I hated imagining her sitting there, a reflection of myself, talking on the phone to her sister.
But why? Hadn't we shared the same upbringing? Hadn't we supported each other through broken teenaged hearts, lost favorite jeans, and our father's occasional temper tantrums? Why did I find her so unbearable now, when we were living 400 miles apart with children of our own? I sat at the kitchen counter and pondered it yet again. Was I really such a bitch?
The ring of the phone startled me out of my loop. She must have forgotten to tell me something. I picked it up as if I were having to do someone a great favor. "What'd you forget?" I asked with that twinge of annoyance I'd grown to hate in my own voice. Why couldn't I just be nice? Would it kill me to be welcoming? Forgiving?
"I'm sorry...what?" The voice on the other end of the line was not my sister's. It was an older woman's voice, slightly gravelly, yet kind.
"Oh. Sorry. I thought you were...uh...Who is this?" I said, my face flushing a bit.
"You don't know?" she asked. If you can hear a smile, I did.
I pressed the phone a little tighter against my ear.
"Oh...," I stalled. "Oh, hey there...How's it going?" I was trying to sound vaguely enthusiastic. Though the voice was very familiar to me, I couldn't place it. I had the same sensation I have when a word I'm searching for is right there on the tip of my tongue. I can see its color and hear it whispering clues, but I can't find the actual word. This voice was like a mother's touch - so much a part of my fabric - but I couldn't place it and my instincts wouldn't let me admit to not knowing from whom it was coming. My guard was up from the conversation with my sister, so I was even more conscientious than usual about trying to seem in control. Aware.
The voice continued.
"So, Susie, I was watching you at Stop and Shop the other day, checking out the meats, and I just thought I'd tell you that when you're buying steak, it's perfectly fine...better even...to buy it right ON the 'best by' date. Beef just gets more flavorful with age." She paused for a second. "So, I'm calling to tell you that you really could have gone ahead and bought that steak you were looking at. If you had seasoned it and broiled it, it would have been delicious."
I had begun walking over to the pantry as the voice on the line started talking. Now I stopped in my tracks. Listening. Searching. Trying to place it. This voice. Whose was it?
I was still. Dead quiet. The line crackled the tiniest bit, and I was grateful for that bit of noise. It broke the silence.
"I...I'm sorry. I thought this was someone else. Who is this?"
I noted how it was actually hard to admit that I didn't know something, even something so small. Was it because I was worried about the person on the other end's feelings, or was I somehow allergic to seeming oblivious?
"Hello?" I prompted.
There was a long pause.
Suddenly, a flash in my head previewd the next few seconds for me. Somehow - and I'll never quite understand this phenomenon - somehow I knew what was coming, and I braced myself.
"It's Carol," she said. "I couldn't stay away forever. I wasn't through with you, and I know you have some things to..." She stopped, and so did my heart.
I sat down in the middle of the kitchen floor. My beloved mother-in-law.
"You're dead," I said.
"I have more to teach you," she replied.
The tears were stinging my eyes. I focused on the dog bowl right next to me, reached for it with my trembling hand. My throat was so tight, I couldn't have spoken even if I'd had something to say. A squeak left my mouth as the tears rolled down my cheeks.
"You still need me," she was saying sweetly, "to help you navigate the world and...and my son and...I just couldn't stay away."
Carol had died suddenly seven long years ago, and not a day had gone by when I hadn't ached for her. She was right - there was so much more I needed from her. I missed her so deeply, so fully, that I often wondered if she had taken some of me with her when she had gone.
"I've been watching you, trying to help you," she continued with the voice I loved so, "but you're impossibly difficult to teach. Do you know that?" She let out the tiniest laugh. "I've decided I need to be more direct with you, so I'm calling you up."
I wanted to hug her. Smell her. The voice wasn't enough. I wanted to bend over the garden with her again, learning about all of the flowers. I wanted to take another quilting lesson from her, see her strong weathered hands work the fabric. I wanted to sit at her kitchen couter and watch her whip up a batch of brownies from scratch and have her teach me the difference between liquid and solid measurements. I wanted to watch her eyes sparkle in laughter.
The voice was hers, and I was weeping on the floor, mute.
And then I did something I'll never ever forgive myself for. Never.
I hung up the phone and cried by myself on the kitchen floor.