When Life Ends…

We received a dire phone call the first of last week from our son Caleb and his wife of seven months, Amber.  Our daughter-in-law’s mother had suffered an aneurysm.

Her funeral was this past Saturday.

Instantly I was thrown back into the days following my mother’s death.  I remembered the things people did that I found helpful and meaningful and then tried to do them for Amber.

mama and daddy on wedding day 1953 001[1]
In the beginning…my parents 1953
And I recalled the moments when I suffered the most or anguished over things I wished I’d said, even though our last words to each other were, “I love you.”

Turning to what I know, I wrote a letter to her and sealed it in with her for eternity.  I wished she could write one back to me, float it down on a cloud or in a basket of reeds along the river.

I’m still looking for it.

There were times when I didn’t sleep, couldn’t breathe, when I thought I might suffocate.  I considered asking my doctor for medication, thinking I might not be able to hold up during the visitation and the funeral.  I’m eternally grateful that I didn’t; that I realized there would come a time when I would have to walk through the valley of sadness and it might as well be when my friends and family were gathered around me.

Flashbacks slammed into my mind, especially when I saw Amber and her sister–like my sister and me–standing beside their mother for the last time.

One after another these memories scrambled forward on shaky legs–my sister and I choosing our mother’s coffin, picking out songs to be sung, her favorite Bible verses to be read, selecting the pall bearers.

The moment I will always think of as the saddest, most painful, heart wrenching of them all, was the one right before she was taken to the church when the funeral director–a friend and a person with the demeanor that shows he is in the absolute right line of work–warned me of my last few minutes before we would be asked to leave.

“That’s when I’ll panic and fall apart?” I asked.

He nodded.  “Yes,” he answered.  “It won’t be easy.”

I’m thankful that he was so honest, because the sheer rising of terror from my gut when I realized I would never look upon her face again in this life, nearly wiped me out.  I stared at her, trying to memorize every curve of her cheek, the line of her nose, the shape of her brow.  I touched her stiff fingers and listened to the seconds clicking away on our time together.

I watched as Amber suffered through this as well, her involuntary cries an emotional peal I recognized too well.  It wasn’t easy for her either.  It never is.

My mother’s voice is still on my answering machine–message 1.

“Hi, it’s mom.  Just wondering how everyone was.  Call me.”

I used to talk back to it.  “I’m not doing well, mom.  I’m having a lot of difficulty with this.”

Sometimes I skip over it because it makes me cry, but I’ve dared everyone to erase it, even though I’ve been advised it might be healthier not to have it there.

Like me, Amber lost her father first, so losing her mother is a particularly rough blow.  Technically, we are both orphans.

017 (2)[1]
My parents…walking away…I imagine he greeted her and this was how they looked in the end as in the beginning.
Renee Johnson is the author of Acquisition, and The Haunting of William Gray.  She is currently working on a Young Adult novel, while editing a suspense novel which has international flair–an homage to her love of travel and foreign food.  She lives on a farm in North Carolina with her husband, Tony Johnson, and one very spoiled German shepherd named Gretel.   

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  1. I’m so sorry for their loss, for your loss, for my own losses. I think that when you truly love someone, their passing leaves a big hole, that you can step over, but it is always there. And over the years, I’ve come to think that that’s OK. Because then they don’t really leave us.

  2. Your comment about wanting a letter in response hit so close to home; I looked for a message of some sort–a note tucked away, a letter in a photo album–after my mother died. Maybe they’re there, in a different delivery…Best to you and Amber; it sounds like you are a rock for her!

  3. what a beautiful post .. and the photos are just right.
    I am sorry for what you and your DIL had to go through – and I am so grateful she has you there to help her through it.

    I’m off to see my wee Mum today and I’ll give her an extra long hug for all my friends who cannot do so with their Moms.


      1. Yes, MJ and Patti, I know that hug for your mom will be full of love. Thank you. As for the pictures, we had never seen the last one until going through some old photos after my mother’s death. It was almost like a sign of the two of them walking into eternity together. Amazing really.

  4. You’re mother would be so proud of you, Renee. As I read this post, I realized you had the same relationship with your mother that I have with mine. The thought of saying goodbye one day, leaves me breathless. I have several saved voicemail messages from my mother…just in case. When the time comes, I hope to find solace in the fact that one day, we’ll all be together again. I’m sorry for your families recent loss. Amber is blessed to have you walk her through this difficult time. xo

    1. Thank you Jill. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one hanging on to a voice. If there’s anything to be gained from walking through this kind of pain, is the ability to ease other’s pains, even if it is just showing up. I hope you don’t have to face this for a really long time.

  5. Than you, renee for this touching essay. Amber is fortunate to have
    You as a mother-in-law.

  6. So sorry for your loss and Amber’s loss, Renee. After reading this I’m going to call my mom today, just because. My boyfriend lost his mom in February, there are still fresh tears whenever the family gets together with his dad. Death always feels so final to me but we have our memories, answering machine messages, photos. Sending love and hugs to all of you.

    1. Thank you for sharing your friend’s experience. I think they all serve to make us feel more validated in our own. And yes, call your mother and tell her something you’ve been meaning to but haven’t found the right time for.

  7. Beautifully written. I’m sure your daughter-in-law’s loss reopened all those heart wrenching memories of your own loss. She is lucky to have your sensitivity in the background, waiting for the moment when she turns to you in grief and you speak the same language.

    1. Linda, I’ve been meaning to tell you something and now seems like the appropriate time.

      All through my experience with losing my mother I kept receiving messages from friends and my blogging tribe. The one you sent happened to be delivered during the space of time between the funeral home and the church.

      I had picked up my phone to scroll through in order to avoid watching the back of the hearse. And your comment popped up.

      It was quite comforting and I specifically recall your words and how just knowing there were others throughout the world thinking about me and my family at that time gave me a sense of belonging and I didn’t feel quite so alone. There was an energy around me which I interpreted as the well wishes and good thoughts of you and others.

      Thank you for that. We sometimes think our comments don’t really matter. Sometimes, they matter more than we ever know.

      1. Wow. Renee, thank you for sharing that. I had no idea. Like everyone, I struggle to figure out what I to say that might help someone when bad things happen. I’m really glad I found the right combination of words for you. And I’m also glad you’ve gotten through that really awful time, but I recognize that you still get unexpected stabs of heart-wrenching longing. Those too, will eventually become less painful, becoming more inner smiling moments.

        1. It was definitely just the fact you were thinking about me at the moment I needed someone to share the grief with. I thank you for that. It grounded me at a difficult moment.

  8. I’m crying.
    You words flooded over me like something familiar.
    The only way I’ve survived is KNOWING that death is not the end…but the beginning.
    And I look forward to being re-united w/ my sister.

    Sending you love and hugs from Minnesota. xx00

    1. Thank you, Kim.

      You understand. It unites us. We’ve suffered losses that seem unbearable. And yes, your sister is the angel you know and she’s with you…always.

      I’m sending love and hugs right back atcha!!

  9. Oh Renee, you’ve expressed the pain of your mother’s death so beautifully. Like you, I’m technically an orphan, my dad passed away first too. Such a difficult time, but your approach to helping Amber was so wise and compassionate.

    1. Andrea, thank you. Seeing another walking through this painful valley has brought my experiences back to the surface. Just when you think you’re getting over it…

      I’m sorry for your losses as well. It’s never easy, but we learn from it. I hope I have been helpful for Amber and that I will continue to be.

  10. Condolences to the family, Renee. This post is a wonderful tribute to your mother and Amber is very lucky to have you to support her during this time xxxx

  11. It’s hard to realize you are an orphan. I lost my mom first, then dad – the order was the best as my mom would have had too much trouble alone and was difficult/awkward around people and family.
    A lovely post. The last picture and caption is simply perfect.

    1. Thank you, Karen. The truth about that last picture astounds me. Neither my sister nor I had ever seen it until going through my mother’s things. It was like a little message showing up for us. Gives me chills really. I knew I would use them together someday, but didn’t have any idea exactly how. Then this…

  12. I remember that “orphan” feeling, too. But we are no longer orphans. Jn 14:18 I like the photos you included in your post. I’m glad you and Amber have each other, to comfort one another. As you know, it takes a while to find your way on this new path, and Amber is blessed to have you in her life.

    1. Thank you Patti. I hope I can be a blessing for Amber. It’s difficult to think about never seeing your parents (in this life) again. I’m sorry that you’ve lost yours as well, but I love the message here.

  13. Oh, your friend was so right. It’s hard to walk away knowing you will never see that face again, even when that face doesn’t look as it did in life. Wishing you and your family peace.

  14. Oh Renee, I am so sorry to read of your daughter in law’s loss, and how the loss of her dear mother reminds you of losing your own dear mother. I shed a tear when I read of your saved voice mail of your mother’s voice. Your tribute to her is beautiful; through all you experienced, you will be a great blessing to Amber at such a difficult time. The photos of your parents are beautiful, your writing so deeply moving…

    1. Sherri, thank you. I think we learn how to comfort others through our own losses. It was an extremely difficult path for me and I assume it is for her as well. I appreciate your kind words.

  15. I am sorry for your loss. It’s never easy. We think of the things we should have said, the things we should have done and the things we shouldn’t have done. In the end I comfort myself with the thought that it’s the way of nature. We live and we die. And I think of my loves as having found peace, not suffering any more (I lost my mother in early summer).

    1. I’m sorry, Otto. Loss isn’t easy and my husband’s dad passed last week. He was suffering and is better off, I believe. I send my sympathies to you and thank you for yours.

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