For every time I get it right, there are more times I get it wrong. So when he’s telling me again how he learned to back a hay wagon into the barn as a boy, or that he drove a transfer truck in Germany on wet cobblestone while in the Air Force, I remind myself that one day I will desperately want to hear these same stories again but know he won’t be able to tell them. I remind myself that I don’t have tomorrow. I only have the here and now.
I remember how as a child I danced and sang to my favorite song while he lovingly never interrupted me. He let me enjoy being in my own little world. So now it’s my turn to let him enjoy being in his.