I would probably speak less. Yes, in the whistler’s disguise, words would betray me. Sentences would fall short of any significance. I would be an observer, a dreamer, taking a stroll in the park, whistling a tune.
Growing up I never learned to whistle. I can’t even pretend I know how. But in disguise, I could be as good as my father. My father has always been a great whistler. He whistles when he looks for something in the kitchen, when he is lost while driving, when words betray him because for years, he has acquired the quietest demeanor.
I often wonder if my father fulfilled his dreams.
On my last visit home, I asked him if he felt content with life. We were taking a walk on a trail in Virginia on a cool autumn evening. He was a few steps ahead; he’s always been a fast-walker and I was recovering from a case of the flu. I caught up to him and thought about how I wanted to phrase my question. My father and I do not have many conversations probably because he generally does not speak much. It’s not easy talking to him; I feel a lack of fluidity in our talks. But I make myself try sometimes.
“Are you content with life, Baba?” I asked him quietly as I was not quite convinced that is what I should have asked him.
“Of course,” he said, matter-of-factly.
He said that as long as his family was well, his children were happy, he had no complaints.
We exchanged a few more sentences and once again, I found myself bereft of words. I had been struggling for quite some time maintaining a clear head. It was as if someone had drained all of my energy and left me wordless, soulless. Due to my inability to whistle, I couldn’t fill up the silence. But it was neither an unbearable silence, nor the melancholy kind. We still heard the wind and the few birds chirping. Surrounded by woods, the narrow trail guided us forward.
“I think I am tired,” I said.
My body continued to ache from the flu’s remanence. I couldn’t believe that I was unable to keep up with my 80 year-old father. But it was a moment I’d remember forever: for once in my adult life, I was vulnerable and needed his strength to support me. This was a moment where he was not vulnerable, not like when he was at the doctor’s where he became a fragile, slim figure, powerless on the bed. I cherished my vulnerability. I didn’t need a disguise then. I didn’t need words or tunes.
The mask arrived on Monday, a week after I left my father and returned to the city. I opened my mailbox and there it was, in a box marked “FRAGILE.” I opened it hurriedly. I had needed a transformation for a long time, even before the flu hit. My face no longer appealed to me. My expressions no longer made sense. My friends had a hard time communicating with me.
“You are smiling but your eyes seem so far away, like you are not even here,” my best friend Jill said one morning at brunch.
Finally, a friend recommended a doctor. Doctor Ray Barnes, who treated my kind of ailment.
Doctor Barnes greeted me in his office, and after asking me a series of questions (How long have you had these symptoms? How do you sleep? How motivated do you feel when you wake up?), he prescribed a temporary disguise.
“A disguise?” I asked. “I am not sure I follow.”
“I only suggest it to special cases, one such as yours. I can see that your face is tired and restless. You can barely maintain that half-smile you’re displaying now. A disguise will help you give your face rest. You don’t have to try anymore to conceal your real feelings. You can just be whatever you want underneath the disguise. You can frown or smile all day and no one will question you. No one will demand to know the meaning behind your expression. What do you say?”
He proceeded to show me a book of disguises. I was impressed with how well kept this book was, in a glossy cover, each page laminated. I flipped the pages and after about 20, one caught my attention. It had hollow eyes, a wrinkled forehead with rounded lips. I couldn’t see the eyes but the face portrayed a familiarity that spoke to me.
“He is interesting,” I said.
“Oh, yes, the whistler,” Dr. Barnes says with a smile: “He is quite sad underneath so he whistles to make himself forget the sadness. I think he is an excellent choice for you. Tell me, what made you pick him?”
I look him straight in the eyes and say, “My father is a whistler.”
Photo Credit: The Rubin Museum of Art