For the last 15 days my world has been full of silence. Not because I have been shut up in a room all by myself, but because Beth is not here. And in her absence, the silence is deafening.
I have thought many times over the last two weeks about the final five years of my parents’ life. Dad was alone at the house because Mama was living at Mt. Carmel Assisted Living or at Westbury Nursing Home. I was 75 miles away but thought often of him waking up in bed with no one to talk to. The spoon in the coffee cup at the kitchen table reverberating in the silence of his thoughts. Her in a strange place and mostly unaware of how she got there. The painful separation of an unexpected grief that lasted for years.
Silence is born out of absence.
After the kids were grown and gone, Beth and I would talk often of how still the house had become. A hush came to live with us in place of screaming kids and rowdy teenagers. Calm took the place of constant activity. Quiet replaced the sound of slamming doors and music being played behind the door of a closed bedroom down the hall. We imagined what the kids were doing and what they were up to and all the noise and laughter that followed them. And we smiled in the silence of our new life.
The silence that surrounds me now is different because it is solitary. Silence is bearable when it can be shared. It is unnerving when you are alone with it.
Some people, I would guess, choose to try and drive the silence away. The TV plays non-stop in an attempt to fill the space. To create company. But I find that the emptiness refuses to be muzzled. When you turn off the sound, the void seems wider. The absence more profound.
So, I have chosen to embrace the silence for now. I have watched more sunsets in the last two weeks from my folding chair out in the yard than I have watched in the last two years. A slight breeze in the woodland around me. Max watching every move I make. The earth making one more revolution with the promise of more.
The downside is that my mind wanders to places I cannot seem to control. The upside is that I have reflected on life in a way that my days prior to now have not allowed. Silence gives room for the contemplations that seem necessary.
In the silence, I have learned that I am not alone. I am overwhelmed by what seems like a thousand prayers of friends and family that embrace the world around me in the midst of her absence. The messages and the phone calls give the silence meaning in a way that I cannot adequately explain. So many similar journeys of others who have shared their experiences which stand in opposition to the silence that would otherwise ruin me.
On a couple of occasions, I have driven down to Columbus in the late evening to sit in the parking lot outside the hospital. Max goes with me for company. Though it is late, and the sun is gone, the heat rises almost unbearably from the asphalt as we sit in silence.
These visits are about nearness. My proximity to her absence calms the disturbance that constantly stirs within me. I stare at the concrete and brick and windows, and I see her. Nurses busy by her beside. The pulse and whir of machines that intervene on her behalf. And for a change, it is a good silence to be close to her suffering.
The silence has taught me that suffering is everywhere. I used to acknowledge that concept much like I might give consent to the sun rising. An impassioned fact that I have taken for granted most of my life. But suffering feels different now. I am more aware of it than ever before.
In the last two weeks of my own journey, others have also suffered. A precious child was still born. Friends of mine have stood by the graveside of loved ones. Cancer has delivered more heartbreak. I am keenly aware that suffering gives no favors and takes no breaks.
Whatever happens, out of this silence, I am convinced that I will be changed for the better. God is constantly at work in the restless fray and His presence in this awful ordeal is inescapable for me. Even in my most bitter moments, the urgency of the eternal is undeniable. By all definitions, this is a spiritual journey of profound porportions. I am both undone and rebuilt with every day that passes.
Whomever said that silence is golden, probably had something else in mind other than suffering. The quiet at the end of a busy day. The moments we all cherish to get away from the routine of life. The significance of a moment when everything slows down.
Still, though my silence is not golden, I am acutely aware of the opportunity that the quiet brings. I no longer take her for granted in ways that the last 43 years has made me comfortable with her presence. Her books lie on the kitchen table. Her bathroom sink looks just as it did the day she went into the hospital. Her clothes are washed in preparation for her return. Her place remains in this house. Her touch is in every room.
She is not lost in the silence of her absence.
This may be silly. I could be making more of this than it deserves. But I am convinced that Max feels her absence with me. He lays on his bed by the fireplace for a while, but every now and then he gets up and wanders off into our bedroom. He’s gone for just a minute or two, and then he returns and flops down on the floor beside her end of the couch.
I can’t read a dog’s mind, but I know he’s looking for her. I can tell that he feels the silence just as much as I do. Beth would smile if she knew. And I will tell her soon.
In the meantime, I have been going to work the last few mornings. Not because I hope to be productive, but because I need the distraction of work to replace the things that occupy my mind. I have been surprised that the silence follows me. In it, I wait on the morning call from the Doctor. Then, I wait on the afternoon update from the nurse. And in the waiting the world moves in slow motion. In my attempt at routine, I go through the paces with the volume turned off.
“Don’t worry about me,” I tell the kids. “I’m gonna be fine.” And I mean that. I am where I must be on this road toward healing. I don’t know how it can be any other way.
One day soon, the silence will be over, and she will be home.