I lay next to my newly-widowed mother in the bed she had shared with my father for nearly 40 years, listening to her talk late into the night. She talked like she had never talked before. She talked as if she would never talk again. She was like a toddler discovering chatter could delay bedtime abandonment, or a solitary prisoner desperate to engage her guard. One word purled loosely to the next, dropped stitches of syntax here and there, she was knitting a blanket against the night’s cold. Or a rope to slide down from her window.
Sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles had all dispersed by then, but I was between semesters at grad school and had another week to spend with Mom in the tiny urban condo that was now hers alone. I felt grateful for the time. No...I thought gratefully of the time. I felt desperate to leave. That week felt like a month: I was swamped, submerged. Choking on her words, strangling by her lifeline.
It was very late that first night, I remember, and we were both exhausted from the day’s demands and from grief. She turned out the light, we said “good-night” and “love you,” and our mirrored bodies turned their separate ways. It was then she started to talk, really talk, endlessly talk, for the first time in her life.
Her mind must have been spinning, circling around the meaning of death, cremation, and her sudden uncoupledom. Or maybe she was trying to stave off silent, singular thought. Or perhaps be certain that there was someone else there in the dark, in that big bed. Whatever her need or inspiration, she kept on casting that line of words into the night, so long as I made any noise in response. And I must have grunted, or whispered, or sighed now and then, because she kept at it deep into the night, every night for a week. And it started again each morning, before either of us had opened our eyes, still groggy in our rumpled bed of loss.
She started talking that night and kept at it, carrying herself forward for the next 20 years in a flood of grief, memory, humor, and nonsense. Sometimes soothing green, othertimes rapid white—she rode that river of talk. Until, slowly, even language began to take its leave. Her brain turned lacy and frail. She slipped back into dreams.
At night, now, she is a young girl walking in an empty field, looking for a soft spot in the tall grass to lie down and sleep. Alone at last, all quiet.
But two thousand miles away, in my dreams, her voice tugs on me still.
Sheila Hassell Hughes is a faculty member in the Department of English at the University of Dayton. She earned her BA (British Columbia) and MA (Toronto) in English and her PhD (Emory) in women’s studies. She has published scholarly articles and poems in journals such as MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literatures of the U.S., SAIL: Studies in American Indian Literatures, African American Review, American Quarterly, Violence Against Women, Religion and Literature, Literature and Theology, the Lullwater Review, Mused: The Bella Online Review, Phantom Kangaroo, and Goblin Fruit. She was the local human-interest winner of the 2010 Erma Bombeck writing contest. Originally from British Columbia, Canada, Sheila now lives in Kettering, OH with Randy, Sophie, and two black cats.