Teaching You to Know by Sarah Walker



I stop explaining aloud to my children that I am not lonely.

I used to tell them these things as if they would understand automatically. I’m not lonely when I lie down at night and fall asleep with five fluffy pillows surrounding my head. Or when I wake up, make my way to the kitchen—the red and white tile floor cold under my feet—and stare out across the green lawn and watch the birds eat from the feeder and sing into the morning light. Even when I eat almost every meal alone, I do not yearn for someone to sit beside me. Instead, I enjoy my breakfast, lunch and dinner outside on the patio and throw the remains of my meals in the lawn and look forward to watching the deer find the hidden treasures.

I give my children the simple answer now when they ponder and poke. “You know what the doctors said. I should spend this time how I want and that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

“It just seems so lonely,” Kristin said during one of our last phone calls. She is my eldest, so I expected this intense compassion, but it’s always the same conversation. She begs me to let her hire someone who can be with me 24/7 instead of the nurse who pops by a few times during the day. When I shut that down the first time, she fabricated some complicated plan to fly from California for a few weeks at a time and stay with me while her husband Aaron watches the kids.

I always take a deep breath and respond as calmly as possible. I’m fine. It’s peaceful. I keep myself entertained, preoccupied.

It is the same with Henry. On the West Coast too, he calls every few days and sobs into the phone. When I picked up last time he started off the conversation with this: “I’m moving home, Mom. I don’t care about this job. About any of it.”

My voice shuddered because I was actually angry for a moment. “You will stay put. I don’t want you coming here until Thanksgiving like we planned.”

I knew what Henry was thinking because sometimes I thought it too. What if I went before then? What if the nurse found me cold and stiff from the end of my cancer, lying in my big bed with nothing but those comfy pillows to send me on my way?

It sounded like Henry’s entire heart was vibrating. I cried too, but quietly so he wouldn’t hear and listened to him carry on, ignoring my demands.

“I just wish Dad was still here. To be with you. I know he would make things better.”

I don’t need your father I wanted to tell him. Yes, I was there for him when his health depleted a decade ago. We buried him when the earth was soft from the spring rain and we said our goodbyes all together. It was special, but it didn’t mean I could have it the same way. It meant I couldn’t. He was gone and I was left with so many good graces, so much beauty that needed to be soaked up with my own eyes, my skin, my mouth.

But I didn’t tell my son any of this. I said I wasn’t afraid and that he shouldn’t be either. I told him I was happy. I woke up almost every morning and craved the rich, dark coffee I prepared the night before. I couldn’t wait to drink it and watch the morning pass. I couldn’t wait to drink two more cups as the rest of the day unfolded. If I was feeling up to it, I walked down by the river and watched the water curl over the mossy rocks and the little minnows scurry like scared mice in the cool river. Simplicity. It all made me feel so wonderful and full.

There was silence on the other end when I told Henry this and I thought I had gotten through to him. Maybe his eyes brightened and his fears dissolved. But his breath quickened and the tears started back up. That was when I decided to give up. There was no hope—I surrendered to their worries and their sadness.

My youngest daughter understands the most; at least that’s how it seems. She is quiet about everything, which leads me to believe she is suffering like the rest, but at least she gives me that: peace and quiet.

Abigail is only an hour from Mountain Top Pennsylvania. When I knew something wasn’t right, she took me to the hospital, sat by my side when I was trapped there for days. She was with me, clutching my frail hand, when they gave me the final news. There was nothing else to do. The Leukemia I had fought years ago was back and it was simply too late. I could go home and spend the rest of my days doing whatever I pleased.

She still asked just like other two, but it was only once.

One Saturday morning when I was out back dozing in an Adirondack chair, she came unexpectedly for a visit. My hand was curled around a coffee mug, the liquid cold inside.

She sat beside me and ran her hand up my arm. “Good morning.”

I turned my head and smiled, knowing automatically is was Abigail. She looked the most like Tim, her father. Thin blonde hair and freckles scattered across her nose.

We sat in silence for a while, but she put her hand on my arm again and looked at the side of my face.



“Don’t you get lonely here? When I leave and there’s no one to keep you company?”

When I walk to the river some days, I lean over and peer at my reflection. My face looks distorted when a breeze blows over the river. My nose bends, my eyes ripple, but when the water is still my reflection looks healthy. I wanted to tell Abigail that when you see yourself one way for so long then get the chance to see yourself differently, everything sad and lonely and angry fades. Instead I just sighed, shook my head and she got the hint.

It’s not that I never get scared. Waking up in the middle of the night from a dream about dying and not getting to say goodbye brings the fear too close. It wraps around my throat and I can’t breath. But I settle myself down, pray, read whatever book is always on my end table.

The last time it happened, I stayed awake and wrote a letter to the children. It’s for them to read when I’m gone—the last lesson I wish to leave them with. I start off by telling them how much I love them, how proud I am, how I know they will be fine.

It also says this: I am not afraid to leave this place. Mostly, I am not afraid to be alone. Loneliness doesn’t always mean what you think it does. I can tell you, it’s not cold, it’s not evil, and it’s certainly not frightening. It’s peaceful and relaxing, it’s something you all should embrace. Be with yourself and be happy with that. We are always alone until God brings us home. And that’s where I’ll go. Home.

I would tell Abigail about the letter that was hidden in my third dresser drawer. She would bring it out when the time came. But I didn’t think I’d have the chance to tell her where it was hidden.

One afternoon, Kristin called me in hysterics.

“I’m sorry. It’s not right,” she said.

I felt like I was healthy for a moment and dealing with the catastrophes they used to call me about: a breakup, a failed class, a broken bone.

“I’ve made arrangements,” Kristin continued.

“What are you talking about?”

“You can’t stay there alone! I’ve thought about it enough. I can’t focus on anything—”

I stopped listening and sank into the leather chair that sat next to our bookshelf in the living room. Everything seemed blurry. My head felt full with rocks. Was I that angry? Nervous? Or was I dying? It was some way to leave, I thought, on the phone with my eldest, neurotic daughter. My voice going silent, then dead. She’d be scarred forever. But it wasn’t her I was really worried about. If I didn’t die then, what would happen? Who would come for me?

I hung up and threw the phone on the ground. I tipped my head back on the chair and thought about the letter. They needed to read it. Maybe then their thoughts would change. Loneliness: it’s only there when you convince yourself.

My heart fluttered, my feet felt tingly. I folded my hands in my lap—a prayer—and waited for death. But nothing happened. Everything went straight. My vision. My thoughts. My legs worked again and I stood.

I went to the door, looked down the driveway for someone, but again there was nothing. I went to sleep early, expected the phone to be ringing off the hook after I hung up on my daughter, but the house was silent. When I woke up, I imagined someone waiting beside my bed. Instead, I was still alone.

What had happened? I thought of Abigail, the youngest but the wisest of my children calling her older sister and brother and telling them to leave me be. To let the misunderstood remain without probing for answers.

The strangeness continued. Today is the first day I have heard from anyone all week. Henry left a message on the machine in a low voice, asking me how I was and that he missed me. But it didn’t sound heavy with sadness. It sounded normal. I felt relieved and didn’t call him right back, but went out into the morning air, greeted the blue birds that ate all the new seed in the feeder and felt the fresh spring air grow warm against my skin.

It’s now two in the afternoon and I don’t just look into the river at my reflection, but make my way down the small bank and step onto a rock.

My legs feel weak at first, as if my knees will lock and I’ll go tumbling into the water, but I find my balance and dip my left foot in. The cold water is a shock at first, but I steady my breath and get used to the freshness, the water that always twirls and ripples and moves.

I think of my children and the change they will have to accept when I’m gone. Then I think of all the empty people in the world. I say it out loud, to the breeze, the water, and the birds. “All those lonely people out there, but I am not one of them.”

I swallow the rest of my thoughts, the things I have to say, and the happiness that tastes warm and unexpected.


Sarah Walker

4 thoughts on “Teaching You to Know by Sarah Walker

  1. I thought this was a very realistic portrayal of a difficult and all-too-prevalent situation. The rising panic of those to be left behind played against the calmness of the central character was perfectly handled. Nicely done.


  2. I think this is a first. This is the same as my last comment for Ronald’s story…An upsetting subject that has touched many of us!
    This was beautifully written.
    All the very best.


  3. Sarah, death may be, in many cases, more difficult for the survivors than the dying. A point of view that you so masterfully illustrate. I hope your story brings comfort and insight to the dying and their relatives and friends.


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