Profound silence of a conscientious objector


I remember the day my older brother came back from the navy. This was long ago. He was 20. I was 11. He had been in the navy for the summer. I had a postcard he had written me under my pillow and I read it every night and never folded it or let any of our other brothers touch it because it was mine and it had been sent to me from his ship and it was mine.

He slouched in his chair, my older brother, tanned and weary and dismissive and friendly. I wanted to say something amusing to make him see me but no words came so I just sat there and stared. His eyes were closed.

I knew nothing of what was happening, that soon he would quit the navy, and so be eligible to be fed to the war, and that he would stand before the draft board and speak bluntly about his conviction that war was a criminally stupid way to solve problems, and that he would serve his nation during the war instead as a teacher and coach in a school in mountains so remote that many people there could not read or write.

He seemed much taller and leaner since he had come back from the ship. I sat there staring. He must have felt my gaze because he opened his eyes and said something witty and dismissive and I laughed although I was not sure what he meant. I asked him if he wanted a sandwich and he said sure and I ran to get one. Sandwiches were a way of talking in our family.

He was in the navy and our dad had been in the army. Our dad had been in not one but two wars. Our dad was proud of my brother when he left the navy. He was proud of my brother when he stood before the draft board and spoke bluntly about war being a criminally stupid way to solve problems. That's the kind of dad he is.

He came home from work a few minutes later, after I had given my brother the sandwich and resumed staring at him from across the room. When our dad came through the front door he took his hat off with his left hand and brushed his son's left shoulder with his right hand and my brother opened his eyes and reached his right hand up and touched my dad's hand.

You would think that you could never remember such a small gesture after so many years but I remember it as if it happened one sentence ago.

You would think such a gesture would get lost but it did not get lost and there is my father saying something with his hand to his son and my brother saying something back to his dad.

A minute later our other brothers ran in because they heard dad come home, and probably then there were words spoken, we were never a family at a loss for words, but I don't remember anything else spoken that day except that which was spoken without words. You would think not much can be said bluntly without words but it turns out probably the most articulate things we say are what we say without words.

This is an amazing thing and the only way I can get close to explaining it is to say sit here with me on the couch and watch as my tall quiet father comes through the front door and removes his fedora with his left hand and reaches down his right hand like a net and touches the mountainous ridge of my brother's shoulder and my brother opens his eyes and reaches up his long tanned hand and touches our dad's hand.

See? There they are, reaching for each other again and again. They'll never stop. 

Brian DoyleBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland. 


Topic tags: Brian Doyle, war, Anzac Day



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Existing comments

beautiful, beautiful story, Brian. Thank you.
Pip | 24 April 2012

Brian, it's usually music that reaches down into my core and touches me and makes me cry with its sadness and poignancy. But I'm sitting in my office and the tears are streaming down my face. That image, the touch that needs no words ...

Thank you.
ErikH | 24 April 2012

Absolutely, Brian, " . . .the most articulate things we say are what we say without words."
Reminds me of Francis of Assisi, who urged his followers: "When preaching the gospel, use words only if necessary."
Gordon Rowland | 24 April 2012

Your story is an beautiful reminder to we who have never served that there is so much that we can never know. My favourite line, though, is 'sandwiches were a way of talking in my family'. Such codes of intimacy. Thank you for sharing it with us.
Sharon Hillcoat | 24 April 2012

This is beautiful.
Moira | 25 April 2012

Many years ago, when I was in my early twenties, I came home from a foreign assignment. My youngest brother - he was only nine - came home from school. I heard our mother say: "Pat's in the loungeroom." This young blond lad I hadn't seen for three years slowly pushed opened the loungeroom door, rushed across the room and before I could rise from my TV chair he'd flung his soft child's around my neck. I hugged him back. Neither of us said a word. Then just as suddenly as he'd come into the room he left. This time I heard him ask his mother: "Is Pat going to stay home with us now?" My mother said something non-commital like "We'll see." Then he went out into the backyard to play with his dog. For him his life was back to normal. For me my life would never be the same again. But one thing has remained constant. Every time I see him I remember how he innocently welcomed me home and that moment of unconditional acceptance brings me peace. Thank you Brian for sharing your touching experience. I envied my young brother his resilience
Uncle Pat | 25 April 2012

'Sandwiches were a way of talking' . . . When my father-in-law was killed in a car accident, it seemed as if every resident in our little country town area (some whom I didn't even know), arrived at our door bearing cakes, casseroles, flowers etc. It was they who taught me to talk with food. I now have a motto: if lost for words, take fried rice!
Glen Avard | 26 April 2012

Soul food - silence
graham patison | 19 May 2012


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