Life

Grief Is A Cell Phone Not Answered

Muscle memory took over and I went to call my dead husband's phone.
03/27/2017 04:58pm ET

I reached for my phone as soon as I got into the car the other day and started to call my husband. It was muscle memory at work, playing a cruel trick on me.

Ann Brenoff
The author and her husband in 2015.

For about 30 years, I called my husband every day as I left work ― or anyplace else for that matter ― to let him know that I was on my way. Letting one another know our whereabouts became a habit that eventually was picked up by our kids. Until she graduated high school, my daughter called me precisely at 3:05 p.m. every school day to say she was getting on the bus.

We are one of those families who calls while the plane is still taxiing to the gate to say that it landed safely. We call when we are stuck in traffic to say we may be late. If we stop unexpectedly at the supermarket for milk, we call so that nobody will worry. We call when we get in the Uber (and sometimes snap a photo of the driver because you just can’t be too sure of anything these days). We call when we leave the restaurant where we had dinner with friends and take the family “breathalyzer” test where we have to recite all our birthdays and middle names. We call as soon as we clear the elevators as we exit the doctor’s office. We would probably call sooner but our reception in elevators is spotty. It’s just our thing. Or at least it was.

My husband died after a long illness on Jan. 4. In most ways grieving-wise, I feel like I am handling his loss appropriately ― which is to say I somehow manage to get out of bed every morning, have reduced the mountain of post-death paperwork I was buried under, and am trying to resurrect my pre-caregiving social life although I’m trapped in that cycle of making plans in earnest and then canceling them at the last minute from inertia. It’s all par for the course, I’m told.

I also am careful to not set myself up for sadness. I stay busy in life-affirming pursuits ― I cook, I garden, I bring soup to sick friends ― and have edited my music playlist to avoid the sad songs. I couldn’t listen to k.d. lang sing “Hallelujah” without sobbing before, so no reason to think I could hear it now with different results.

But that moment in the parking garage last week, when I sat frozen in my car with my cell phone in my hand, a shockwave of awareness washed over me: I had nobody to call. Nobody who was waiting to hear from me. Nobody who particularly cared when I would be getting home or how my day went. Nobody to have a glass of wine ready for me or dinner started. Nobody who argued with the cable company or made sure the oil in my car was changed or took a beloved dog to the vet on her last day when I just couldn’t.

I was now alone. And the devil of that was in the details. I had nobody to call.

I sank. Rapidly. And was reminded of the big difference between feeling lonesome and feeling alone. Lonesome is your state of being when you have no one available to be with you. The short-term fix is a Netflix binge and remembering to make plans in advance for next weekend.

Being alone? That’s a whole other nightmare. Sometimes, you can be alone even when you are surrounded by people and activities and somehow, they don’t get counted by your heart.

In the car that day, I remembered the last time I had felt this alone. It was one night in my 20s when I confused lust for love and watched a man I barely knew leave my apartment in the pre-dawn hours knowing I would never see him again. Casual sex, for me, has always been a contradiction of terms. And when he left, I felt very alone.

Back then, someone sent me this quote from cartoonist Jules Feiffer:

I live in a shell
Which is inside a dungeon
Which is inside a fortress
Which is under the ground
Which is under the sea
Where I am safe
From you.
If you loved me, you would find me.

My husband was a good man. He was honest and decent and never left me feeling alone. He always found me. Now if he would just answer the damn phone.