It doesn’t matter whether she talks to him for ten seconds or two hours. My mother always says, “I love you,” before she says goodbye to my father any time they talk on the phone.
And she did it every morning before he left to drive to work. She said, “I love you,” while handing him a paper bag with a ham and mustard sandwich on store brand white bread.
Maybe if she were feeling fancy, it’d be something snazzier like olive loaf. Salami or pastrami. Occasionally a fluffernutter sandwich instead.
But one thing never changed. She always said, “I love you” every time they said goodbye.
I asked her about it once, when I was little, why she did that.
And while my mother’s always had trouble talking about uncomfortable subjects, she answered me then with uncharacteristic frankness. “You never know when it’ll be the last time you speak to someone,” she replied. Dad could hang up the phone and die of a heart attack. Step out the door with his sandwich in hand and get in a car accident.
Life was short, she told me, and you never knew when it would be over. And you always wanted to leave things on a high note.
She’d experienced this in a more immediate way than most. Walking home one night with a cousin when she was a teenager, a drunk driver had swerved off the road, striking and killing her cousin in front of her. And only just missing my mom.
It was a powerful lesson to her. And later, to me.
I came of age always saying “I love you” when hanging up the phone. Ending all in-person interactions with a lover that way — or at least a hug and/or a kiss. Something that was equivalent, communicated the same message.
And while I have had plenty of people hang up on me in anger, I can’t remember a time where I did it to someone else (at least not on purpose).
Nor have I dramatically stormed off in a car. And I try not to go to sleep while we’re fighting. Because anything could happen in the night.
Rehearsing the End
It’s such an ingrained habit, treating each conversation with a lover like it could be my last, that I hadn’t consciously thought of it for years. Instead, it’s wound its way into my behaviors.
But since I’ve been in a long distance relationship with Justin temporarily while I’ve been preparing our house for sale and showing it, I find myself crying hysterically after every phone conversation. It happens immediately after I hang up.
Reliably. Completely reflexively. And quite mysteriously.
Why would I cry after pleasant conversations?
It didn’t make any sense.
But one day as I was driving around (hiding from prospective buyers touring my home), it came to me: I ended every call as my mother did, affectionately, pleasantly like it could be the last time we spoke. And even though I wasn’t consciously thinking about it, part of me was rehearsing it, accepting that this could very well be our last conversation:
What if this is the last time you ever speak?
What if something happens to one of you before you can be together again?
And the reality is that the chance of this happening isn’t zero. Nothing is a sure thing. But morbidly rehearsing it over and over again isn’t doing me any favors.
Seeking the Middle
There’s a happy medium to be found somewhere here. A mindset where you really do try to always part on good terms but not be so afraid of the future and how uncertain it can be.
I’d say I’ll let you know if I find it. But I suspect it might just be delicate enough that if I speak of it, it’ll dissipate.
I suppose we’ll see.
Books by Page Turner: