My father’s hearing aid released a high-pitched whistle. We responded by stopping and checking our surroundings. We all heard it except my dad, who carried on talking despite the noise until he noticed us all pointing. That’s what we considered sign language back then, in the decades that he spent drifting into silence. We shouted. We waved. We wrote on scraps of paper. My father nodded and pulled out a hearing aid, the correct one, because becoming aware that there was noise suddenly made it possible for him to hear it. He’d adjust the little beige switches and turn a miniature wheel.
I once dreamed of a child who lived inside a jar. It was peaceful there. His only thoughts were his own. At first I thought the dream was about me, about wanting to be safe, but then I looked closer. It wasn’t me. It was my father.
The human mind can’t comprehend the brain of an octopus. It can’t be drawn or described, It’s like trying to explain dark matter or the face of God. People can only catch it in glimpses. Maybe if you saw it all at once you would implode or enlighten. Some say an octopus has nine distinct brains, one in its head and one on the end of each arm, like fists. Brain fists. Some say it’s one brain that stretches across its body and down the length of each arm, like the shawl of an elderly woman in the fiction of your memory. It’s not centralized like the CPU of our own heads where our thoughts ping pong inside the skull. If we hadn’t a centralized brain, if we thought from our feet to our noses, the world might look different. Aren’t our computers built in our image and likeness? An eye to see, a brain in its skullbox, a microphone to hear, a mouse reaching out like a hand to hold our own? Octopus thought is decentralized, and when they look at you, really look at you, and you look back, you can’t know them, but you recognize their intelligence. They nod in return, recognizing yours.
My family is sitting in the living room. The TV is on, but silent, closed captions on the bottom of the screen. My mother and I discuss plans for the pink room, maybe moving the crib out. I tell her I want a hanging plant and point towards the ceiling. My father looks at me and follows my finger,
“What?” he asks me, looking to an invisible point.
“What?” he asks.
“It doesn’t matter. It’s nothing. I’m just talking.”
“Just tell me.”
My father waits and we don’t answer. We blink. Neither my mother nor I think communicating this idea is worth reaching for the pad of paper. My father rotates on his axis back to the TV like the hand of a clock.
Octopuses are famous for escaping their aquariums. Without bones they are able to squeeze through unexpected spaces. Some escape their tanks only to slip into other tanks, feast on rare fish and then return to their own, full and bloated. An octopus at a New Zealand aquarium escaped his tank and crossed the vast lobby floor to a tiny drain. He squeezed his body into the drain, the opening no larger than a fist, and was never seen again. He is presumed free.
My father and mother have a brochure for cochlear implants. A girl plays violin on the cover. My father, son of a singer, grandson of a singer, a singer himself, puts the brochure back in the pencil jar. It bends easily to fit the shape.
Growing up, my friends laughed at my delayed reaction. They would tickle me, and seconds later I would push them away. My thoughts had to travel a great distance from my brain to my hand. When I dream I see the tiny father in the jar again. He paces a circle at the base.
I drive my parents to Salado for the day. When I come out of the store, a biker is talking to my dad. He thinks my dad can hear him, and I want my dad to have that. Two travelers, passing through town, comparing notes. My dad is nodding in agreement and laughs at his jokes. I try to catch my dad’s eye. I want to translate what the man is saying, but I only know the signs for “cheese” and “cat.” My dad doesn’t need me though. He’s good at this. They circle the bike, pointing out cables and lines, suspension and transmission.
Octopuses float in a soundless world. They have no auditory receptors. If they want to tell another octopus something, they flash their skin, make a pattern or change texture. They never want more words than that flicker of light or roll of color. They see everything that needs to be said.
Two years after my father’s cochlear implants he was finally ready to feel disappointed. Cochlear implants, the fittings drilled into the sides of his head, cables and lines, a few wary electrodes, couldn’t transmit the promise of the brochure. He could hear the waitress talking but not understand the words. There wasn’t an adjustment for that.
We finally took sign. Everyone. Like a collective consciousness, we enrolled in ASL classes.
I stretched the pinkie of my hand against the wheel when driving. It had its own personal yoga practice. I had underestimated my hands for years. They were atrophied. I started signing everything. I engaged in reckless driving, signing the book I was listening to. Signing the morning news back at itself. I was thinking with my hands. I grew a brain in each fist.
I hadn’t spoken to my dad on the phone in twenty years. He called me on Skype.
“HOW YOU?” My dad signed.
And there was my dad, a fellow traveler, calling and comparing notes. Finally we could talk about all the important nothings of the world.