While I was at Columbia, Muriel earned a high school equivalency diploma and began applying to college the day I graduated. She went on to become a psychologist, and her years of schooling initiated a ritual that lasted for over a decade. When I drove home from work, I would find her waiting at the front door at our 850-square-foot Levitt house on Long Island. Edging toward the car, she would say some version of: “Kevin is watching television and needs a bath; Leda is in the play pen; and Shanna is in the high chair, where I think she just pooped. There’s a chicken potpie in the oven for you. Give me the car keys; I’m late!”
Three children in four years, little money and a house that smelled of diapers made even the most trivial dispute combustible. But, in our early 20s, we vowed never to go to sleep back-to-back in a silent bedroom.
Eventually we moved to a larger house in Great Neck, a leafy suburban town where Muriel began her practice. Its screened porch overlooked a garden and was the only serene corner in a noisy house, perfect for the clients Muriel quickly began seeing. When our children expressed even the slightest hint they were jealous of the attention she paid to clients, she would take out her date book and say, “I’m giving you an appointment. How is 5 o’clock tonight?”
Just this week I asked Kim, our youngest child, if she remembered those talks. “Oh,” she said, “I think about them all the time. It might have been only one hour, 50 minutes actually, but I had Mom all to myself. She made the porch a safe place to discuss anything, even things kids don’t usually tell their mothers. All my friends were jealous.”
I didn’t need an appointment to talk with Muriel. Even on evenings when we went to dinner with friends, we would hurry to the restaurant an hour early to sit alone at the bar and talk over a glass of wine. But, now I slept in a silent bedroom.
A Buddhist friend, aware of my loneliness, urged me to talk with Muriel. “You were together for nearly 70 years,” he told me. “She’s not gone. She’s in your being, your awareness. Talk to her. Ask for her help.” I was about to shrug off his advice, but was in such pain I would try anything.
The photograph on the wall nearest the thermostat I adjust every morning and every evening is of Muriel. She seems so full of life that it wouldn’t surprise me if one morning I awoke to find glass on the floor and the frame empty. I decided to talk with that picture. I began to hear her voice, just as I did every evening before we slept, when she would rest her head on my chest as we spoke of the day and of our love for each other.