I can barely hear what Sally is saying. Her lips move, but she’s covered her tiny mouth with miniature hands. She looks like someone with a secret that she might be willing to confess.
“Did you say something, sweetheart?” I ask, trying hard to conceal my curiosity, trying hard not to lead the witness.
Sally isn’t yet four years old. She has lately been struggling with the arrival of her new baby brother Billy, who has soaked up every excess ounce of attention since arriving home from the hospital.
Fair to say, Sally would like her old place of prominence back. She isn’t above playing games to get it.
Sally repeats whatever it was she said the first time. Her voice is soft and high and gentle, like the puff of air beneath the wings of a butterfly. I still can’t hear it.
“I’m really sorry, love, but Daddy’s ears aren’t so good. What did you say?”
She drops her hands to her sides. She glares. What a disappointment I must be. Here she is, ready to spill the beans, and Daddy is playing hard to get.
What a letdown the big world can be when you’re three.
“I wanna whispa somefing in you ear,” she says in her baby girl voice, now at full volume, and punctuated by a sharp stomp of her bare right foot on the rugless floor. I lean down so she can speak directly into my auditory apparatus.
What could this be about?
The moment she has been manufacturing in her mind has arrived. I am at her disposal. I wait. She says nothing. I begin to unlean myself. She grabs my shoulder. Unable to remain in the bent position, I drop to one knee.
“Wait,” she says. “I wanna whispa somefing.”
“Go ahead then,” I say. “Daddy doesn’t have all day. I’m getting ready to put the dishes away.”
I can feel my patience slip. These are the times that try parents’ souls. Still holding my shoulder, still she says nothing.
“Sally . . .” I start, but she stops me.
“I love you Daddy,” she says.
My heart skips.
“I wanted to whispa dat in you ear.”
My heart finds its rhythm again. Sally and me, we have a groovy kind of love.
“Oh, Sally. I love you too. More than you can ever know.”
We hug. She seems pleased again. At least until the next time I disappoint her.
The world is a confusing place. It will often ignore you. Things change in an instant, and they don’t change back. People are born; people die. Doubt persists. Every once in a while a kid needs to be reassured that Daddy’s full attention is obtainable.
The need doesn’t go away when you’re not a kid anymore. Maybe it dims a bit; dulls. The great existential fear is that no one’s listening. Maybe there’s nobody on the other end of the line.
I don’t mean to scandalize you. It’s a common anxiety, even among Christians.
The fear runs both ways. I often wonder if maybe God is trying to tell me something and I’m not hearing it. It could be that I can’t hear it, or it could be that I won’t hear it.
Either way, I’m in trouble.
In the preface to his aptly-named 2004 play Doubt, John Patrick Shanley meditates on the insecurity that we feel when we summon the courage to examine our beliefs: “Doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite.”
Fear of the void never leaves us. And Shanley is right—it sucks up a lot of energy.
Though we profess faith, and look forward to the life of the world to come, we are vulnerable to the sins that are born of impatience. I know I am.
We are sheep. We need to hear the shepherd’s voice. In my moments of doubt, when I’m feeling ignored, I listen hard for that whispa in my ear, and I know I’m not alone.
I know it.
From the October 2016 issue of Fairfield County Catholic