Terry Ratner RN, BS, MFA - nurse, writer, educator - click to return home
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Personal Memoirs

An Exercise on Grief

Waking on Sunday Morning

My boyfriend’s cell phone vibrated on the nightstand next to his bed. It’s early Sunday morning. I’m able to tell the approximate time by the amount of refracted light that streams in from the top of the covered Arcadia door. My guess is 7:12 AM.

The window covering consists of three queen-size sheets, created by me with the intention of keeping out undesirable sunlight. One sheet is plastered with animals sketched in black on a beige background. Another is tan with animals along the bottom half, lying in their habitats, waiting for the great kill, and a plain blue fitted sheet hangs just under the beige sheet to insure the right amount of darkness when the sun rises in the east. That’s how I like to sleep—in almost total darkness.

I guessed wrong this morning, but not by much. It was 7:23 AM.

His sister was on the phone. I knew immediately because I heard her distinctive voice, a bit low and raspy. I was lying with my head next to his, my right ear touching his week old growth of stubble, listening to the conversation.

“I’m putting Mom on the line.”

“Hi Mom. I love you.”

No response.

“You know I’ll be there soon. I’m flying to see you on Wednesday.”

No response.

“I’ll see you in a couple days. I love you.”

My boyfriend told me that his mom was receiving a breathing treatment while he talked with her. The silence was nothing new, as she hadn’t been able to speak for the last ten days. She was in the process of dying.

I wiggled my way closer to him, even more than before, thinking I could ease his tension with the feel of my smooth skin on his skin, my leg wrapped around his. Although we were in a queen-size bed, we were bunched on his side of the bed and his white Highland Scottish terrier was stretched out on the other side of the bed with his butt touching mine.

We drifted into a light sleep for a brief time, hoping to get a few more hours of rest, when the phone vibrated again.

“Hello,” he said, knowing it was his sister. Knowing that she was calling back to tell him that their mother had passed away. Knowing that he was going to get the news we all dread hearing.

I didn’t move away from him. I wasn’t sure what he was feeling. It didn’t matter that my mother died years ago and that I had that same type of phone call in 1993 from my father telling me that Mother had died in an accident. One thing I’ve learned is that each death is different and that all of us respond in our own quirky ways to a death of a loved one.

I wondered how my boyfriend would react to the death of his mother.

I had never met his mother. Yes, I’d seen pictures of her, but never spoke to her, laughed with her, or eaten a meal with her. What I did know, I learned through listening to stories. I knew she was difficult to live with, that she didn’t always get along with her adopted daughter. I knew she was creative and an artist. I knew she collected jewelry—silver, gold, and costume and kept the trinkets in a large wooden box. She loved clothes—dresses, pant suits, and colorful skirts, blouses, and sweaters filled her walk-in closet. And I knew how much she loved her son.

For some strange reason, I didn’t feel awkward being there with my friend after his mother died. I felt a need to comfort him, but I wasn’t sure what to say or what to do. Silence blanketed the room after my initial question.

“Did she die?” I asked when he ended the phone call.

“Yes.” He replied.

After a few minutes, I asked him, “Do you want to be alone, or should I stay here?”

“I’d like you to stay.”

I don’t remember everything we did that Sunday, except for this. My clothes were causal, which is unusual for me. I wore my oversized flannel pajama pants under one of his black tank tops. I cooked breakfast because I remembered how stunned I felt after my mother died and how I could barely make the necessary phone calls, let alone prepare food for myself. We watched some television and he ate leftovers before I left to drive home. The hardest thing was trying to communicate with him, so we stayed silent most of the day.

Saying Goodbye

We saw each other the following Tuesday, the night before his flight to Florida, to take care of what needed to be done after a loved one dies: the task of cremation in this case, financial matters, clearing out the house, donation of clothes and furniture, and packing those memorable items to be shipped to family members.

The night before he left, we had a romantic dinner before returning to my house. He seemed better, more composed as if he had accepted the death that he had tried to prepare for during the last few months. I didn’t feel uncomfortable—it was almost as if he was preparing for a business trip, not a trip that would keep him going nonstop for three days. Perhaps he didn’t want to think about the details that follow a death, the initial part of the grieving process when one sorts through their loved one’s possessions, piece by piece, putting the puzzle together.

We listened to music on the couch in the living room, never venturing up the stairs, probably because he knew he wasn’t staying over. He knew he had to leave in a few hours to get ready for his trip. I remember guessing the time twice that night. My first two guesses were close, within five or six minutes, but the last one was way off. It was 1:10 AM when I kissed him goodbye.

Waking on Sunday Morning (One Week Later)

We were entangled with one another; one of my legs wrapped around his, our heads so close, I felt his breath against my cheek when he exhaled. I once again glanced up at the sheets to check the time and noticed an increase of light above the blue sheet.

“Do you know what time is it?” I asked.

“Guess,” he says because he likes that game.

“I think it’s about nine o’clock.”

“It’s 9:23,” he said with a grin. He likes when I’m not on target. It proves something to him: that I can’t always tell the exact time from the light sneaking in from the top of the sheets.

Just then his phone vibrated on the nightstand next to him. He grabbed it and said, “It’s my sister.”

“Pick it up. It’s ok.” I said thinking it might be important.

“Really?”

“Yes.”

And that was the end of our Sunday morning embrace. He spent the next 15 minutes lying next to me with his cell phone to his ear trying to give her clear instructions that would retrieve deleted photos from her computer. He finally got up and took the phone into the office to assist her by going through the necessary steps simultaneously on his computer.

I stayed in the bedroom for a few minutes thinking about what had happened, feeling uncomfortable, but not wanting to leave because we hadn’t seen each other in a few days. The day just got worse from that time on.

What I Learned

Grief comes in waves. It might not hit you initially, but it will show up sometime. You can’t hide from it or pretend that it doesn’t affect you, because it will find you wherever you are, whatever you are doing. You can’t bury it with lovemaking, Internet puzzles, a bottle of wine, or watching mindless movies and television programs. You can’t run from your loss—it will catch you each time.

There will be a moment when you will succumb to it. You will let it in because you have no choice. You will examine it in your mind, not want to deal with any other problems or chores, like cooking a meal, doing dishes or laundry. You just want to process the death. You may not want to share feelings with people that didn’t know your loved one. You might even unintentionally shut them out because they weren’t a part of your loved ones life and you might think, “how could they possibly understand what I feel.” Their questions might make you uneasy and although you are close with one another, you don’t have the time or energy for them now. Not until you figure it all out. Not until you go through your memories and put them to rest can you join the rest of the world.

Sunday Afternoon

I felt awkward most of the day, feeling the distance between us thicken like gray clouds streaked with yellow dust slowly moving across the sky, giving off a preview of darkness in the middle of the day, waiting to let go of the dust before the storm hits. Blinding your visibility as to what lies ahead and what terrible tragedy might occur. I’m watching the Sunday Open Golf Tournament with him, which I must admit is a first for me. I say to myself, “I can do this. It might be interesting.” Keep in mind that if you don’t count miniature golf, I have only golfed once in my life and I never enjoyed watching sports on television. I made a bet on who might finish in first place (and won) to make the hour and a half more interesting. It wasn’t so much the golf that made me uncomfortable as the cooking shows that followed later in the afternoon. The ones that don’t highlight the food presentation and ingredients as much as the weird characters with colorful tattoos, teary eyes, clichés when they win or lose a competition, and the chefs that act like Nazi’s ordering them around the grand kitchens where it all takes place.

The light streamed in the kitchen window. I forgot about my dislike for sunlight, especially during the hot Arizona summers. I forgot about telling time from the light source and I somehow didn’t realize that I had to take care of myself and that it was way past the time for me to leave and go home. I should have understood hours before that he wasn’t thinking about me—not in the morning or throughout the day. I felt as if I was in the way and my being there was no longer helping him with his grief.

Packing Up

We discussed dinner earlier in the day. I asked him if he’d like me to pick up groceries and cook something for him. He shook his head no and said he had some frozen stuff in the freezer. When I asked him around dinner time if he was hungry, his answer was “no.” Then I had a brainstorm.

“If I was invisible, not here at this time, what would you do for dinner?”

“I wouldn’t eat or wouldn’t eat much.”

That was my cue to go. I was starving and feeling uncomfortable, so I told him I was packing up my stuff to leave. He didn’t argue or ask me to stay, so I knew that was the right decision. But I was hurt. Hurt because I couldn’t fix him. I could not make him feel better. My company was not helping him for whatever reasons. He is use to making dinners and entertaining me and that wasn’t going to happen today.

I looked out to the kitchen from where I sat on the living room couch. The television was loud and my friend picked up the remote to play another cooking show he had taped.

“I think it’s about 6:40,” I said before glancing at the wooden clock on the wall.

Right on the minute, I thought to myself. “It’s time to leave.”