When the house is empty
In my boyhood, showing up unannounced at a friend’s house was as common as riding a bicycle, and the whistle or the shout of a name that brought an eager companion running also avoided parental conversation.
Once I went to a friend’s house to find he had moved without a goodbye. His empty house reflected my feelings of loneliness, longing, rejection — a sadness that remained even after the house was re-occupied.
Bodies warm houses. Re-entering my house unfailingly warmed me. We were on the shy side and prone to silence, but the feelings that welcomed were sent through the eyes.
“The eyes are the window of the soul,” my mother would say. Her eyes spoke volumes, dark beauties that would dance with excitement, sing when pleased, easily fill with tears at sadness from Lassie returning home or tragedies recalled. They could shoot rage, end a fight, open a heart, stir ambition, create healthy guilt, make us laugh.
Her eyes would particularly embrace me at reconnections and separations, creating an easy scene for recall that spoke unconditional love. I could always go home and be filled with her acceptance.
Visiting her when she was recovering from surgery I felt an intensity in her embrace and kiss. She hugged with her eyes. “I feared I would not see you again. Oh, thank God I see you now.” These fears dominated our comings and goings until last month.
After 500 miles on the road I burst into the house expecting the payoff.
“Hey, Ma, we’re here. ”
“I brought you the boys, here they are. ”
“Well, that’s nice. God bless you all,” she said in a perfunctory distancing tone. I tried again, yelling now. “It’s me, I’m home. ”
“God bless you all,” she repeated.
Looked into her eyes and saw the chilling truth. In the swoop of that moment came a searing pain. It was over. No more little-girl spontaneity. Gone the warm milk of total acceptance. Useless the excuse of failing hearing. Enter the truth: She is 82, and she is senile. I try one more time.
“Ma! It’s me! I’m Ray, Raymond, your ...” I cannot finish. That half sincere, mostly empty look came over her face. I felt an urge to rage. Come back. See the boys here, this one with your eyes, the other with the family pout and your name.
But I said nothing. I had not prepared for this moment. What she would hear is beyond her understanding. I had prepared for her death. I had not prepared for this vacant space from which she would not know me.
On our way home I give my sons as much intelligent detail about arteriosclerosis as I had, vainly hoping to ease the low-grade fever of my own pain. When I finished, my 7-year-old son looked me in the eye and said, “Dad, nobody’s home in Grandma’s house anymore. ”
Ray Lovett is a psychotherapist in Dorset.