During spring break 2000, a very dear friend, Eleanor*, who was like a grandmother to me, had a stroke and fell. She had just turned 91. The assistants at the nursing home brought her to the emergency room. The doctors discovered that what they thought was a minor stroke was actually a massive stroke, and that her lungs were filling up with fluids. On a Wednesday they transferred her to the terminal wing of the hospital, and that evening my father called and broke the news to my mother and me.
We went directly to the hospital, and I sat next to Eleanor for three hours talking to her about old times, even though the doctors told us that she couldn't hear us. As it got late, my mother said that we should go home. I told Eleanor that I loved her, and just as I was leaving Eleanor opened her eyes and softly said, "I love you." One of her other friends was going to stay with her so she would not be alone. I slept about an hour that night. The next day my father and I went in to see her in the morning, and let Eleanor's friend go home and freshen up. When she got back it was the afternoon, and Eleanor was getting worse. My father went to make some calls in a room down the hall. While he was gone, Eleanor started to die, so I ran down the hall yelling for my dad, and when we got back Eleanor was gasping for breath. We held her hand as she drew her final breath and died peacefully.
After Eleanor died, the nurses came in and asked if she was an organ donor. All of her life Eleanor had lived to help others: she worked her whole life at soup kitchens, shelters, and helped the homeless get back on their feet. So of course she was an organ donor. The nurses called the medical school, and the man that they talked to said that because of her age and other health problems, they could only use her eyes for research. We thought that it was fitting that Eleanor could give part of her self to help others.
Then one of her grandchildren called, and my father had to break the news to her. Even from the other side of the room we could hear her crying. My father let her know that we saw the flowers that she and her husband had sent. After that I took the flowers and gave them to another woman who was in the room next to Eleanor. The woman had no one with her. I thought that I did what Eleanor would have wanted me to do. When I went back in, all of us cried even more, gave Eleanor kisses, and then walked quietly out of the hospital. When we got back to our car, my mother asked me if there was anything I wanted. I broke down into tears and I stammered out, "I want Eleanor back!"
I had heard of the words "heartbreak" and "heartache," but I never knew what they meant. But when I got home, my heart literally hurt, and I didn't know if it would ever go away. The next few days were hard. Eleanor's family lived out of the state, so they were calling and asking where to stay, and asking for directions to the funeral home. Every time they called I had to keep myself from breaking down in tears over the phone.
Eleanor was being cremated, so when her grandchild and his wife flew into town with one of her other grandchildren, we went to the funeral parlor and said our good-byes to her. To this day whenever I go by the funeral home I still start to cry. After the funeral her only surviving child, Dan, and two of her grandchildren divided up her ashes and took them home. Eleanor always wore red nail polish, and when we went through her things, my father gave me her bottles of nail polish. I keep them in a special place in my room next to her picture.
The heartache went away, but it is still hard sometimes when I go by gardens that she always loved, and sometimes, just out of the blue, I start to cry. But probably the hardest thing is that Eleanor was such a presence in my life that it is sometimes hard to believe that she is really gone. I often find myself thinking that my father and I should go to see her. The thing that I learned is to treasure the time you have with the ones you love. Don't spend the time worrying about when they will be gone.
*Name has been changed