When my mother’s husband died, it was an average day. A warm breeze, blue sky, scrambled eggs for breakfast sort of day. After this breakfast, Lee turned pale. He had trouble breathing. And then the chest pain began. Momma gave him an aspirin and called 911. The ambulance came on the country roads, past cornfields and vineyards. Not fast enough, but she didn’t know that then. She packed him clean underwear and fresh, comfortable clothes, expecting the uncomfortable recovery and days of bland hospital meals on covered plastic trays. Lee never liked spicy food anyway, but it wouldn’t be like their suppers at home together. “Just come sit by me,” he’d often say after a meal from his spot on the big sofa as he flipped through the channels looking for a movie to watch. He would say,“It was a long day today,” and take her hand in his.
She texted me after she called 911 to say she was leaving for the hospital, to follow the ambulance because they wouldn’t let her ride along. He was still alive in the ambulance. Those precious minutes.
In Portland, my phone rang just a few hours later. I was so relieved when I answered and heard her soft, familiar laugh. Lee had bought her first smart phone for Mother’s Day, after she left her faithful, old phone on the hood of the car and driven off. She had called me accidentally. I heard the background noise for several seconds before she laughed. The laugh brought me a wave of relief. He must be okay.
“Mom, it’s me. I’m here. Can you hear me?”
After several seconds of silence, enough for a long breath in and time to hold it before letting it out slowly, I heard the sound again. It was not the laughter of relief or the wonderful agony of knowing the loved one will be okay after something horrible has happened. It was a long, drawn out sob. A moaning cry of grief so deep that it lingered, and continued, and seemed endless. It was a sound of such pain and disbelief. I stayed on the line, listening to my mother wail and to the mumble of the doctor in the background. I heard him tell her that Lee’s heart just didn’t make it through the procedure. They had tried to save him. They tried to look with a tiny camera.
I will never forget that sound, the sound of my mother’s grief. Several minutes went by and she just couldn’t stop. I sat on the kitchen step stool with one hand holding my phone, the other stuck to my heart, three time zones away, unable to do anything to help or make this not be happening, while my children played with legos in the living room. The sound of their chatter filled one ear, while the sound of her despair and disbelief filled the other.
“Do you want me to help you call someone?” a woman’s voice in the background asked her. My mother mumbled something incoherent, and the phone shuffled. Her breath came louder and closer to me.
“Momma, I’m here. I’m here.” I repeated, because in that moment there was nothing else I could say.
“He’s gone.” Her voice was barely a whisper. “He’s gone.”