Silence before being born, silence after death: life is nothing but noise between two unfathomable silences. Isabel Allende
Jimmy spent the final year of his life at home. When the side effects of his treatment became too much to manage on his own, he took a leave of absence from Stanford, reassuring his friends and himself that he would return in the fall for the start of his senior year. His appetite was still hearty, and his mobility was close to normal which made the early months of his homecoming feel more like summertime or spring break. Even as the cancer cells began storming through his brain and spine, making his walking unstable, Jimmy remained cheerful and engaged in the life happening around him. A young man of simple pleasures, he was content play a game on his Nintendo 64, go for a stroll on a sunny trail near the house or watch an episode of South Park with his dad.
Molly, Dan and I orbited around him. Staying close except for school or work commitments. Keeping a watchful eye on his water and caloric intake. Looking for new symptoms of his physical decline. Although I hadn’t yet given up on his long-term survival, I found myself soaking up his presence, pausing in the entryway to the family room just to listen to his voice as he talked to a friend on the phone or the sudden burst of his belly laugh when his sister said something funny.
As Jimmy became more and more unsteady on his feet, we bought a baby monitor to keep track of him in his upstairs bedroom and rush up if he needed us. A bad dream, a fall, a moan of pain. I fell asleep at night to the melody of his breathing, slow and steady. Proof that he was okay, that he was still here.
In time, the stairs became too much for him, even with a steadying hand on his arm to help him keep his balance. He could still manage the climb; it was the descent that scared me. If Jimmy suddenly pitched forward, I worried about Dan’s ability to break his fall and whether both of them would get seriously injured in the process. Although it was a relief to move him into the downstairs guest bedroom, we continued to rely on the monitor at night after he slipped on the bathroom floor and couldn’t stand back up on his own. Later on, as his life drew to an end, Dan and I moved in with Jimmy, taking turns sleeping next to him in the queen-size bed or on the floor, continuing to use the monitor during the day to listen for signs of distress if both of us were in other parts of the house.
Even as Jimmy’s life narrowed to the guest room, we continued to talk. About his hopes of returning to school, feeling better, the pain easing. About what he would miss and who. We discussed the kind of season the Portland Trailblazers were having and the one we hoped the San Francisco Giants would have. We watched movies and listened to music .. Coldplay, Jack Johnson, Bob Marley. During the final days and weeks, Jimmy grew wistful, saying “I look at older people, and I think you are so lucky to have lived for so long.” He shared his sadness about not getting to live a long life, but said “even if I did, I wouldn’t have wanted to do it in this body. It’s too beaten up.”
Jimmy went silent for the last time around 8:00 pm. His breathing slowed and became less rhythmic. I lay beside him with my arm around him while Dan and several other loved ones sat on the floor talking softly, each of listening during the pauses for the next intake of air, wanting to know that he was still with us. Around 2:00 am, he exhaled for the last time and quietly slipped away.
Just before I went to bed, I turned the baby monitor off, and the silence was deafening. I had spent so many nights fretting about whether he was okay, whether he’d wake us in the middle of the night, but now, in the complete silence, I couldn’t fall asleep. During the day, I camped at the kitchen counter, wanting to be in the noisiest spot in the house. Craving the reassuring thump of Molly’s footsteps in her bedroom above me or clattering down the stairs on her way to school or softball practice. The slam of the back door when she or Dan returned home. The voice of the pool man, chatting on the phone as he skimmed the leaves. The rustling of the turkeys in the backyard as the toms gobbled aggressively at each other and the hens dust bathed under the oak trees.
I listened for Jimmy, my brain refusing to believe that he was really gone. It felt instead as though he were away at college, upstairs taking a nap or reading noiselessly in the other room. I searched for proof of these imaginings–the uneven drop of his footsteps descending the stairs, the gentle exhale of his breath as he dozed, the rustling of a page turning, the sound of his voice. Even the air molecules in the house seemed to pause, holding their breath, too, as they waited for Jimmy to reclaim his space among them. I wanted to reach out and pull him back where he belonged.
Silence has a texture after a loved one dies, a way of rubbing against you that irritates and burns like sandpaper against the skin. It has a weightiness, too, one that feels impossible to bear. I normally love a quiet house and time to myself, even for days at a time. But after Jimmy died, the stillness felt oppressive and depressing, confirmation that he was never coming home. His absence echoed through the silence, the way our yard sounds late at night when the bullfrogs pause their chorus to listen for a raccoon moving through the tall brown grass. The kind of hush that feels threatening or ominous.
I don’t remember when this changed. When I could face being home alone without panicking or turning on the TV to cover the quiet. When silence returned to being a trusted and welcome companion instead of a constant reminder of who was not here to break it. Healing instead of haunting. A space big enough to hold everything that had broken, including me.
Death is the ultimate silent treatment. The loved one we most want to speak to has gone mute leaving our pleas for forgiveness, for reconciliation, for one last conversation unanswered. But the hush is also an invitation. An opportunity to be alone with our thoughts and despair. To face the truth of what we have lost and decide how or if we want to go on. Jimmy is still there in the silence. I only need to sit quietly enough to find him.