She’s Not Here, A Short Story

phoneThe young girl sat up in her bed, rubbed the sleep out of her eyes, threw her hair off her face in one easy motion, and scrambled out of bed.  It was an early Saturday morning in May. The house was hushed.  With the stealth of a burglar she tiptoed down the hallway and carefully descended the creaky stairs.

After some domestic disarray, the ten-year old clung to the solid comfort of this familiar routine.  She turned on the stereo, adjusted the tuner, and turned the volume to its lowest setting. Grabbing some throw pillows, she dropped to the floor inches from the speaker, flat on her stomach, her elbows in the pillows and her hands cupped under her chin.

The next two hours brought radio programs for children.  Thirsty for story, she drank in the drama while the rest of the house slept. Midway through the last show the jangle of the telephone pierced the quiet.  Like quicksilver she jumped up and grabbed the receiver before the phone rang again.

“Hello,” her high childish voice could barely be heard.

“Hi! Is your mommy there?”  the other voice trilled.

“Mmm…no,” she whispered tentatively.

“Would you leave her a message, please?”

“’kay…,” her voice wavered.

“The chair she had reupholstered is finished and is ready to be picked up at the shop.”

 “Thanks. Good-bye.”

She replaced the receiver and returned to her position on the floor.

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~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

The next Saturday was the same. The family slept while the young girl listened to Aunt Bee, Ranger Bill, and Sailor Sam. She took every precaution to listen without waking them.  Once again, the clatter of the telephone shattered the solitude. She darted to the dining room side table and grabbed the phone before the second ring.

“Hello.”

“Hello!  I’d like to speak to Nellie Harper!”

 The girl paused; she finally said, “She’s not here.”

 “Well, listen hon, this is the upholstery shop calling, and I called last week and left a message.  I told her when she brought it in that it would be ready in two weeks, and this chair has been in the shop for a month now, and I really need your mom to pick up this chair.  Would you puh-lease let her know?”   Her voice was a mixture of artificial sweetener and ill-concealed irritation.

 “Hmmm.”  came out in hushed tones.

 “Thanks, hon, I really appreciate it. You have a good day, now.”

~     ~     ~     ~      ~     ~

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A week went by.  The light was lasting longer, birds were chirping in the trees, and  school was winding down.  Summer had almost arrived, though the markers of seasonal change were little noted in that house.  Again, the young girl woke up early Saturday morning, crept around the squeaky spots and kept her rendezvous with the radio.

She wasn’t surprised when the phone rang; she answered it as she had done before.

“Hello,” spoken softly, so softly.

 “Hi!”  spoken in the tone of one eager to check off items on her list.

 They both recognized the other’s voice; they both had the script memorized.

 “Honey, look, is your mommy home this morning?” came the coaxing plea.

 “No.”   The single syllable dangled in space with nothing to support it.

 Exasperated, the woman on the other end of the line raised her voice.

“Well, where is she?  I’ve called, I’ve left messages, and still Nellie has not picked up her chair.”

She clipped each word shorter than a buzz cut.

The moment of truth could be delayed no longer.  The words that were stuck in the child’s throat, words that could not be spoken the previous Saturdays, words that were impossible to say, even today, were forcefully dislodged.

 “Ummm………she………well……..ummmm.   She died.”

 “Ohmygosh, she died? She died?  Your mommy died? What happened?  Oh, honey, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.  Was she in an accident?  She died?  I had no idea.  Oh, honey, I’m so very, very sorry.  Oh dear.  I–am–so–sorry.”

 “No…..she…….just……died.”

The silence was more uncomfortable for the girl than for the woman.  She sensed the shock, the awkward drop, the conversational vertigo of the voice on the other end.  The ten-year old knew she would have to bridge the gap and end this call.  The girl found her voice and began to comfort the caller.

“It’s all right.  You didn’t know.  It’s okay. No one told you.  I’ll tell my daddy about the chair when he wakes up, okay?  He’ll come to your shop and get the chair.  It’s okay.  You didn’t know… Good-bye.”

She walked back to the stereo, turned the radio off, sat down on the floor and sobbed.

 
[Originally posted November 2006]

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Motherless Daughters

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By 1996 I was certain sure I had made peace with grief.  Sorrow was a sealed file with the words RESOLVED stamped on the front.  I had been “moving on”, as they say, for decades.

Suddenly, with the stealth of a B-2 bomber, grief pounced and hijacked me.  While I was held hostage, facing my familiar adversary, I had the sense of confusion and disbelief: This cannot be happening to me.  It seemed surreal, disconnected, in short, unbelievable.

It was in that context of confused ongoing mourning that I first read Motherless Daughters.

My mother-in-law wanted to help; she gave me this book with the hesitant hope that it might give me something she herself couldn’t give.  I planted myself in the small bathroom at 10:00 p.m. on a Saturday night and started reading.  By 4:00 a.m. I had finished the book, exhausted, soggy,  numb, and emotionally done-in.

When Hope Edelman wrote about experiences, emotions and situations that I knew firsthand in my soul but had never spoken aloud, it could only be described as cathartic.  Edelman gave me words to articulate the sorrow and, more than anything, helped me to understand the nature of grief.  The first chapter, The Seasons of Grieving, is the best concise summary of grief that I have ever read.

I recently revisited Hope’s narrative.  I was surprised to see statements I’ve been saying so long that I thought they were my very own.  The words of the first chapter are still powerful and continue to resonate in my soul.  Back in 1996, they reassured me that I wasn’t some freak of nature who refused to “get over it.”

Having said that, I found the predominant value of this book much more in its diagnosis than in its therapy.

Quotes to copy:

Like most other families that lose a mother, mine coped as best it could, which meant, essentially, that we avoided all discussion of the loss and pretended to pick up exactly where we’d left off.

“My mother died when I was nineteen,” [Anna] Quindlen wrote. “For a long time, it was all you needed to know about me, a kind of vest-pocket description of my emotional complexion:  ‘Meet you in the lobby in ten minutes–I have long brown hair, am on the short side, have on a red coat, and my mother died when I was nineteen.'”

Ten years ago I was convinced I’d finished mourning my mother.  The truth was, I’d barely begun.

Edelman describes a random incident years after her mother’s death where she is balled up in physical pain, clutching her stomach.  She had thought she had sailed through the five stages of death and moved on.  I had a similar moment when, as if lightening from heaven, I was struck, pierced, skewered, with overwhelming grief.  I thought I was well-adjusted, “normal” and that everything was copacetic.  For no discernable reason (I mean the timing of the episode) I was brought to my knees, in tears, and incapable of articulating anything but deep, deep pain.  I ended up in a seldom-used restroom in our church, gasping for air, howling in anguish.  Someone got my husband and told him to go in and check on me.

Here’s what I’ve learned about grief since then: It’s not linear.  It’s not predictable.  It’s anything but smooth and self-contained.  Someone did us all a grave injustice by first implying that mourning has a distinct beginning, middle, and end.  That’s the stuff of short fiction.  It’s not real life.

Grief goes in cycles, like the seasons, like the moon.  No one is better created to understand this than a woman, whose bodily existence is marked by a monthly rhythm for more than half her life.