I am sitting with my father, playing gin rummy, but I might as well be sitting in a monastery or any retreat house.
I am here for a week. Our days are simple and highly ritualized. Breakfast is at 8:30. (Two eggs on an English muffin, daily, for him.) We may converse for a while after breakfast, but conversation is always an effort for Dad. He turned 95 in February and is so nearly deaf he tried (unsuccessfully) for cochlear implants. He cranks up his hearing aids and I enunciate and we can dispatch any topic. But it takes a gentle kind of work. So it isn’t long before we refresh our coffee mugs, clear the table and set up for gin rummy.
This we can do in silence. His hands are too arthritic to shuffle, and the neuropathy in his finger tips makes it impossible to deal or hold his cards. But he can crank his automatic shuffler, and I always deal (we use two decks: the yellow deck means he is the “dealer” and has first draw, and the black one is mine). He arranges his cards in a rack.
We can play like this for hours. It may take seven hands for the winner to rack up 500 points, and that can take an hour and a half, maybe more if we dawdle long over our moves. The only sound is the flutter of the shuffler, the tick tock of the clock, the singing of the refrigerator motor, the birdsong through the open kitchen window.
After the morning round, we wash the dishes and take care of our chores. I may answer my email; he may check his stock trades. We run errands. We may play a little gin after lunch, but sometimes we’re lunching out, or if we’re home we are in the middle of planting tomatoes. But always after dinner, we clear the table and play into the night.
In many monasteries the Great Silence begins in the early evening and ends after Eucharist the following morning. We play gin rummy in a version of that dusky Silence. Our chairs creak as we lean in to draw a card, Dad sighs, I groan (he wins almost every hand), a car drones by, the three dogs bark next door. All this only heightens the silence.
You don’t need to talk with someone you love to be in communion. Men, especially, prefer a common task to a lot of talk; a nod of the head, a slight grunt, a sigh—these say enough. What matters most is the company, and the fact that what we are doing could not be done alone.
Most days I don’t sit for prayer when I am spending a week with my father. There’s too much to do in the early morning to get coffee on and breakfast cooked before eight o’clock. But it doesn’t really matter, because when I am here, I sit for hours hearing only my own breath and gazing occasionally over my suits of red and black at an old man who lives now only for love. Every time he gins, I win.