If you could hear inside my head, you might think that I’m delusional. Either I’m talking to myself a lot these days, or I’m hearing voices and talking back. I’m guessing that in the aftermath of the death of a spouse, this is normal. I hope it is.
I talk to Beth all the time in my head. The other day we had a rather lively conversation about whether or not we needed to keep copies of our bank statements from 1995. I was in the mood to clean out a few piles of papers. She was arguing for the sake of thorough record keeping. “You never know when we might need those,” she said in my head. “I know,” I bantered back. “But who cares that we had $342.37 in our checking account twenty-six years ago?”
This also happened when I cleaned out the junk drawer in the kitchen. The contents included things like Tupperware cup lids for which we have no cups. Broken cookie cutters. Flashlights with bulging batteries inside, leaking toxic acids into the bottom of the drawer. Bread ties. Used glass candle holders covered in wax with no wick. Two dozen 1\2 teaspoon measuring spoons of various shapes and unknown origins. Ziplock bags of important keepsakes like broken crayons and worn-out fingernail files.
Her voice was strong. “You’re not going to throw those away, are you?”
These are the conversations that occupy my mind all the time now. The absence of real conversation is one of the things that stands out most in our house. If you had asked me months ago if Beth and I talked a lot about things, I might have said we’re not big talkers. We had the typical married couple discussions about kids, about dreams, about late payments. But we could also be together for an hour and never say a word. Her reading a book on her end of the couch. Me pecking away at this silly laptop.
I know now that I took our conversations for granted. I miss the little ones about how the day went. “You’ll never guess who I saw in town today,” she would say. Sometimes I would play the game and make a dozen guesses. And after about a minute of that she would stop me. “You’re never gonna guess.” She would tell me all about a student she used to teach in 5th grade years ago who came up to her in the grocery store. He’s married now and got two kids. “I can’t believe he remembered me after all these years.”
I even miss what I would call the heavy conversations. These would often begin with body language, which she had perfected over 40 years of marriage; the interpretation of which I never perfected over that same period.
I could always tell when she had something heavy on her mind that she wanted to talk about. The silence. The serious mood. The long sighs. She was like a pot of water boiling on the stove with nothing in it.
I would offer up the first attempt. “What’s going on?” By doing this I acknowledged the fact that I was sensitive to her needs.
“Nothing,” she said. By saying this she acknowledged that I missed the signs that had been evident to her for the last three weeks.
What followed was a conversation about the important stuff of our lives. The things that shaped our relationship and forged new ground on which to grow in our understanding of each other. These were the building blocks that established and strengthened the trust and longevity of our years together. They could last anywhere from three hours to three days.
Those talks are gone now. What remains is the imagined banter of simpler conversations that rattle around in my head.
I told her the other day that she would be proud of me for calling in to renew my blood pressure prescription. This might not seem like much to you, but this is new territory for me. Used to, when I’d get low, I would just set the bottle on the stovetop when I left for work in the morning. She would see it and know that I was about to run out. She would call the robotic phone service, punch in the Rx number, and a few days later a new bottle would magically appear on the kitchen counter for me.
I thought maybe I would screw this up. Maybe there was a secret password. Maybe some lady would tell me that I was not authorized to renew prescriptions. I wasn’t sure where to find the Rx number. But it was all fairly simple, except for the fact that I never got the call telling me that my order was ready for pickup. Then it occurred to me that the pharmacy had her phone number on file.
After a few days, I just stopped by and asked if it was ready. “Sure,” the lady said. “Didn’t you get our call?” I told her the situation. She offered her condolences. Then she put my number in the system for future notifications.
As I walked to the truck I said, “There you go Babe. I took care of it for you this time.”
Over the last several weeks these silent conversations have been a regular part of the process for me. I haven’t absentmindedly picked up the phone to call her, but I have paused in the moment and thought of her sitting at the table or standing in front of the mirror.
I’ll tell her things like, “Emily called. She and Brandon are buying a house. I got to see it the other day. Nice neighborhood. A real cute place. You’d be proud of them.”
In the evening, I’m sitting on the couch. Max is staring at me. He doesn’t lift his head. He only moves his eyes. And I’ll say to her, “Max still misses you. He gets up from floor in the living room and wanders off into the bedroom for a few seconds and comes back and stands in the doorway. He’s looking for you.”
I was in the grocery store yesterday. I couldn’t find this one item she always bought for me. A little frozen breakfast thing. I’ve looked in several stores already. She came to mind. “Where in the world did you buy this? I can’t find it anywhere.” I’m guessing she’s laughing at this lost gray-haired fella pushing a shopping cart up and down the aisles in circles.
So, next time you’re in the grocery store and you notice an old guy talking to himself, you might cut him some slack. He’s probably not crazy. I doubt he’s suffering from any serious hallucinations. It may be that he’s just out of his element and needs a little help. Talking to his wife in his head might be the most normal thing he could do in that situation.
So, Darling. In case you’re wondering, I’m doing okay. I’m not crazy yet. And if it’s true that a thousand years is like a day where you are now, I’ll see you soon.
We’ve got a lot to talk about.