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The Empty Chair

Mary Anne MercerMary Anne Mercer

“Hello – Mary Mercer’s house.”  I picked up the phone, the call interrupting a burst of raucous laughter from the assembled family group in my mother’s house.  We sat relaxing after lunch around the white Formica dining room table. My brother had just made one of his hilarious put-downs of the local constabulary.

“You’d better come over,” I heard the calm, measured voice of my brother-in-law on the phone. “Your mother has just passed away.”

Time missed a beat.  My mom just died?  The statement registered as a curious fact, an uncertain abstraction, too portentous to let into my consciousness. 

“We’ll be right there.”  I hung up the phone.

The room was suddenly silent, serious, four sets of eyes trying to read my face and understand my sudden intake of breath, the hand tugging at my sweater over my breastbone.  They waited patiently. My brother John, his wife, and two cousins had all been sharing in the care of Mom at the nearby hospital.  I breathed out slowly. 

“That was Duane.  He said that Mom has … died.”  Without another word we stood as a group, moving as one being across the floral carpet of my mother’s living room, past her empty brown recliner chair and out the door into the brilliant sunshine.  The March afternoon was as warm as June would normally be, I thought. 

We marched solemnly, each of us his or her own solitary procession, down the street to the hospital, a mere block away in this small eastern Montana town. My thoughts immediately began flitting about in random observations.  It really does feel like global warming is a fact—quite amazing that anyone could deny it on days like this, I thought.  I wonder which nurse is on today.  It’s after two o’clock, I should have been there to relieve my sister before this. 

My mind snapped back to the present reality.  Why am I not thinking about Mom? I worried. Oh, she’s….  But the thought was unformed, still unthinkable, this eventuality that I had dreaded for my entire life.  As a child I was devoted to my mother, and when my parents stayed out at night later than expected, I would pray: please God, not a car accident.  In rural Montana, the highways are haunted by crosses along the roadside, memorials to fatal accidents, making that concern all too real.  Later, as a young nurse in rural Nepal without even basic telephone access, there loomed an ever-present fear: how would I know if something happened at home? My father had passed away first, a sudden death that further sensitized me to the ways that life can change in an instant, without warning.  When travel became part of my work life, my ritual preparation for every international trip was sending details of flights, hotels, contact information to my siblings.  Unspoken, unwritten in the specifics was: if anything happens to Mom…

That dreaded day had come. We arrived at the modern gray single-story hospital, filing silently one at a time into the emergency department entrance, past the registration kiosk, down the long hall with its industrial carpeting to room 214. A familiar walk, one I had made several times a day for the past seventeen days. 

The house for the next few days was a hive of busyness, each of us filling in what needed to be done as if we had long planned this unique mix of tasks.  But if the activity of the week was overwhelming, it staved off the need to comprehend the meaning of Mom’s empty chair, her familiar bedroom now occupied by a cousin, the container for her daily pills stuck forever on Wednesday.  Even a call from the funeral home that our mother’s body was prepared for viewing didn’t break through to the pain that I knew was yet to come.  It wasn’t her, that lovely woman lying there in the maroon-toned coffin, the color chosen to set off the pink and blue hues of her burial dress. An inner core of grief seemed walled off deep inside my body, a small hard nut of pain that, if released, would explode and totally rearrange my body parts, my consciousness, my world. It would not break through until later, when I was back in my Seattle home, safer in my everyday life, able to mourn the past I had lost.

The funeral service went as planned, the church nearly filled.  We had chosen traditional songs that Mom loved: “Amazing Grace” and “Ave Maria,” sung by sweet-voiced sopranos. The pallbearers were sons of her dearest friends who had all gone before her.  I thought of all the times I had sat in those same pews with her as a child, the Mercer kids filling up half a row. She was so proud of her children, and there we were, back in church one last time, just for her.

When the somber Mass was finished we caravanned to the cemetery for the final graveside service.  It was an amazing March day, sunny as only Montana can be sunny, with air so clear and a sky so big it was hard to imagine any other day, any other place existed. We walked across the grass to the family plot in the silent green expanse of graves.  My father had died some years ago so the tombstone was already prepared for both parents, two sheaves of wheat gracing the pink granite stone, with only Mom’s date of death missing. 

 As had happened so often during the past week, I looked around curiously at the gathered crowd. Faces I knew from visits home: the museum director; mom’s blonde, aging hairdresser; a high school classmate I had not seen in years.  What are we doing?  Mom, where are you?  We need you here. Then, chatting with priest who was to say the final words, I heard someone call my name. 

“Mary Anne, can you come on over and be seated?” Under a small canopy beside the gravesite was a row of folding chairs, and the funeral director was asking me to take the first chair. I felt a jolt of surprise: why me?  It was the place where Mom should be sitting, the chair no one else could ever fill. I could see her there, at my dad’s funeral, my sister’s, always at the center of our extended family life.  How could anyone take that place?  

I looked around again at the faces of my mother’s family and friends, there to say a last goodbye to her, with a sudden realization that most were my age or younger. So this is how it happens, I thought to myself, one generation passes to the next. Much as I still saw myself as one of the children, the loving daughter, with the death of my mother I was suddenly in another place in the social arrangement. I had a new responsibility.  No one could replace my mother, I knew, but the love she left us with, the connectedness we have because of her, was worth keeping alive. I will make sure we stay a family, I thought.  I don’t know exactly how but I will be sure it happens. 

I walked across the grass, past the coffin with its spray of red roses and graceful white lilies.  With my brothers and sisters surrounding me I took the designated seat, and nodded for the final service to begin.    

Mary Anne Mercer, DrPH '87, MPH '81



  • john

    Sidney MT 03/13/2013 05:56:44 PM

    Nicely done Sis.

    Approaching the one year mark of the day she left, you captured that day. This year our temps are dropping to near zero, so as she did so often, Mom chose a nice day for her send-off.

    Thank you.

  • Barbara O'Hara Pilkington

    Seattle, WA 10/07/2013 05:28:26 PM

    So sorry for your loss, Mary Anne. You captured with eloquence the pain of moving up another rung on the ladder, whether one is ready or not. Having lost my father seven years ago, and more recently, my father-in-law, we reluctantly took that next step forward, with deep appreciation of where our journey started.

    I wish you peace as you embrace a new life back home in Montana. No doubt you will be as successful there as you have always been.

    Warm regards,


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