This new year was in a place I could live with for sure. Household was back together, loved ones were as safe or happy as possible since I could do no more for them, DH and I had managed so far to avoid all the nasty flu bugs in this community, my writing was energizing, and mother-in-law was back in hospital but responding well to antibiotics. So Thursday night we braved the cold and drove out to the Joplin Writers’ Guild, a first for many months for me. It was exciting because the room was full of new and enthused writers along with old members.
But then mother-in-law died early Friday morning. If I know her, she woke up to the dawn realizing that despite antibiotics, a new hip joint, cement in surrounding bones to combat the spongy condition of 95 year old bones, a mind that no longer cooperated with her, a loss of hearing that was beyond comfort, and she thought to herself, “Fudge on it all, it’s time to go!” She was a woman who did things in exactly her own way and time no matter what.
The woman made a good part of my life miserable. She never wanted me in her family, yet she liked me too. She told me once that she did. Then she added that the mistake I made was marrying her son. She never got over that. After nearly 50 years of knowing me, she finally told me in the nursing home that she loved me. But then again in the last visit her drugged grogginess allowed her an unchecked honesty to take a verbal swipe at me. Inside nothing had changed.
It was DH and I who cleaned out her house, burned her private papers, and saved what paintings we could. It was I who found her wedding ring and took it to her in the nursing home. And several months ago, it was I who took her for ride to see the farm house and fields that she had called home in what seemed like forever. She who allowed me to see her furious but never crying, shed tears knowing it was probably the last trip by the beloved scenes of her life. I cried too because I loved her for what she was and not for who she was not. I felt her pain.
While she taught me tough lessons about human behavior, she also taught me how to make a great pan of macaroni and cheese. She taught me about color, about creativity. She tried to instill in me the ability to turn my face to house clutter and just write. I never could, but she had mastered the technique. She could leave a sink full of dirty dishes, pans on the stove, a table uncleared so she could stand at the easel adding color and meaning to her own life.
It is always painful to watch our parents age, to lose their ability to move freely, to see their mind begin to fail, to see the shrinkage and diminishing of who they are, but it is expected, a natural part of life. These last few months were agonizing for me with my mother-in-law though. She was not who she used to be and she hated it. Her memory was failing on top of all else, yet she was still sharp enough to know it was happening and feel helpless. Helpless was not a word she knew over her 95 years. Her 102 pound body was now just a shell. The essence of this woman was gone. I think Thursday morning she had had enough.
It was our job to go to the nursing home that afternoon to tell her 98 year old husband that his wife had died. His legs won’t hold him well anymore but his body is fairly hardy. Poor hearing but you can talk to him. His mind comes and goes. A man of few words, you have to watch carefully or you think he is just as sharp as ever saying the same phrases he has used for nearly a century. He chatted up his son for a minute but when asked, had no idea who DH was.
DH found this telling hardest of all. His dad seemed to understand, show some remorse, and then in fifteen minutes he would ask, “Where is Dorothy?” So he was told over and over and over again. I took some turns and at one point he seemed to grasp it more. He asked me her maiden name and then he began to verbalize their first meeting years ago, 1935 maybe? For a few minutes, I stepped back with him and saw these two young people, vibrant and daring, ready to meet life head on. Three quarters of a century flashed by like a movie on fast forward.
Dismantling the farm house shredded my heart with each toss; the farm sale hurt seeing others tote away my mother-in-law’s favorite things. Putting them in assisted living was sad but necessary for them to continue to live safely. Each lessening of their abilities was a hammer blow to the heart. So when the call came Friday morning, I felt only a great sense of relief not for me but for my mother-in-law. No more pain or dehumanizing procedures. She was free, and I hoped she was at peace with a life she lived furiously, independently, energetically, vibrantly, and long.