Preserving a loved one’s voice can be the sweetest holiday gift
How recordings with children’s storybooks became a cherished memory
A few weeks before Christmas Day in 2018, my late husband, Jeff, and I sat side by side on the edge of our bed, preparing to create the most meaningful Christmas gifts we’d ever given.
Laid out beside us on the bed were four children’s storybooks, each with a Christmas theme and an embedded recording device. I held each book and turned the pages as Jeff’s wavering voice read aloud the verses to “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” (actually, “A Visit From St. Nicholas”) and three other stories, preserving his gently spoken words for future generations. The books were meant for Jeff’s two adult children, and more specifically, for their eventual children.
Weeks earlier, Jeff’s ALS diagnosis had been confirmed via a second opinion at the Johns Hopkins ALS Clinic in Baltimore. The weeks after his terminal diagnosis were traumatic for both of us as we’d tried to absorb the news and support each other while reeling from shock and sadness. As Christmas approached, though, we were forming a plan for how we wanted to go on with living.
The recorded storybooks were a meaningful and poignant start.
A master of Christmas
As a heterogeneous disease, no two cases of ALS are exactly alike, and all individuals and families experience ALS differently. In our case, the faster-than-anticipated waning of Jeff’s voice was the most devastating symptom of his illness. The speed with which his voice had begun to falter had taken us both by surprise. For all I’d read and learned about ALS to that point, somehow this particular symptom seemed grossly unfair.
Our niece Stephanie was aware of our sadness at this development. A mom of two young girls, she suggested to me in a text message shortly after Jeff’s diagnosis the idea of recordable storybooks. I instantly loved the thought of preserving his voice for future generations and ordered the books, dozens of which are available online, to give to Jeff’s two adult children as Christmas gifts.
This gift was fittingly sentimental, as Jeff was a master of Christmas, each year revealing a softer side that he often didn’t publicly show. He took great pride in creating a beautiful home for the holidays, setting up a tall artificial tree that we’d always decorate together with meaningful ornaments from his past, my past, and our current life together.
On that Christmas in 2018, he went all out, hanging lights and stockings and other trimmings to make the house cozy, warm, and festive. We were celebrating a small Christmas at our home that year, hosting both of Jeff’s kids and their mom. He and I had traveled for Thanksgiving, and we both wanted to stay home in Maryland to enjoy the holidays at our rented farmhouse in Annapolis, a place we loved and where we’d gotten married just two months earlier.
Everything felt more weighty and special that year. We were keenly aware of the importance of each moment.
We presented the recorded storybooks last, after other gifts had been shared. The room was initially silent as his kids opened their books and Jeff’s voice, preserved in the pages, filled the room. It was a peaceful and beautiful moment. Stephanie’s suggestion had been wonderful — a home run.
I miss Jeff every day, and on many days, what I find myself missing the most is his voice. Our home is quiet without him. He used to routinely walk around the house singing me a 1970 Bobby Sherman song called “Julie, Do Ya Love Me.” Together with his brothers, he’d invent nonsense words and use them in daily conversation, making me laugh each time I overheard them. And his voice was resonant and reassuring over long breakfasts at “our” table at a local diner when we lived in Michigan, where we’d linger over black coffee and talk about the future.
It surprises me how much I miss that voice, so personal and individual that it was like a fingerprint. While photographs make it easy to picture his face, it gets harder over time to remember how he sounded. I think, in retrospect, that’s why the storybooks were such a beautiful gesture. We couldn’t have known at the time how important they would be.
I have no regrets about how we lived during Jeff’s time with ALS. We surrounded ourselves with love, family, and friends. We traveled, made memories, established traditions, and embraced every day. If I had it to do over again, though, I’d take more video, record more storybooks, and save more voicemails. I hadn’t appreciated how comforting a voice can be in a loved one’s absence.
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