My mother-in-law is nearing the end of her life and declining rapidly. I want to reflect on my time with her and share some of my memories of her.
When I first met my mother-in-law, my husband and I had just started dating. I met his parents earlier than I otherwise might have because he was living with his parents at the time (“we just get along really well and it helps me to save money”). I thought it was weird, but decided to keep an open mind because we had a really good connection after communicating online for a few weeks and going on our first date.
So, there I was meeting my new boyfriend’s parents on our second date. He had tickets to see Kevin Smith at the performing arts center in the nearby city. Since he lived an hour away from me I met him at his home so we could drive in. And so I had to met his parents.
Naturally I felt a little nervous and weirded out by the general awkwardness of the situation. I also worried that they would judge me the moment they saw me. I was coming off of years of restrictive dieting, and my weight was rebounding quickly and uncontrollably, to my dismay. I was heavier than I had been in several years (although in truth I wasn’t extremely fat) and was very self-conscious about my size. Add that to cultural programming I had that weight gain was a failure that you could see at first sight. Add that to the fact that every time my mother had met one of my boyfriends in high school or college she was unenthusiastic. I felt sure that my boyfriend’s mother would silently dismiss me on sight.
She didn’t. What strange land was this?
When I was back at their house a month later, I noticed a few couple books on the shelf from the seventies: some children’s books, as well as a book of baby names and a book on baby care. I commented on the fact that she had kept them. She replied “you can borrow them if you want.”
Intitially speechless, I just looked at her and said “ummm….I don’t know how I’m supposed to answer that.”
And she consistently repeated that pattern of acceptance, not judgment, throughout the eight years since I first met her.
She accompanied me to the bridal shop to try on wedding dresses, since my own mother lived three and a half hours away. A couple weeks ago she mentioned a detail of that trip that I had long since forgotten. What I remember is that I never felt the sense of having let her down with the fact that my body didn’t fit well in the clothes, which is what I so acutely remembered from going shopping as a child who was fatter than my peers. I didn’t feel like the way I looked was a disappointment to her. She seemed as thrilled as I was when we found a dress that fit my personality and could be altered to fit my body. She seem thrilled that I included her in this part of the wedding planning. I was grateful not to have to go alone.
My brother and sister-in-law did not attend my wedding due to their religious beliefs. I was hurt and angry. My parents were hurt and angry. My in-laws were disappointed but didn’t seem angry. “Well, they have to do what they feel is right for them.” They treated my brother and sister-in-law kindly whenever they saw them and didn’t seem to hold a grudge.
The year I was pregnant, she made our baby a basket on Easter with a stuffed animal and bunny book. She couldn’t wait! She and my father-in-law drove to our house a couple times (almost two hours), to accompany me to prenatal visits (yet another 45 minutes from my home).
My mother-in-law is a very even keeled person and it takes a lot for her to express strong emotions on either side of the continuum. When my son was born in a hospital two hours away from her house, she asked if she could come right away. We weren’t ready yet, after a rough birth and some difficulties in the first days. She sent flowers to my room, even though I would only be staying a couple days.
When I was pregnant with my son, one of my biggest fears was fending off grand-parental attempts to “control” our parenting. Many aspects of attachment parenting spoke to me at the time, and these were different from the way my husband and I were parented in the late seventies and early eighties. My mother-in-law never expressed a judgmental thought, even though things were very different than when we were kids. Even though I must have sounded like a sanctimommy who knew everything and yet knew nothing. Even though I planned on an out-of-hospital birth and extended breastfeeding and cosleeping and babywearing and she knew little about any of this stuff.
When we got home we needed help right away. My son couldn’t latch and I needed to pump round the clock while he screamed. My mother was on her way and would arrive later the next day, but we couldn’t wait that long. My in-laws arrived to bridge the gap. My mother-in-law held my son while he screamed and I pumped. She let him suck on her finger when we told her that we’d been advised not to give him a pacifier while we worked out the latching thing. It must have taken an incredible amount of trust or restraint or both, not to want to suggest giving a bottle to soothe a screaming baby while we worked everything out. Over the next month she accompanied me to a postpartum visit and a La Leche League meeting.
Every time she and my father-in-law would visit over the next couple years, she tidied and swept my living room, or folded our laundry, or collected the trash from the upstairs bedrooms and bathroom, while my son and I nursed or napped and my father-in-law cleaned my kitchen. She never demanded to hold him when he clearly wanted his mom. She always had a book or a toy or something thoughtful in hand for him. When my son grew old enough to walk, she would play with him and entertain him while my father-in-law still cleaned my kitchen. If my son was napping, she’d tidy and sweep the living room floor, then stack my son’s blocks into a tower that would be waiting for him when he woke up. When my son came downstairs, he would promptly knock the tower down. She didn’t care.
I had no energy or motivation to clean, having yet to be diagnosed with sleep apnea, and a child who nursed through the night. I felt simultaneously guilty and grateful when she would clean my house. She never nagged me about the fact that my house was a mess in the first place.
My mother-in-law loves shopping for gifts for her family. I believe she takes special pride in shooting for the perfect gift for each person. Every year we spend Christmas at their home and I am amazed at the thought and effort she puts into choosing every stocking stuffer for every person. Throughout the year, she buys cute clothes and thoughtful toys for my son, and when she isn’t well enough to gift them in person, she sends them in the mail. Every time my son sees a package arrive he is delighted. Pajamas? He insists on wearing them immediately. There was a pirate costume she sent for Halloween, which he wore for three days straight.
Since I had my son I have talked to my mother-in-law almost every day. She keeps me company if I need to vent about first-world mom problems, or if I need to talk while driving to keep myself focused. I suspect she might have been sick of me calling every day, yet she never said so. I think she was glad to hear what is going on in her son and grandson’s life.
She changed my feeling and opinion of modern medicine. When I met her I was strongly stuck in the “natural is better; chemo is evil” mindset. Now, I feel differently. Yes, she went downhill after a chemo- related complication….26 YEARS after her first occurrence with cancer. And in those 26 years, she did have more than her fair share of pain, discomfort and illness….and she also got to see her son graduate high school and college, get married, and have a family. She got to know and be a part of her grandson’s life. She was very grateful for everything modern medicine was able to do for her, and so am I. She never complained about any of the discomfort, complications, or myriad health issues she had in her life.
She raised a son who is just like her, both in looks and personality. My husband is patient. He is the kind of person who does what needs to be done, without complaint. He does whatever he can to help his family. He goes with the flow and doesn’t rush to judgment when encountering people with different ideas or perspectives or traditions.
I know my mother appreciates my mother-in-law. My mom wishes she lived closer and could visit more and help more. She feels grateful that my in- laws were able to help us out so much when we needed it. She feels grateful that Carolyn always treated me so nicely, having heard so many stories over the years of mother- in- laws who are not so kind and welcoming.
My mother-in-law is a quiet, steady sort of person. She wasn’t the type to make big waves, but our family will feel her absence acutely and deeply. She is truly a person who lived not by word, but by deed, and modeled kindness, trust, open-heartedness, and patience. Her example has profoundly and deeply affected me and instructed me. I know she will soon be at peace, and I already miss her.
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