Our apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side faces Broadway. We’ve long grown used to the cacophony from sirens (police, fire, ambulance), early morning garbage trucks, delivery trucks, traffic both pedestrian and automotive, buskers, demonstrators, nighttime drunks and crazies.
We are also fortunate to have a home in the rural Catskills where the silence is broken only by nature: wind, rain, thunder, a nearby river rushing on, birdsong, howling nighttime coyotes.
In either location it is frustratingly impossible to remember well the sound of my son William’s voice. Or his laugh. I’d know them instantly if by some miracle I heard them again, but there will be no miracle. There are still objects around to remind me of William; to see, touch, smell even. The sight of a baseball with its cover torn off, sitting in the shed by our meadow can bring me to tears. We used to have batting practice on a part of that meadow I trimmed low, erected some fencing for a backstop, and called Williams Field. Voice is harder for me. I try to imagine hearing him call, “Dad”. I remember the last words I heard from him, “I’m going in to watch TV.” But there’s something about the sound that is ineffable.
There are plenty of William sounds I do recall. When he was day trading at home in New York, his computer would make a “ka-ching “ sound, like a cash register, every time there was a positive transaction. It could be a very few cents, but those “ka-chings” would narrate the progress of his trading day.
William was a restless infant. Getting him to sleep, keeping him asleep or calming him back to sleep were difficult, interrupting undertakings, shortchanging my own sleep. Years later, when he was a young man, nighttime interruptions would be me imagining/wishing hearing his keys in the front door in the wee hours; or better, anxiously getting out of bed to discover he was safely home for another night.
When we first moved into our house in the Catskills we would often arrive from New York for the weekend in the early evening. While we relaxed, poured wine and prepared dinner, William would go to his room upstairs directly over the kitchen. Overhead we’d hear the heavy plunk of oak building blocks on the pine floor. Adult conversation would be punctuated by the stack and tumble of oak constructions. As he grew a bit older, the clack of wooden Brio train tracks signaled the evolution of ever more elegant transportation networks. Later still, plastic cascades of Legos would spill onto the floor. William loved his Legos. First came the dumping, then the sorting, then the building, We’d hear him making his way through the pile looking for the right pieces, as grand visions took shape from the clutter on the floor.
When he grew older still, he moved down to the basement. Then we’d hear him under the kitchen, riding a tricycle, later roller skating, still later shooting baskets at a small hoop fixed high on the side of the basement stairs. Sometimes I’d join him downstairs shooting foam hockey pucks or tennis balls while he guarded a goal his uncle fashioned for him out of electrical conduit, sticks scraping the cement floor, errant shots thwacking and denting the cellar wall insulation.
Even older, he developed a passion for Airsoft, replica guns that shoot a soft B-B-like pellet. Outdoors in the country, puff/click, puff/click, puff/click at a soda can, or a paper target, against a tree. Then a real B-B gun. We soon discovered a B-B sting in the flank of a deer too close to our garden was a very effective deterrent. Deer that used to stand in the meadow and look at us defiantly quickly became Pavlovian, starting tails up at the first cock of the gun, not waiting for the sting of the pellet to move them on.
Over time the volume turned up. The bang, bang, explosions and car screeches of video games. Stevie Ray Vaughan played at “Can you please turn it down.” – stressful volume, laughter at Family Guy and Simpsons episodes.
William was far from adept in the kitchen, but he did learn how to cook pasta, his dietary staple. The lid on the pasta pot clattering on and off, water draining into the sink. Parmesan cheese grating. Even gathering a plate and utensils he was not a silent chef.
The ring tone on his telephone became less about meeting friends. As addiction took over his life the telephone often led to hushed conversations behind a closed door, a sign that now “no good” probably was getting cooked up. We would eavesdrop out of apprehension about what might be going on. Trying to discern clues from the hush.
Until the night he told me “I’m going in to watch TV.” He went into the living room and shut the door. A friend called to talk to him. I opened the door. William was slumped over on the sofa, like he’d fallen asleep. I took a closer look. I was wrong. He’d been hushed by heroin.
Frantically trying to revive him I waited for the sound of sirens. Waiting for them to surface from the Broadway background, signals of hope, of rescue. They arrived, as they had the several times they’d rescued William before. This time there would be no rescue. Heroin had enough time to do its nasty business.
I can hear the wind, the drunks, the crazies, the coyotes. I no longer hear William, try as I might to recapture his voice. The sirens haunt me, no longer part of the Broadway background, but tormenting solo reminders of danger from the past, and sharp interruptions of a silence I never imagined, from a voice I no longer hear.