By Sean Lee, Gr. 11
This story was selected as the second place winner in the 2020 NTCI Creates Contest. Congratulations, Sean!
I pressed the play button on the faded blue box. My stomach fluttered, and I could
feel a small drop of hope growing inside of me. I imagined the drums pound away
followed by the iconic bass from “Billie Jean”. But in reality, my ears were overwhelmed
by something else. Silence. I pressed the stop button and took out my ear buds.
Disappointment flowed into me. It was only supposed to be temporary. Two weeks they
said. It’s been a month. I fought the urge to cry and thought, “How could this happen to
My dad believed that music is a universal language. He said that it was impossible
to describe the feeling of listening to Miles Davis’ album “Kind of Blue” while staring out
the window on a rainy day or playing in the pit band for a little known musical called “Les
Miserables”. He explained that even though we aren’t able to articulate that feeling in a
comprehensible way, it gives all of us the same sense of belonging.
For me, that feeling came when yelling “SHAAAWN” with my friends and fifty
thousand others at a concert or dancing along to K-Pop songs with my dad on long road
trips. Even in the calm of night, I would sit on the porch of my cottage with my dad,
looking at the stars and taking in the quiet orchestra of crickets chirping.
Whenever my dad would go on about music being a universal language, my mom
would just sit there and smile. She disagrees with my dad but has given up on trying to
fight him about it. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, language is “the words,
their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a
community.” My mom would know this especially well since she wrote it.
My mom was a lexicographer or in simpler words, a dictionary editor. Her job was
to read and highlight interesting vocabulary from a variety of sources, and revise/create
definitions to put into the dictionary. One time, she took me to her office and had me walk
around the Editorial Floor. It was silent to the point that I could hear someone’s pen drop
from the other side of the room. I also saw one of the editors staring into space deep in
thought. After leaving to go home, I was never able to look at a dictionary the same way
On the off chance that my dad didn’t talk about music, he loved telling the story of
how he met my mom (he loves the show too). Admittingly, there’s something poetic about
the combination of a musician and a dictionary editor. There’s one person who constantly
pushes the boundaries of how language is used in their work, and then there’s the other
who works to track how language changes in everyday use. I guess if I were in his
situation, I would probably reminisce about it a lot too.
He sat me down once in front of the campfire at the cottage and started with
something along the lines of “It was a dark and stormy night” like an extremely cliche 80s
“I was walking outside of Rockwood after a gig when I saw a lady across the street.
She was sitting inside of a bus shelter, arms crossed and shivering from the cold and
rainy night. I swear it was like God sent an angel for me down to Earth!”
“Dad, since when did you believe in God?”
“Since two seconds ago. Shhhhh it’s my story.”
I slapped my hand against my forehead while laughing.
“Anyway, I took out my umbrella, crossed the street, and made my way towards
her. I could feel my heart start to beat out of my chest. As I approached her, I called out
‘excuse me? Ma’am?’”
I burst out laughing. “So you’re telling me, that the best thing you came up with to
say to this beautiful woman was ‘excuse me ma’am?’”
“Looking back on it, I could’ve probably said something better.”
“Either way, after I called out to her, I noticed that she didn’t respond. I called out
again, ‘excuse me, ma’am?’ She didn’t respond again. I decided to walk up to her and tap
her on the shoulder. I said quickly because of my nerves, ‘Would you like a ride home? Or
if you’re uncomfortable with me driving you, would you like me to call a cab?’ She stared
at me, confused. At that moment, something clicked, and I tried something else. I pointed
at her, then I tapped my ear followed by my chin. She nodded and made a motion as if she
was knocking on a table with her hand. I smiled, pointed at her again, and then waved my
hand in front of my face. She smiled too. And that Taylor, was history.”
“Wait, let me get this straight. You met mom at a bus shelter in the middle of the
night and asked her if she wanted a ride home.”
“Yeah, it was incredibly romantic.”
“Dad, if that happened to me, I would’ve run away as fast as possible because of all
the red flags.”
“Exactly. Don’t be like your mother. She’s fearless, too fearless in fact.” Dad started
gazing into the distance. His smile slowly washed away and his eyes were tinged in
sadness. I knew that was my cue to leave the room and get ready for bed. I fought back the
urge to cry.
I turned to mom and touched my chin and then pushed out my hand until it faced
the sky. Then, I touched my right elbow pit with my left hand and lifted my right arm
until my fingers faced the sky. “Good morning!”
My mom smiled and did the same back. “Good morning!” Mom had made waffles
that day knowing they were my favourite type of breakfast (pancakes suck).
“Where’s dad?” I signed.
“He left early in the morning for an early gig.”
I nodded and sat down at the table to start digging into the waffles.
My mom waved at me to get my attention. “So, I have been thinking for a while
and I’ve decided that you were old enough.”
I stopped eating and focused on her. “Old enough for what?”
She beamed and reached into her bag from under the table. She pulled out a faded
blue and grey box.
I pointed at the strange box and then held my two hands with my palms facing the
air. “What is that?”
My mom chuckled and then pointed at the box. She then lifted her hands, palms
down, and moved them side to side. Then, she opened her right hand and touched her
thumb to her forehead, then her chest. “It’s a Walkman.”
I pointed to my chest. Then, I made a fist next to my head and then stuck out my
thumb and index finger. I shook my head while I was doing this. “I don’t understand.”
She chuckled and signed, “When I grew up, I didn’t have fancy iPods or phones
growing up. Our generation had this to play music. Good old cassette tapes and
“But why am I getting this?”
“Well, when I was growing up, I loved listening to this Walkman. There was a
point in my life where I wasn’t able to listen to it anymore, so I held onto it until now.
Since you’re going into music for university, I decided that it was a good time to pass it on
to you. Think of it as a way to remember your father and I when you move away.”
I smiled and touched my chin and pushed out my hand until my palm faced the
sky. “Thank you.” I picked up the Walkman and observed the weird orange button on the
top. I thought, “It’s no iPhone X, but it’s better than nothing.”
I sat up in my bed. “Second time’s the charm.” I felt butterflies starting to fly in my
stomach. I pressed on the play button and held my breath. Silence. My shoulders slumped,
and I could feel tears starting to form in my eyes. I imagined my mother’s face and the
sheer look of happiness she had when I took the Walkman. “SSHL is a bitch.”
Someone tapped me on the shoulder. I didn’t even realize that my dad had come in.
He pointed his thumbs toward his chest with curved fingers and then pointed them up to
the sky. Then, he pointed at me. “How are you?”
I put both hands in front of my face with my palms facing me and slowly lowered
My dad pulled me in and hugged me. The tears that started to form streamed out of
my eyes. I could feel his tears dripping onto my hands while he embraced me. I guess my
mom was right. Music isn’t a universal language. This is.