From Chicken Soup for the Romantic Soul

Goodnight, Sweetheart

Some people believe in love at first sight. I can’t say that I do. However, I can say that I believe a single moment can teach you more about it than you could ever imagine. I was lucky enough to experience one of those moments on the night of November 23, 2001.

On that night, my husband and I had only been married seventeen months. During our brief courtship and the year and a half following our marriage, I had gradually worked toward developing a sense of history and understanding of his family. His father, whom I refer to as Mr. Ralph, was hard to know. This was mostly due to his failing health. He had suffered numerous heart problems and strokes that affected his speech and memory.

Every now and then, Mr. Ralph would feel good and begin telling me stories of when he was young. He loved to tell me about when he drove fruit trucks from Durham, North Carolina, all the way to Baltimore, Maryland. I believe he thought it was ironic that he had probably passed by my father who had worked at Bethlehem Steel during those years. Other stories he liked to tell revolved around the pride he had for his family, the significance of being born on the Averasboro Battleground, and the fine privilege of growing up in Falcon, North Carolina, where God and country were at the center of life. Everything else I knew of him, I learned from his wife and children.

My husband’s mother, Mrs. Janice, also took some time to know. She was an excellent listener and was always very supportive and encouraging, but she didn’t talk much about herself. Most of her time was spent caring for Mr. Ralph when he was sick and trying to help him relish the good times when he was feeling better. I knew all the heart attacks and strokes had significantly affected his personality. He had been a very vibrant, intelligent, opinionated man, and still could be from time to time. But, usually he was more like a child. That never seemed to matter to my mother-in-law. She still took him most everywhere she went, whether to church, the beauty parlor or their daily trip to Bojangles. When they were home, she sat beside him on the couch, held his hand and filled in all the missing words he couldn’t find.

In November, Mr. Ralph’s health began to deteriorate very quickly. He had congestive heart failure and was in the hospital for a week. During all that time, my mother-in-law got very little sleep. She never left his side for more than a few minutes at a time. Her presence brought him comfort and freedom from anxiety, and she was not willing to deprive him of that, regardless of how tired or uncomfortable she became.

When he came back home, the doctor said his heart was functioning at about 30 percent. We all knew that we could lose him at any time. The only thing we knew to do was to just keep living each day and try to get the best from it that we could.

On Thanksgiving Day, she decided to keep him home. She felt he needed to be away from all of the noise and excitement the grandchildren would bring. Halfway into the afternoon, he perked up and said, “Where are my people? I want to be with the people that love me.” So, she bundled him up and drove him to my brother-in-law’s house to be with his family for a short visit.

The next afternoon we received a phone call from the hospice nurse. She said she believed Mr. Ralph would soon pass away and urged us to come to the house. We quickly jumped in the car and sped the quarter mile from our house to theirs. We found him in his bed with Mrs. Janice to his right and his “baby girl” at his feet. His “tomboy” was sitting behind him with her arms around him to hold him up because he did not want to lie down. He stubbornly fought death back for several hours even though all of his children told him it was okay and my mother-in-law kept saying she would help him. Eventually, he seemed to regain some strength. His breathing became more relaxed and he conceded to lie down and let himself be made more comfortable in the bed.

At bedtime, Mrs. Janice quickly brushed her teeth and changed into her pajamas while we all stayed in the bedroom to watch over him. Then, the moment happened. She came back in, finished her nighttime routine and crossed the room to her side of the bed. She pulled back the covers and gently slid into place beside him. We watched as she turned to look at him through tears, and suddenly, we all knew in our hearts that it was the last time she would do this. It was her last chance to say “Goodnight, sweetheart.” It was the last time she would cup his cheek and brush his thin hair off his forehead. It was the last time she would lay beside him and help wash away the hardships of a day with the warmth of her love. This was it. The end was coming.

In that moment, I began to understand why the scriptures say, “Love is as strong as death . . . unyielding as the grave. It burns like a blazing fire . . . many waters cannot quench it; rivers cannot wash it away.” Love had grown stronger with each passing day just as death had. There is no escape from death. Likewise, there is no escape from true love. It grows stronger until death separates you from it, and even then, it does not die.

Love’s strength was made evident in the way my mother-in-law graciously let my father-in-law go. She was able to find comfort and joy in knowing he would be at peace and they would only be separated for a while. She may have let him go, but she will not let him be forgotten. I will not soon forget what love looks like in its finest hours.

Karen Lucas

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