I am a professional communicator. No, really. I am. You can look it up. I've been communicating professionally for a long time. That doesn't necessarily mean I'm good at it; just that I'm better at it than I would be at auto mechanics, for example, or anything that requires you to work with -- shudder -- numbers.
During my career I've faced a lot of different challenges, communicatively speaking. But nothing in my experience could prepare me for the communications crisis I faced one day a few years back when I tried to talk to my father on the phone.
Dad, bless his heart and his pacemaker, was 88 at the time. At that point in his life, he had a hard time keeping pace with the flow of conversation even when he could hear it. But when he was having a bad hear day . . well, communication is difficult, if not impossible.
And that day was a bad hear day.
"Hi, Dad," I said when he answered the phone. "How are you doing today?"
"Hello? Hello? Who is this?"
"It's me, Dad. Joe!" I was speaking louder, just in case.
"I can't hear you," he said. "Who is this? Hello?"
I cranked up the volume. This was familiar: raising my voice to be heard by Dad, knowing that there's a good chance I still won't be understood. "It's Joe," I bellowed. "Can you hear me?"
"Joe? Is that you? You sound like you're far away. Where are you?"
"I'm home, Dad," I said. "How are you?"
"Mother isn't here right now. She passed away, you know."
"Yes, Dad," I said, louder. "She's been gone for a long time now. Sixteen years."
"Hello? Who is this? I can't hear you!"
"It's Joe, Dad. Do you have your hearing aid on?"
"Your hearing aid," I said, pretty much shouting at this point, partly so he could hear me and partly out of frustration. "Do you have it on?"
"Maybe." I could hear him fussing with something. Then he asked: "Where are you?"
"I'm home, Dad. Can you hear . . ."
"I can't hear you very well. Are you sure you're talking into the right end of the phone?"
I wanted to scream, as much from aggravation as from the desire to communicate with my father. Then I thought about what he had just asked me: "Are you sure you're talking into the right end of the phone?"
I started to laugh. I must have been laughing pretty loud because Dad started laughing, too. To tell the truth, I don't know if he understood why. But something magical happened in that moment of mutual laughter. For the first time in a long time we were on the same page. We shared a moment of real communication -- thanks, at least in part, to our inability to communicate.
Life can be unpredictable that way. Just when we're feeling smug and confident, somebody comes along and asks if we're talking into the wrong end of the phone. Not only do these little nuggets of reality help to keep our feet firmly planted on earth, they can often bring illumination and understanding. A lifetime of insight and inspiration can be found in an instant. Chaos can be calmed by a sudden mo-ment of clarity. And a communication crisis can be turned into a laughing matter.
Even for a professional.