It's strange how history repeats itself. This story, Conversations With Sarah, was published in 2012. At the time my dear Roma was at my side, proofreading my work, and wondering if perhaps I had gone over the edge.
Setting his freshly-warmed coffee on the TV tray next to his recliner Hank Rolland settled back and tugged at the chair’s lever to raise the footrest to his favored first position....just enough to raise his heels off the floor. He took a few seconds to hear the last of the weather forecast then used the remote to mute the television.
“Come on, girl,” he said, returning to their conversation. “You have to give me some help here. You know about those things. It feels like I’m way over my head.
"That damn woman won’t leave me alone. Every time I turn around, she’s there. I swear I haven’t done anything to encourage her. In fact I’ve been downright rude sometimes. But she won’t go away.”
At that moment, seated there in the back bedroom that served as his computer/work room, Hank was in a familiar and very comfortable space. Across the room, little more than eight feet from his recliner, the television flickered silently, scrolling the day’s stock-market prices across the bottom of the screen.
His attention, however, was focused to the right of the screen....on his friend, confidante, and conversational partner. She was sitting there on the book-case shelf, cleverly disguised as a round tin can, nine or ten inches tall....a sturdy canister originally created to hold ten pounds of Clabber Girl Baking Powder. (The Balanced-Double Acting Brand.)
In recent months that colorful container had taken on a higher, more noble calling as the present, if not final, resting place of Sarah Rolland’s earthly remains. There, tucked neatly inside the baking-powder tin, was a one-gallon zip-locked plastic bag containing her ashes.
“It’s getting embarrassing,” Hank continued, venting his frustration. “Even your good buddy, Grace, was kidding me about it after church on Sunday. She told me how the two of you used to joke about what you called the ‘wily widows,’ and how they tracked down unsuspecting single guys, especially the so-called ‘eligible’ ones. Grace seemed to be putting Angie McDonald at the top of the ‘wily’ ones list.
“Heck, even Jimmy Brooder is giving me a bad time about it. He thinks it’s the funniest thing he’s ever seen. He’s an old football guy, you know. Maybe he could show me how to outrun Angie.”
It had been just weeks after her untimely passing, nearly nine months before, when Sarah’s ashes had found a home in the room where Hank spent most of his day. From the beginning, even in those moments when he questioned his own sanity, he had drawn comfort from the unlikely fact that she was there with him. By most any measure he considered her proximity a distinct advantage.
As he grew more comfortable in her company he had continued to rely on ‘his Sarah’ as a reliable confidante and sounding board....as he had for so many years. During the day, engrossed in the internet dialogues he followed, she was always close at hand, ready to hear his often irreverent blog responses. At night, when he settled in with a good book or watched a tense television drama, he sometimes paused to offer a thought or observation that seemed to merit her consideration.
In truth Hank Rolland was rather proud of how his idea to have her close at hand....(or had it been her idea?)....had turned out. How else would he have continued to enjoy his wife’s company on a daily basis? That could not have happened if she had been relegated to a dreary niche in the church’s columbarium, as the pastor had suggested. In every way their present arrangement, sharing his office and work space with Sarah, was more practical and satisfying.
Even after more than fifty years as husband and wife he still wondered if Sarah fully realized how much he had appreciated her surprising acceptance of the timid and slightly overwhelmed youngster he was when they first met at State College. He was nineteen years old at the time, fresh out of Tanner Southside High School, and by no means ready for prime time.
Looking back, Hank remembered well how his hesitant arrival on that intimidating colligate stage had been made easier by a single undeniable advantage....literally no one on campus knew who he was, or more precisely, whom he had been.
Certainly Sarah would never have given him a second look in high school. A girl like her with a guy like him? Not likely. But there in college, on her own for the first time and caught up in the exciting newness of their freshman year, Sarah Cunningham had known nothing of the old Hank Rolland.
When he first resorted to a bit of role playing, trying on a more worldly and mature persona, there had been no one on hand to expose his duplicity. Instead he was pleasantly surprised to discover that young Miss Cunningham had actually fallen for the new Hank Rolland. From the very first day of their budding relationship the fortunate reality that she had become part of his life was never lost on him.
For decades she had been his one constant....the affirming presence that required no further justification. Now, having overcome the initial grief of her passing, he could think of no reason to let her new circumstances interrupt their long-standing connection.
True, to the unknowing eye and unsuspecting ear Hank’s rambling computer-room discussions with Sarah would have sounded like a one-sided dialogue, perhaps a symptom of some unnoticed mental deficiency.
Yet from the beginning of their new working arrangement, from the day she first joined him in the computer room, Hank had made a point of addressing his wife out loud, in a normal speaking voice. It seemed to him that simply thinking his part of their exchange would make him something less than an active participant, and their conversation something less than real. He had never been willing to settle for that.
In the same way, the absence of Sarah’s audible response was rarely a deterrent to Hank’s sense of her involvement. After more than fifty years spent in her company he understood the extent to which her replies tended to be situational. Divining her unspoken answers, filling in the blanks of her silent responses, was seldom an obstacle. Still, in spite of that, there were moments of regret too real to ignore.
“It’s a damn shame, you know,” he had told her once. “Having to visit like this, never getting to see your silly grin when you scold me, or how your eyes get all squinty when you’re really mad. If only you’d have hung around a while longer. There were still a lot of good times left in us....things we could have done together.”
“Things they could have done together.” Hank's thoughts lingered there for a moment, as they often did at that point in his remembering....taking time to sense her response, to feel the feelings she must be feeling. It was a favored retreat, that quiet mind space they had shared....a comfortable blend of hopeful moments from years past, of half-made plans, and elaborate visions of things they would do when Sarah got well.
“It could have been so good,” he added softly.
A moment later he was on his feet, at the window overlooking the back yard, viewing the untended clutter of Sarah’s once-proud garden having gone to seed. Though she knew well his heartfelt distaste for gardening, she would never have stood for such a mess.
“It seems like I spend most of my time anymore trying to fill the space you left behind. Staying busy is the best way I know to do that. Last night I got out those old letters you wrote me when I was at Ft. Ord. You remember that box you kept under the bed? I used to give you a bad time for saving them, but you always told me they were important. Turns out you were right.
“Of course, I never looked at them while you were here. There was no reason to do that. But lately I’ve had them out a couple times. Last night felt like the right time, so I went through them again.”
In the quiet that followed Hank was transported not to Sarah’s letters and how they still spoke to him, but instead to bittersweet recollections of U.S. Army Pvt. Hank Rolland standing in mail-call formation, hoping to hear his name called....reliving the warm, welcome times when it was.
“I remember all that," he continued. "Listening extra hard to hear my name. There was a guy in our company, from Cleveland I think it was. His name was Tony Rowland, R-O-W-L-A-N-D, which sounds the same as Rolland. The clerk would call out our last names. If it was your name, you answered. Well, when the clerk called out ‘Rolland’ we were never sure which one he meant. About the time I’d get my hopes up it would turn out to be for the other guy.
“Anyway, it was always so great to get those letters, especially during boot camp. Our Platoon Sergeant was spending twenty-four hours a day making our lives miserable. That was his job, to get us in shape, to teach us that the only ones we could count on were the guys around us. That’s how a soldier’s supposed to think.
“And all that time I was ‘counting on’ you and your letters. Hell, you could have sent pages from the phone book for all I cared. Though I’m glad you didn’t. What mattered was that while the Army was trying to make me a soldier, your letters were the one bit of sanity in that whole insane place.
“That’s what I remembered last night when I first opened the box. Then I started reading what you wrote. Wow. No wonder it felt like I could go through anything they dished out if I knew you were waiting for me on the other side.”
For the next few minutes Hank checked out of their conversation. He considered that an important benefit of talking with Sarah, being able to interrupt their dialogue at any point, knowing he could pick it up a minute, or an hour, later.
In the kitchen he refilled his coffee before returning to the computer room. There, he took Sarah’s container from the shelf. Grasping it in both hands, he explained, “So when our daughter tells me I should be ‘moving on,’ and what she really means is that I ought to find a new ‘someone’ to share my life, it’s hard to take her seriously. Though I will admit I still wonder if that’s what you were trying to tell me on that last morning.
“Anyway, there are times when it feels like the whole bunch of you....Kelly, Eric, and you, are ganging up on me. But that’s okay. I just keep telling each of you the same thing. I got lucky once. That kind of lightning doesn’t strike twice. So there won’t be a new ‘someone’ with Hank Rolland. You got that?
“Instead,” he added, reminding himself to say the words out loud, to her, “I’ll be right here with you. I’m seventy-two years old and just about used up, but when it’s all said and you’re the only thing I need.” Kissing the canister lid he set the tin back on the shelf.
Back in the recliner, his drowsy gaze again settled on his Clabber Girl sitting there on her shelf. Predictably, his last words to her that evening were spoken only in his sleep-shrouded mind....heartfelt and inaudible to all but her.
“It’s always good to know you’re here to talk to. It’s usually the best part of a day like today. Sweet dreams, dear.”
Hank opened his eyes long enough to locate the remote and switch off the television, before settling again into his half-dreamed reverie. After a draining day of mind games, sleep was not far off.