Kent comes home from work to find Abby with an ear pressed against the wall. “What’s up, Abs?” he asks, nuzzling her neck.
She holds a finger to her lips, but her look is worried, not playful. “Shhh,” she whispers. “Can’t you hear it? I’ve been looking for it all day.”
“Hear what? I don’t--” She covers his mouth with her palm. Silence. “Sorry, Abby—I don’t hear anything. What are we listening for?”
“It’s like—white noise, I guess. Like a soft…buzzing or something. I’ve been hearing it all day.” She looks imploringly at Kent, begging him to hear it, too. When he shrugs after another several seconds, Abby turns away, shoulders slumped. He sees her tilt her head, as if trying to drain a trickle of water from her ear.
A Saturday breakfast, two weeks later, and Abby is looking drawn—her face pale but for the shadows around her eyes. Kent hooks her chin and speaks softly. “Still not sleeping?”
“It’s that noise…I can’t shut it out.”
“Still the same? Just…white noise? Abby, will you please see a doctor? You look so…”
There’s that tilt again. Kent realizes that it’s become as much a part of Abby as the way she fiddles with her necklace or nibbles her lower lip.
“I just need some sleep.” She slips back into their bed, where he finds her later with the pillow pulled tight around her head.
A few days later, Kent finds that Abby has unplugged every electrical device in the house, and has stuffed rags under doorways and in windowsills. He tugs a rag from beneath a closet door and recognizes the scrap of cloth as a piece of one of their new white towels, a five-year anniversary splurge. “Abby?” He holds it up, questioning.
“I thought it might block the noise.”
“Did it?” He gathers her close, where she shakes her head no into his shoulder. They stand together for a long time, Abby trembling.
It is a weekday evening. Kent stands in the arched entryway to the living room and watches Abby in her favorite chair. She has been reading, but she flips the book upside-down in her lap with an impatient sigh. She whispers something; Kent thinks she may be praying—but she stops, then whispers again, and then again. He clears his throat and enters the room.
“What did the doctor say?”
Abby looks startled at his entrance, and perhaps…guilty. “Nothing. There’s nothing wrong with my ears.” She makes a small gesture with her hand, as if shushing a small, invisible child. “He wants me to see a…a neurologist.” She tilts, whispers, looks at Kent with wide eyes.
The doctor closes a file folder and speaks to Kent while Abby shrinks into her chair. “It’s a devastating diagnosis, Mr. Douglas, I won’t whitewash it. We’re starting her on a proven and effective medication. About a third of patients with adult onset schizophrenia respond well to medication and can live normal lives. About a third will continue to be somewhat affected, and a third will experience lifelong debilitation…”
As the doctor drones on, Kent believes he may finally be able to understand Abby’s white noise. All he can hear are isolated words…devastating…schizophrenia…debilitation. He pulls Abby’s clenched hand from her lap and loosens each finger as the doctor buzzes on. When her hand is finally relaxed, he presses his lips to her palm.
Kent arranges with his boss to work from home, and he spends his days watching Abby. Sometimes she is Just Abby, and they laugh together at the antics of their cat, or drink coffee while Abby reads aloud from Dickens with impeccable accents. Sometimes though, she is New Abby, when the white noise resolves into whispers that make her cringe and flinch.
And at night, when the white whispers are the loudest, Abby curls her knees up in bed and whimpers. Kent presses into her back and bunches up his pillow, his mouth close to her ear. There he stays until her breathing finally deepens, singing softly until the whispers disappear.
Blessed quietness, holy quietness
What assurance in my soul!
On the stormy sea He speaks peace to me—
How the billows cease to roll!
Blessed quietness, holy quietness…
Blessed Quietness, W. S. Marshall and James M. Kirk, public domain
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