She visits in grief.

I was so worried she hadn’t got on the plane. My mother has struggled ever since her husband died of a sudden heart attack almost one year ago. She has insisted on living alone, on staying in her house, the home that her husband provided for her, isolated in a country hamlet, a town with one blinking red light. It would be great if she had friends or a support network there, but she doesn’t. There are a handful of older widows in her small neighborhood, but house bound eighty-somethings are not going to keep her active and engaged.

My mother has stopped taking care of herself. She often doesn’t eat, or drinks only coffee or boxed chardonnay, after throwing the box away and keeping the enormous plastic bladder of wine in the bathroom clothes hamper under a pile of towels. I dumped two of those down the sink while she slept when I visited. I stabbed the bag with the scissors in several places and watched the pale golden liquid swirl down the drain. I inhaled and breathed in the scent, wishing for one frantic second that I had thought to drink it all myself. I understood. I know that need, that need to feel good and make it all go away. I know how the wine makes me feel a little bit warm and better inside, when everything is going to hell around me. Just enough to make my head sway and make reality swirl. I felt guilty for denying her that escape, but I needed her in my life. In my children’s lives. I needed her alive and would do whatever I needed to make sure she stayed that way.

When she came through the arrivals gate, my first response was to sigh and put my hand to my chest, because I am the worrisome parent now. Even her hair was frail, bleached into cotton candy wisps and twisted up, gently bobbing as she walked. The bright, pink Seattle Starbucks sweatshirt she bought just before our Alaskan cruise together five years prior hung loose and baggy on her frame. She looked thin and confused, her face creased with deep lines and shadows.

Or at least I thought they were merely shadows from far away, but as she drew nearer to me, I saw she actually had bruises on the side of her jaw, a full black eye, and a goose egg swelling in the center of her forehead. She attempted to cover the bump with her bangs, and pretended everything was fine when she gave me a shaky hug hello.

Grieving.

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.

“Momma?”

“Mom, it’s me. I’m here. Can you hear me?”

“Momma?”

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.”