Absence Makes the Heart Ache

My husband’s mother, Charlotte, died on May 12 of this year.  She had not been feeling very well for a while—I’d say for at least several months, but was one of those women who sometimes masks her feelings when things aren’t right.  The mask was not just to fool those around her.  I think it was to hide and protect herself from the scrutiny that comes from living in close proximity to her family.  She lived next door to us.  We saw her often, and I was the one she depended on to take her to her doctor’s appointments and do her little errands when she wasn’t feeling up to doing them herself.

On the way to her third trip to the emergency room by ambulance, she strained against the belts the EMTs  used to keep her from falling out of the carry chair they used to transport her from her second floor bedroom.   She  raised her arm in the air, pointing her finger in my general direction, smiling, giving orders.

“The occupational therapist is coming at 10.  You’ll have to cancel her and reschedule!  And Phil’s coming at 2.  Give him a call and maybe you can meet him instead!”

She was smiling but also trembling as she reminded me what to take care of, as the two women driving the ambulance and the police officer assisting them slid Charlotte onto a stretcher and folded the carry chair.  I watched the black rubber wheels on their metal spider legs collapse under the seat and felt my own knees begin to buckle.  I smiled back at Charlotte, trying to make believe everything was all right, but felt tears prickling behind my eyes.  One of the EMTs walked over to me, crunching on the gravel stone of the driveway.

“Go back in and pack her a bag.  She’s going to need slacks, a blouse, some socks— and don’t forget her shoes!  You’ll probably be bringing her home tonight!”

The woman laughed as I tucked Charlotte’s purse under the cotton blanket and black restraint.  I wiped my tears and leaned in to kiss Charlotte’s soft cheek.

“You’ll need this.  Your health card’s in there.  Don’t worry, though, I took out the money and the blank check.  I put them in your dresser.  They’ll be there when you come home tonight.”

That was Thursday, May 6.

My husband and I, along with Charlotte’s best friend Rosalie, were with Charlotte when she drew her last, labored breath, just seven days later.  We held hands with her, and with each other, already missing her cheerful strength and love.  The three of us stood in a tiny circle and cried together, unable to accept such a loss without each others’ support.

I keep seeing her finger pointing to me as she waited to be put in the back of the ambulance.  I see her in the hospital bed, at first seeming to improve, then so quickly spiraling downward.  I see her struggling to breathe, and I see the fear in her eyes.

I see the open blinds of her bedroom windows, the lights on at night with the timer she liked to use.  I see her empty place at the table, the red rose bush by her front door blooming, and I ache for my husband’s mother, my friend.

It has been hard to do all the things one does when someone dies.  And there are so many of those things left to do.  I hate the thought of cleaning out her closets and dressers, but I know she would want it to be me, not her sons, to pack away her cotton panties and bras, to fold her slacks and blouses nicely before a donation truck takes them all away.

Running every day while Charlotte was in the hospital gave me strength to be there for my husband and children as we all watched what could not be changed or stopped.  Now, running helps keep the ache of loss at bay, helps me sort through my feelings that slip uncontrollably between grief and relief— grief for the loss, and relief that it’s all over.

Part of me has been suspended through all this— the place where my feelings cower in a corner, trembling like my mother-in-law as she sat in that transport chair, knowing what I have to do but not wanting to take the trip back.  I have been unable to write until now; the story obscene, elusive, and heartbreaking, my will weak from the ache of loss and the fear of writing it for me— and to share.

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5 Comments on “Absence Makes the Heart Ache”

  1. Pat Says:

    Oh Elizabeth ! That piece is BEAUTIFUL..I hope that when the time comes I can be as loyal,loving and sensitive…

  2. Sarah Says:

    I don’t know what to say. I want to leave a comment to let you know how touching this post was to read but don’t really have the right words… Thank you, Elizabeth.

  3. Elizabeth W. Says:

    Beautiful. I read it early this morning and had a few tears. My mother is 95 years old. I know I will be dealing with a similar loss in some year not to far away…

  4. lise Says:

    I love you my friend.

  5. Pat S Says:

    Elizabeth dear, I’m so happy you got to write this all down and hope you keep going (in all directions).hugs, moi

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