How I Learned The Value Of Silence

Vincent O’Keefe shares how a cop and a traffic controller showed him that silence can often be the most effective form of communication.

“The man in the red blazer seems to be in charge,” I said to my widowed father-in-law, Frank, as we entered the large hospital’s u-shaped drop-off zone. A cacophony of vehicles and pedestrians, the zone required its own traffic controller wearing bright safety colors. For patients needing wheelchairs and escorts, a team of fellow red blazers waited nearby.

I was dropping off Frank for a post-op check-up after his second aneurysm surgery. He had already survived three previous heart surgeries, making him a bit of a legend among the doctors (and a bit of a Frankenstein among his grandchildren whenever they viewed his scars).

After pulling over to the side of the long, curved driveway, I jumped out of the driver side, bounced around the car, opened the passenger door, and started helping my father-in-law out of the car. At the same time, I motioned to the main red blazer and began explaining the situation. Pointing at Frank, I said: “He has an appointment in the ‘cardio’ building and will need a wheelchair. Would you or someone else be able to get him there? I have to…”

“Excuse me,” he interrupted with a raised hand. “You are doing all the talking, but I’d like to talk with the patient.” With that, he looked down at Frank, verified that what I was saying was true, and then agreed to marshal a wheelchair and have someone take Frank to his appointment.

I admit: I was annoyed. There was no reason for him to shush me like that, I thought. To add to my frustration, when I got back in the car I was unable to move due to other stopped cars dropping off other hobbling patients.

So there I stayed—and stewed. A minute later, I saw blazer-man pass Frank off to another employee to take over the errand. Then my nemesis approached and motioned for me to lower my window. I thought he was going to reprimand me for something else, and I prepared to bite my tongue again.

Instead, he said with a smile, “You are a good son. Many people simply drop their older relatives off and they don’t know what’s going on. You are a good son.” After revising my face, I smiled, thanked him, and didn’t bother to correct the “son-in-law” part.

As the traffic broke and I started driving away, I took a moment to bask in the glow of a job well done. Yes, I thought, I am a good son-in-law. But then I had to chuckle, for the incident brought back memories of another shushing over two decades ago.

My wife and I met in college. A few months into our relationship, we experienced the proverbial kissing-in-a-parked-car-that-gets-interrupted-by-a-police-officer moment. There we were, embracing in the front seat, when an officer pulled up, got out of his car, and shined a flashlight in our window. As I rolled down the window, I started to assure him we were about to leave.

Immediately, he shushed me and declared: “Sir, I want to talk to the lady. Ma’am, are you OK?” After my embarrassed future wife assured him she was, he told us to move on and went back to his car. He did not say “You are a good boyfriend.” Nor did he say “You are a good future son-in-law,” but I don’t begrudge him that.

I admit (again): I was annoyed. Though in this scenario, I was also scared (and did not have such purity of intention as in the later shushing incident.) But it never feels good to be shushed, as we all know from our school and library days. (In fact, one of my college librarians compounded the shame of shushing when she would make etiquette-challenged announcements like “The library is closing. Please leave.”)

In hindsight, however, I realize these two bookends of shushing—first by the cop, then by the traffic controller—mark my marriage in stark relief. In both cases, I was viewed as a potential predator, so I agree with the overall goal of the shushing. But I had to fight to remain silent all the same.

In my marital migration from bad boy to good son, such moments of being shushed have taught me one of the ironic keys to effective communication: silence. Indeed, we could all use a man (or woman) in a red blazer helping us control the emotional traffic clogging up our relationships. Blazer-man could help us learn when to stay in our cars and listen in silence when we really want to jump from our seats and scream through the intersections of our lives.

Vincent O’Keefe is a writer and stay-at-home father with a PhD in American literature. He is finishing a memoir about a decade of at-home parenting. Visit him at

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