Darlene Burns passed away at 10:33 pm on May 12, less than four weeks after she went into hospice. Her husband, Jerry was by her side in her final moments at their home in Middletown. Darlene had been unable to hold any food down for the past two days and was suffering from fluid that had accumulated in her lower extremities. That was how the visiting nurse described it to Jerry, and that was how it appeared in her final report. As Darlene’s pain increased, the doses of morphine administered increased as well. She slept fitfully throughout the day calling out to Jerry periodically for more ice. Otherwise, he sat at her bedside holding her small warm hand in his for dear life. Friends and relatives had come and gone, bringing food and solace. A tuna casserole covered in Glad Wrap sat on the kitchen counter unopened.
Jerry, who had been readying himself for this moment for months, was unprepared for the unbearable grief that took the place of his wife’s loving spirit. So fragile was he in the moments after, that the silence which filled the room threatened to crush him. In the undertow of this fierce wave, there was nothing holding him, nothing for him to hold on to. The darkness outside was inside him now like a great wound that had opened in him replacing love, not with it’s opposite, not with fear, but with a vast empty space. Alone in that space, it was only the guttural sounds of his own sobbing, the heaving of his chest, the warm tears running down his face that reminded Jerry, he was still alive.
The visiting nurse contacted McCrory’s Funeral Home. Two sallow men, one tall the other short and round, both dressed in dark suits, arrived with a portable stretcher. The tall one, who appeared to be in his early thirties, shook Jerry’s hand for what seemed like a long time. Jerry was surprised by the warmth of the man’s hand. After both had declared their sadness over the loss of Jerry’s spouse, they went off to work quietly together. Jerry took a last look at Darlene, at rest now and looking somehow even smaller than before. Kissing her lightly on the forehead and telling her again that he loved her, Jerry stepped out onto the front porch before the two returned to the room.
It was after 11:00, a moonless night with a scattering of stars. There was no traffic. All the houses along the tree lined street were dark. Jerry sat on the wooden swing where he and Darlene had spent so many summer nights. The swing creaked gently as he rocked, wind chimes adding a delicate music, as if the sprinkle of stars themselves were being blown gently together by the spring breeze. The shades were closed on the windows behind him, but Jerry knew that inside the two morticians were slipping the body of his bride into the black body bag they had tried unsuccessfully to hide from him when they first arrived.
Jerry’s mind was blank, the tears had momentarily defused the shock. He thought back to when Darlene was originally diagnosed. How the doctors had given her four to six weeks more than four months ago, and how they had talked about what it might be like when this time came. The short time they had left together allowed them to tend to Darlene’s Will - she had designated jewelry and clothes to be distributed among her sister and nieces - and to say good-bye to friends and family. In the evenings Jerry lay on the couch next to Darlene’s bed. They talked in the dark of their life together and of his life once she was gone. She pleaded with him to remarry. “You like to be married,” Darlene had said. His silent response was answer enough he thought - he liked being married to her.
Jerry thought of Darlene’s sister Janice in Milwaukee. How she had come to visit when they first learned of Darlene’s cancer. Only able to get two weeks away from her job at Target, Janice made the most of their visit. The two women laughing together on the couch over old family photo albums, reliving their childhood. What had become a demanding and difficult relationship in recent years - disagreements, most likely the result of aging minds - about which parent loved who best - dissolved. So focused on the moment at hand, the two were children again.
Jerry needed to call her. There were other calls too. There was his family in New Hampshire. His brother Jack had offered to come down and help with the funeral arrangements when it was time. There were Darlene’s closest friends. He could wait until morning to contact them as well as her co-workers at Roger Williams. No one would be surprised, not like he was now.
These last months had taught Jerry things that he didn’t want to forget. He learned that without the past and future, the present was tolerable, even expansive. The simple task of making a sandwich, boiling water for tea, or fluffing up the many pillows on Darlene’s bed were vital and poignant, giving the mundane an almost magical kind of peace. Over these last months, Jerry felt a greater sense of purpose. When he tried to think about the past, a vague mist seemed to gather around his memories. He was afraid that without Darlene’s memory, without their collective memories, he would forget. As for the future, it simply became smaller, limited at first to months, then days, then minutes, until the second after her passing when he was finally just himself, alone. He wondered who he was now without her?
He pulled his phone from his pocket, the small lighted screen casting a ghostly shadow on the porch ceiling and the chains of the moving swing. Even this little light was too much. Jerry quickly found Darlene’s sister’s number in his list of favorites and pushed the call button. The phone’s screen darkened; the digital rasp of the ring in his ear.
“Hello.” A small voice answered after what had been so many rings that Jerry was sure he’d get voicemail.
“Janice, it’s me, Jerry.” He said, knowing she had caller ID and had probably hesitated to answer.
“She’s gone, isn’t she?”
“Yes, just after 10:30.”
“Are you okay?”
“You know she loved you very much Jerry. All that you did for her these past few months - You know how much it meant to her?”
“I do, I know. You know she loved you too.”
“Oh, of course, my sister loved everyone, in her way.” And with this Janice began to cry.
“Yes, yes she did.” He waited, listening to Janice’s gentle crying mixed with a fresh splash of wind chimes. “The people from the funeral home are here now.” He paused again, then, “Janice, it’s alright now, she’s at peace. Would you contact the girls for me?”
“Yes, of course,” Janice paused sniffling. “Jerry, will you be alright?”
“My brother Jack is coming down to help me, with the arrangements.”
“Oh, that’s good, that’s good.”
“I hope you’ll be able to sleep. I couldn’t wait for morning.”
“No, it’s okay Jerry.”
“It’s just I knew you’d want to know right away.”
“I do, I mean, I did want to know.”
“Well, they must be almost done inside. We’ll talk again in the morning Janice.”
“I love you Jerry. Try to get some sleep if you can.”
“I love you too, Janice.” Hanging up, Jerry thought how strange it was that he and Janice had never said those words before. That was another one of the things he didn’t want to forget.
Jerry was grateful for the dark now. What would he have done had this occurred at mid-day? The dark hid him from what was happening in the living room. Strange how it was called that - the living room. In the past it might have been referred to as the parlor or the front room.
“We’re ready to go now, sir.” It was the shorter of the two men, leaning out from the door as if the porch floor had just been freshly painted.
“I’ll come in now,” Jerry said, slipping quickly off the swing and holding the chain so it wouldn’t bang into the wall.
Inside, Darlene’s hospital bed, empty now, had been stripped down to its thick rubber mattress. There was no sign of the stretcher.
“If you could come by the funeral home tomorrow, at your convenience of course, we can discuss final arrangements.”
“Yes. Thank you,” Jerry said.
“Well again, our deepest condolences.” Shaking hands again the two men left Jerry, taking Darlene’s body across the island and up West Main Road to McCrory’s.
Brushing his teeth in the upstairs bathroom, Jerry got ready for bed. For more than a month now, he had been sleeping on the couch downstairs next to Darlene. He thought of sleeping upstairs in their bedroom, but decided against it. Instead, he made up the couch as he had so many nights before, tucking sheets over the couch cushions and folding a light wool blanket in half. He lay awake for what seemed a long time with only the sound of the clock ticking and the muffled jangle of wind chimes.
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