The sea of grief has no shores, no bottom; no one can sound its depths. Primo Levi
I stopped hearing birds singing the winter Jimmy died. It’s not that the world went silent; if anything, I was more sensitive to noise. Quicker to startle at the harsh ring of our landline. Freezing frequently to decipher a sound or voice I couldn’t identify. What I stopped noticing was the sweet music of everyday life. The kee-eeee-arr of the red tail hawk as it soared over the backyard. The plinking of the western toads in our dry creek bed. The Sierra Nevada red foxes shrieking in the dark. My heart was too shattered to process them.
I hunkered down at home, leaving only to drop Molly off at high school or pick her up after softball practice. Dan and I timed our daily walks for the early afternoon when we were unlikely to run into anyone we knew in our friendly, rural neighborhood. I craved calm, predictability, silence. No sirens to remind me of our final trip to the hospital after Jimmy’s Christmas Day seizure. No conversations with anyone who didn’t know Jimmy had died or even those who did. Nothing to trigger any of the jagged, painful memories of the worst days of his brain cancer treatment or the final weeks of his life.
Our house was the only place I felt safe. Cocooned inside, I could avoid all unchosen human contact, even from our kindly next-door neighbors. The sound of their garage door opening or their voices in the yard an early warning signal that gave me time to scurry back inside to avoid their curious, concerned faces.
It was Molly’s spring softball games that forced me back into the loud, unpredictable world. As badly as I wanted to remain at home, I wasn’t going to miss watching her play the game she loved, despite having to navigate the platitudes and unwanted questions from other players’ parents (How’s your son? Where’s your son?) during our initial pre-season encounters. Hearing the ping of a softball hitting a metal bat, the pop of the ball in a glove and the familiar chatter of the players encouraging the pitcher during a game was somehow soothing. Taking Buster to the games provided a convenient excuse to sit beyond the outfield fence, slow my breathing and start allowing the sounds of life back in.
Summer arrived, and I moved beyond the days of denial when I could barely grasp the harsh reality that Jimmy was really and truly gone. I started to notice just how quiet our house had become. The way the silence seemed to swell with his absence. The missing notes in our family’s symphony. Jimmy’s laughter mingling with Dan’s as they watched an Adam Sandler comedy or episode of South Park on the couch together. His baritone blending with Molly’s higher pitched voice as they bickered or swapped stories. The tap, tap, tap of his feet descending the stairs or the rhythm of his uneven gait on the tile; Jimmy no longer stealth once his balance issues required the rubber-soled slip-ons he wore at all times.
I wanted Jimmy’s commentary as I made dinner. The “Oh, cool!” for homemade make-your-own pizza or the puff of pretend disapproval and “Really, Mom?” for a hearty salad or pot of soup. The welcome interruption when he appeared at my side, phone in hand, eager to show me the trailer for a new Leonardo DiCaprio film he wanted to see or play me a new song by Adele or The Black Keys. Most of all, I longed to end the day with his signature goodnight blessing, offered just before he went to sleep or headed upstairs to bed: “I love you … so much.” The way he paused. The two words that never failed to follow.
Even now, I don’t know how I survived those jagged, painful days. The love-hate relationship with sound and silence. All that was missing and everything I longed to hear. It was the harmony of late night talks with Dan and Molly, long walks with the dog, the fierce love of my essential people. It was the honking of Canadian geese, the howling of California coyotes, the hum of Anna’s hummingbirds as they hovered near my face on a sunny day in the garden. It was the passage of time and imagining what Jimmy would think or say. The ability to conjure the peal of his laughter. Hearing Bob Marley on the radio or the cheer of the crowd at a fall football game and remember that because I’m alive to hear it, somehow, so is he. Chuckling instead of crying when I hear Will Ferrell say, “I’m Ron Burgundy?” or thinking of Jimmy in his beige bathrobe when Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski says, “This aggression will not stand, man.” Learning to listen for Jimmy everywhere I go and trusting that even if I am the only one who can hear it, his voice will remain with me and once again become the song of everything.