By SEAN DIETRICH
Waffle House was slow. It was late when we pulled in. We needed hash browns. Stat.
My wife and I walked into the arctic air of the tiny restaurant and slid into the same side of a booth without speaking. Her face was tear-stained and raw. She had a dehydration headache from crying.
There was no music overhead. Which was odd. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a music-less Waffle House.
The waitress approached. She could tell something was wrong by the way my wife was dabbing her eyes.
“You okay, hon?” the waitress asked, handing us menus.
My wife nodded.
We ordered drinks, then my wife leaned onto my shoulder and tried to pull herself together, albeit unsuccessfully.
I held her and said, “Sssshhh” because this is what my mother used to say whenever I cried over a skinned knee or a busted lip. Mama wasn’t actually shushing me; I suppose it’s just what you say when a loved one sobs into your shirt.
We came to this Waffle House almost immediately after the undertaker removed the body of my mother-in-law from her house.
It was surreal. Two men from the funeral home arrived with a stainless-steel gurney. They wore dark suits and did their jobs flawlessly. We removed my mother-in-law’s wedding ring. We fixed her night shirt. They transferred the decedent with dignity, then parked the gurney in the hallway for final farewells.
The placid remains of my wife’s mother were covered in an old quilt. It looked like one of those patchwork quilts your great-great-granny sewed back in eighteen-hundred-and-whenever. Weird what you notice during important moments.
Saying goodbye was tough. Worse than I expected. I don’t care how strong you are, watching a loved one leave home on a mortuary stretcher will break you. Until that moment, it hasn’t hit you yet. Until you see them go, it’s not real.
The men in suits rolled the stretcher away. My wife followed, speaking to her mother the way a parent might speak to a child.
“These men are going to take care of you, Mother. You’re gonna be okay. Oh, they’re going to treat you like a queen…”
The men kept the gurney moving forward. Heads down.
My wife started crying.
“We’re gonna do your hair up real nice. You’re gonna look beautiful for your funeral. Gina’s gonna do your makeup, and oh, we’re gonna dress you in your favorite shirt and…”
The gurney neared the doorway.
My wife’s weeping kicked in double-time.
“Mother, you’re my best friend. My best friend. I love you, I love you so much. My best friend in the whole world. You’ll never know how much you mean to me…”
I watched my wife’s face bust wide open. She looked like a child who had just fallen off her bike. She glanced at the men in dark suits and half moaned:
“Please… Take… Good care… Of my mother…”
As the gurney rolled away my wife sobbed into my chest until she couldn’t breathe. My two Chicken-Little arms wrapped around her tightly, and I’ve never felt so inadequate.
“Sssshhh,” was all I knew to say. “Sssshhh.”
The suits placed the body into the back of a white van. Easy as that. Like a couple of USPS guys delivering a parcel. They closed the vehicle doors. They cranked the engine. They drove off.
My wife started trotting behind the van, chewing on her thumb, still speaking aloud to her mother. When the tail lights disappeared, she totally collapsed. I held her and felt like my heart was being ripped out with a pitchfork.
After that, we went out for hash browns.
We ate in silence and tried not to think. Because after someone dies you just need a rest from thinking. It only takes the littlest thoughts to break your heart all over again.
You will be standing in your loved one’s bathroom and see their toothbrush in the stand, or when you open the refrigerator, you will see their carton of milk, half full, and you will completely lose it.
During our supper, my wife and I watched the starring cast of Waffle House put on their evening show. We saw the truck drivers exchange jokes. We watched the cook throw chili onto haystacks of hashbrowns. We listened to the waitress call everyone “hon.” We saw a table of teens have a laughing contest. A Latino family sang “Happy Birthday” to a baby.
My wife held my hand. I could see the fault lines in her face begin to crack. It had been a long day.
“Everyone here seems so happy,” she said, sniffing.
“I’m so exhausted,” she said.
I tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “I know you are.”
Then her eyes traveled to her hand. She was still wearing her mother’s wedding ring.
Her lower lip trembled.
That was all it took. In a few moments, everyone in the joint was staring at us. And by the expressions of empathy on their faces, I could tell that each of us in this nondescript Waffle House was a member of the same club.
“Sssshhh,” I said.