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I literally collided with Elsa, while waiting in the all-you-can-eat crab buffet line at the local casino. I’d noticed Elsa, standing a few bunched-up people ahead of me, and I was tempted to squeeze through the sardine-packed crowd to tap her on the shoulder to say “hello”. I decided against it. I had been her husband’s hospice RN a bit over a year ago, and I was worried that seeing me might jolt her with memories of that sad time, and create a sudden eruption of tears and grief.
So I stood waiting in line, debating with myself if I should leave. What if she turned around and saw me? She seemed to be having such a good time, as she chatted animatedly with a lady-friend waiting next to her. I saw smiles on her face that I had never seen before. It was good to see her at the buffet. It was a sign of healing. She and her husband had religiously attended the all-you-can-eat crab buffet at the casino, every single Friday night of their twenty-year marriage. Nothing, other than death or hospitalization, trumped the Friday night date at the all-you-can-eat crab buffet.
Her husband loved cracked crab. Elsa thought it was just “okay”, but as she once told me, “it seems an awful lot of work for a few bites of crab… and you have to wear an apron, for heaven’s sake, unless you want to leave, dressed in crab and crab juice.” She went to the buffet every Friday, because it was “just about the highlight of his week”, and it was the highlight of her week to see him tear into the crustaceans with gusto, leaving, despite the apron, covered with crab and crab juice, and a great smile on his face, belly fuller than it should have been. She laughed about how the buffet owners cringed when they saw her husband coming, because they would definitely lose money on this crab-loving buffet customer.
Just as I was about to turn around to leave, Elsa swiveled, her arms flailing in every direction, as she shoved her way through the crowd the wrong way. Something had happened. When she reached my point in the crowd, her eyes opened wildly as she peered up at me, the recognition unmistakable. A choking sound came up from her throat, and she fell forward. I caught her, as she stumbled forward, still groping, with nothing but air in front of her.
We walked, my arms around her to keep her upright. I scanned the room for a place to sit, away from the gawking crowd. Her legs threatened to buckle, and tears flooded her face. She stared at the floor, refusing or unable to look at me. After what seemed an eternity, a casino host came rushing across the room with a wheelchair. We got Elsa into the chair, and were accompanied to a quiet, secluded room, far from the noisy, nosey buffet.
I waited silently beside Elsa. The host asked if he should call 911, and I said, “No, give us a minute. I’ll let you know if we need anything.”
The host showed me a button on the wall, which I could push for immediate help. I thanked him, and, hesitantly, he left the room, closing the door quietly behind him.
I checked Elsa’s pulse, and rubbed her back. “It’s okay, Elsa. You’re safe.”
She said nothing.
I pulled a chair in front of her, and sat. I reached out my hand and stroked hers, and she did not pull away. Finally, she placed her other hand on top of mine, and said, “Thank you. I guess I made quite a scene out there, didn’t I?” Her voice was shaky, but her breathing was slowing to normal. Her body continued to tremble, slightly, but soon, she pulled her shoulders back and looked at me, straight and strong in the eye.
“I thought I was ready,” she said. “It’s been a year~~no, it’s been a year, two months, and~~” she paused and searched the ceiling for several seconds. “~~and for I don’t know, anymore, how many days? I used to know how many days.”
Her face screwed up into a flushed, round ball. “Is that bad?”
I smiled at her, and cupped her hand in my free hand. “No, that’s not bad, Elsa.”
“It’s just that it’s been more than a year, and for some reason, I got the idea that a year was it, that the grieving should be over in a year. That’s what I read somewhere, anyway.”
I rubbed Elsa’s shoulder. “It takes what it takes, Elsa. For some people, it’s ten years, for some it’s five, for some it’s a few. But, whatever it takes, it just takes.”
She smiled, a tremulous smile. “I got through Christmas. I got through Thanksgiving.” She scanned the room with her eyes. “I’ll admit, the Christmas tree lights didn’t sparkle much, the turkey was dry.” She laughed, a shaky kind of laugh. “I didn’t want to decorate for the holidays, but I did string some garland around the doors. I bought a little Christmas tree, and put on a few lights, and I added a few Christmas balls and ornaments. But not the ones that meant anything. Not what Charles and I used to do.” Tears threatened to fill her eyes again. “But I tried to make Christmas, and I told myself that it was okay that it didn’t feel as joyous as it did when Charles was here: after all, he was missing. What was important was that I was doing it. I was trying. And Charles would like that.” She sobbed a single, deep sob, and tears began streaming down her face again.
“Elsa, I’m going to get some water for us. I’ll be right back.” I looked at her, uncertainly. “You be okay?”
She gave me a weak smile, and nodded, “Yes”.
When I returned, she slurped down half a glass of water. She was holding a saturated handkerchief in her hand, and I dug a clean one from my bag, handing it to her. “How ya doin?”
“Better,” she said. She smiled again, this time a bit stronger. “You know, I got through our anniversary, I got through Charles’ birthday, I even got through our twenty-first anniversary.” She looked up at me, shyly, from beneath her lashes. “It was a second marriage for both of us, you know.”
“I remember you telling me that.”
“Well, when I got through that anniversary, I thought I was ready for anything. I thought I was through with my grieving.” She looked toward the closed door, as though she was peering straight through it, out to the crowd she’d left behind. “I guess I’m not.”
Elsa and I sat for a long while, talking about the steps she’d taken, the progress she’d made over the past year, since Charles had died. She cried and she smiled. Then she smiled and cried, again. “I hate it when I cry! It makes my nose all stuffed up!” She gave a half-laugh, mixed with a choke and a hiccough.
“You know, there’s times when I think I’m doing just fine, and then I’ll smell a smell, or hear a tune on the radio, or even see a couple I don’t even know, hugging.” She paused, a strangling sound coming from her throat. Then her shoulders pulled back, firm, and she took a long, deep breath. “That’s just when it’ll hit me again. When I least expect it. Just when I think I’m over it. And I realize I’m not.”
I nodded at her, and she held her arms out for a hug. I held her for several moments, until she pulled away.
“We don’t really heal, do we?” she asked, more rhetorical than a real question. “We just keep going, we just learn how to cope with it better, don’t we? I mean, the lights on the Christmas tree will never have that same sparkle that they had when Charles was here. And,” she struggled with her next words. “… and, I just have to keep going, don’t I? I have to learn to come to the all-you-can-eat crab buffet on Friday night, without completely losing it, don’t I?”
I sat for a moment, saying nothing. The silence was so heavy for something that weighs nothing. But I waited in that silence, until Elsa peered directly into my eyes again.
“Do you think I’ll ever be able to come to the all-you-can-eat crab buffet at the casino, again? Will that be what tells me the grieving is over?”
I laughed, quietly. “If I remember right, you never did like the all-you-can-eat crab buffet in the first place.”
She grinned up at me, then gave out a full laugh. “You mean, I don’t have to do it?”
“No, you don’t have to do it,” I said, smiling back at her. She looked almost radiant at that moment. “It’s your time, now, Elsa. Charles will understand. He’d want that for you. It’s time for you to discover how to be you, alone, now.” I took her hands in mine again. “And from what I can see, you’re doing a pretty good job of that, so far. It’ll be bumpy, there’ll be ups and downs, those may never go away. But you’ve learned to cope with so much already.
And, by the way, coping doesn’t mean that you don’t cry or feel sad or wish Charles were here. Coping means that you get up everyday, and sometimes just go through the motions. It’s a lifelong process, but it gets better. One day, you’ll surprise yourself when you realizing you’re smiling, even laughing.” I grinned at her and squeezed her hands. “I’m just guessing, but I’ll bet you’ve already found yourself smiling at a little kitten, or laughing at a funny joke?”
She shook her head slowly, yes. “It doesn’t happen often, but it has happened.” She frowned. “The first time I smiled and laughed, I thought I was betraying Charles.”
“Oh, Elsa. You’re not betraying Charles.” I hugged her again, then sat back in my chair. “You’re beginning to live again. You’re re-creating yourself. And that’s what Charles would have wanted.”
©Janet Mitchell, December 2011. Any resemblance to any actual person, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. This is a work of fiction.