The road may move the body from one state to the next, but the mind travels wherever it wants to go. If I’m in Tennessee, my thoughts may be in Colonial Williamsburg. Beth and I ate supper at the Tavern there and discovered together the awesomeness of pickled watermelon rinds. While pumping gas in Kentucky near an old farm, I am seeing the broom sedge in the old quiet pastures above the lake where I grew up outside Hampton.
A road trip is supposed to be a chance to get away. Yet my mind is not bound by longitude and latitude, and I am always with who I am and where I’ve come from. The scenery changes with every mile. I am in places I will likely never be again in this life. But in my mind, I am full of places and people both familiar and inescapable no matter how far the road takes me.
I’ve heard, after the loss of a spouse, that some folks set out to travel the world. Their world might be Europe. It might be Kentucky. It doesn’t matter. The urge is to travel and get away. Putting miles between a man and his surroundings might make him see his life in a different light. In a distant bedroom, he doesn’t have to see the pillow where she used to lay beside him, as if he won’t feel her absence in a place she’s never been.
It’s early here in Grayson. I am on the porch of my little cottage with coffee and a perfect sunrise. Max is patrolling the grounds and marking his territory. My mind is steady at work.
I see a Saturday morning not so long ago. We are sitting out on the front porch drinking coffee. I have been here since before the sun came up. I hear the front door squeak open. Beth appears wrapped in a blanket, shuffling her feet toward me. Only one hand poking through a fold in the blanket. In it, a cup of coffee steaming against the cool air.
She wiggles her way around a chair and backs up to the wicker love seat next to me as she carefully sits. The last few inches are tenuous and the coffee swirls against the lip of the cup.
“Made it,” she softly chuckles.
“You gonna share that blanket?”
“Why didn’t you ask before I got situated?”
“I was having too much fun watching you waddle out here like a duck.”
She hands me her cup, stands and peels back the blanket. She spreads it so we both can share its warmth. Feet propped up on the table in front of us. The blanket folded back under our legs to keep the chilled air at bay.
“How’d you find me?”
“Where else would you be?”
We sat and talked for the next hour. Nothing that really demanded argument or debate. Just the simple conversation that comes from a shared life. The deer that crossed the driveway at the top of the hill. What we might do with the hall closet if we felt like cleaning it out today. Some new dish she wanted to try for Thanksgiving. Ideas I had for building a new shop. Wondering about old friends and what they’re doing these days. All the little things that flow from a long life together.
That is what I miss. What we built over 43 years together is what made us who we were. The reason an older couple can finish each other’s sentences, or say volumes to each other with one look, or sit in silence together and not have to say one word, is because there is a bond and an understanding that runs deeper than mere words can express.
“You know what I think about that?” he says.
“Oh Lord, I know exactly what you think about that.” And she does.
I can’t replace that. I can’t recreate that, even with good friends and good conversation. And I know that I am extremely blessed to have known what that is like.
As I sit here in the beautiful state of Kentucky, that is where my mind goes. To all the words spoken between us. The simple moments that passed, unaware that they would define us.
It’s a fall day. Early November. The sun is low behind the trees across the creek behind the house when I get home from work. I can see through the window of the door on the kitchen porch that Beth is standing at the stove with her back to me. I know she’s heard the heavy sound of my boots as I come up the steps. The door opens and she doesn’t turn or stop what she’s doing.
“Hey babe,” she says.
“What if it wasn’t me?”
“I know it’s you. Nobody else I know walks up those steps like you do.”
I set my lunch box on the counter next to the sink and walk back to the closet to put away my jacket and cap. She still hasn’t looked away from the frying pan. Cubed steaks are hissing. The kitchen is warm.
“It’s been cold all day. You want to know how cold?”
“Don’t you dare touch me with those hands.”
“But I could use a hug.”
“I know what you want. You want to put those cold hands on my back under my shirt.”
“Now that’s a fine how-do-you-do. You don’t trust me?”
“I trust you. I also know you.”
She finally turns to face me. The fried steaks piled up on a napkin on a plate on the stove top near the frying pan. Cooked onions and peppers on the edge.
“I can hug you now. You keep those hands where they need to be.”
I oblige and lean into the woman who has been my friend and my companion for over forty years. I have known her as a young girl off to college for the first time. I have known her as a wife who allowed me to be a part of her world. The mother of our children. The one to share our empty nest. The grandmother of small children related to us in ways that made us smile.
She presses back just a bit, both hands on my chest. My hands around her waist. She gives me a quick peck on the lips. She seems please with us.
“What would I do without you,” she says.
Whether I sit on the couch at home or I travel some lonely highway through the hills of Kentucky, that is where my mind goes. And look, I know I am a rich man in all the most important ways. I have very few regrets of any substance. In spite of her absence, my life has a fullness I did not expect.
But as it stands, she has left me to ponder that question for myself, but without the unknown possibility implied in her own asking of it. And for now, it is the only question that holds a great deal of uncertainty over me.
What will I do without her?