Silence—A Commentary by Alex Colletta

HOST INTRO: The strongest bonds between families are formed through lifelong, ongoing conversations. In part of our commentary series, Alex Colletta tells us about how conversations with his father changed forever. (0:12)

JOHN: Hi, Alex.

COLLETTA: That’s my dad. He’s behind the camera filming me as a baby. I’m crawling on the floor chasing after a red balloon.

JOHN: Get that balloon. Uh-oh! Where’d it go? Where’s the balloon? Alex, where’s the balloon? There’s the balloon.

I watch this video every couple of years to hear his voice. Sometimes I hear it in my dreams.

JOHN: Hi, Alex.

Just a few years after he shot this video, my dad got diagnosed with tongue cancer. The doctors said he had a slim chance of survival. And the kind of care he needed was so expensive my mom joined the military for their health benefits. She did tours of Iraq and Afghanistan.

My father went into remission but the cancer came back. When I was sixteen, the doctors said they’d have to remove his tongue. Years earlier, he told my uncle he’d rather die than lose his tongue. But when he was confronted with it, he had to do it.

The night before the surgery, our whole family came together for his last supper. My dad ate his favorite dessert—ice cream. But I don’t remember any of this. I don’t even remember going to the hospital the next day, but my aunt tells me that I was there and I was scared.

From that point on, everything he said to me was written.

The first conversation we had after the surgery went smoothly. He wrote on a whiteboard with a dry-erase marker, clearing each sentence with a pink cloth before starting the next. He smiled often, cracking jokes when he could, letting me know that it was still him.

He looked the same. If you saw him on the street, you wouldn’t think anything was wrong with him. He just couldn’t speak anymore.

My dad would still wake me up in the mornings. He’d shake me and scribble a note for me on his pad. But my vision was poor. I’d have to put in my contacts before I understood what he was saying.

Those last couple years of high school, I felt distant from my friends. No one else had a mute parent. It seemed like the worst thing that could ever happen.

Thinking back on those years, I called my uncle Bill and asked what it was like to see his older brother suffer.

BILL: I can’t imagine not being able to taste food, eat, or talk. It’d be so hard. At this point in my life—and I’m not in that situation—I don’t think I would do that. I don’t think I would get that surgery.

ALEX: I don’t think I would either.

My father lived another nine years. He passed away at 60. This month, I turn 30. With his luck, my life is half over. I try not to think about it, but I probably always will. Sometimes I’m reluctant to tell women I date about what happened to my father. Maybe they’ll think it could happen to me.

After worrying for a few years, I finally went to see a doctor. He checked my mouth and told me I was all clear. He also told me that type of cancer isn’t hereditary.

It’s been five years since my father died. Sometimes I still hear his voice in my head.

But here’s the thing about conversations written down. You don’t remember text that you read on a paper ten years ago. Not like someone’s voice. I don’t really remember most of the written conversations we had. Only the mood or tone. But I do remember the sound of his voice. And I hope I always will.

JOHN: Bye bye. Bye bye. Bye, Alex.

Alex Colletta, Columbia Radio News.

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