Facts & Arguments is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
My mother died, quietly, on one of the darkest, coldest nights of winter.
I got the news in the middle of the night, the shrill ring of the phone an announcement, as there could be no other reason for the call. I jumped from bed and ran to answer it, not because I was anxious to receive this message, but because the house was full; it was still Christmas holidays and all the "kids" were home. I hung up, and my house lay silent around me, its occupants sleeping. Should I wake them?
Perhaps selfishly, I chose not to. There was nothing to be done, and waking them would mean the start of a new time, the time of her being gone. Somehow, it seemed I could still commune with her as long as no one else was about. It was a night to accept what had happened; a night to say goodbye.
Luckily for my siblings and me, there had already been ample time to start accepting what was to come. My mother had been in hospital almost four months, sharp as a tack as she'd always been, and though stuck there knowing full well that the end was near, she enjoyed satisfying talks with her children and grandchildren and delighted in visits from great-grandchildren, too. It was a rare situation, that we could have this lucid time with her.
And yet, during my vigil that cold, dark night, I waited for something. She was, right now, in that nether land, passing between one world and the next. Her travelling time, as I thought of it, would never come again. I waited, listening.
It's the silence I notice still. We can look at photos of my mother. I can visit her house, as she lived with my sister; I can touch her things. We don't talk about it very much, this hush that comes after, perhaps because it is so vast, so incomprehensible and yet, at the same time, so personal. A silence, and a rather grand one.
It's not that I don't remember her. She's vivid as sunshine. There is no chasing after her memory – she lives, fully present, watering her flowers, sitting outside with a cup of tea. She loved to clean – yes, clean – and revelled in putting on an old house-dress and polishing windows or scrubbing cupboards that didn't really need it or sweeping cobwebs from the ceiling. She liked the Blue Jays and figure skating and Big Bang Theory on TV. She sewed beautiful quilts she would never recognize as folk art; she liked nothing better than a boiled egg and a slice of toast for any meal. But where is her voice?
It was different when my father died. He'd been very ill and suffering with dementia, living in long-term care, seemingly walled off from us. I gathered the pieces of him and hoarded them against forgetting: his wheezy guffaw when he thought something was funny (all the time); his expressions (some colourful); the things he would yell out while watching hockey (equally colourful). I hear him still in my husband's love of telling stories, my son's laugh, the voices of sports commentators, the yodelling of loons, the eerie lilt of bagpipes. The sounds of him are everywhere.
My mother was not one for noise. In her quiet house, you could hear the furnace come on, hear the clock tick. Her quilt frame in a spotless bedroom at the top of the stairs spoke to hours spent contentedly alone. Beside her bed was not a radio but a Bible. She loved to hear the birds sing.
But on that silent night, I strained to listen for her. Where in the infinite, achingly quiet universe, did she go?
And it wouldn't change. With every new life event, every passing day, that silence would grow. I felt it keenly that night, waiting for some message, some last whisper in the darkness.
That night was all I had left before the exclamations and laments, the questions and condolences; before the discordant music of mourning, the cacophony of planning, the ringing bell of getting on with things. The silence was my last chance. When the sun came up it would be gone. The noise of life would fill the peace.
And there is where I realized it. In the silence, I found her. Humble, never one to speak out or cause a fuss, she was there after all.
When I'm quiet I hear things I might not otherwise notice. The rustle of breeze that stirs the spruces bordering our yard. The faint buzz of a bee inside a tulip. When it's so quiet in the house that you can hear the cat snore, that's when I think of her. Sitting on the stoop with my tea, letting sunshine beat on me. To seek her out, I need only be quiet and still.
I watched the red dawn in silence. The long night was over; the day had begun. Soon my household would stir, the shower would drone, cups and plates would chime together as breakfast was made and eaten, and we'd call to each other down the hall as we ferreted through closets looking for funeral clothes. But now, right now, with the sun's rays just peeking over the frozen banks of snow, I heard the furnace breathe to life, heard the floorboards creak in their sleep. Silently, I said goodbye.
J.E. Hewitt lives in Elora, Ont.