Wednesday, April 1, 2015



I have thought about this post for a while, coming up on two years now. Every time I've looked at that last blog entry from February 2012, and remembered the old house, my desk in the sunny dining room, my mother-in-law standing behind me, reading over my shoulder as I quickly drafted the few lines I needed to make my website current. She had been visiting us from New Jersey and I was irritated with every single thing that weekend, until getting word from the editors at Hello Giggles that they wanted to run a Valentine's Day piece I'd written, hence the need for the hasty post on my own website. Something to track back to. I was excited, she was happy for me--and curious, and even though I typically will shoot swords of fire straight out my eye sockets if you even come near me to check my "progress" on a project, I allowed it. Gosh, that makes me sound like a pretentious a-hole. "I allowed it," which is to say I didn't sigh petulantly and storm off, the easiest way to make my annoyance known without actually having to be a grown-up and ask for what I really needed: privacy.

That may have been her last visit, though there was probably a time after that--late summer, maybe? February is what I remember most; it was the year I tried to use one of those "happy lights" to fix my mood, that is, until I realized one has to stare directly into the Verilux 2500 for thirty minutes a day to achieve the desired results, and who on earth has time for that?  My mother-in-law was the kind of woman who never needed to recalibrate her circadian rhythms with Balanced Natural Spectrum Daylight.  No matter the season, or situation, she'd breeze in with a sunny outlook and start tackling your to-do list, even if you weren't entirely sure what was on that list, or if you had a list at all. This was a woman who traveled with her own flax seed, an individual who could make one green smoothie last for five days, and if you were married to her son, this last detail is the kind of thing that could incapacitate you with wounded rage.  Stuck in the corner, eyes narrowed, you'd watch as she reorganized your Tupperware cupboard with an offhand authority you'd never possess. What is she even thinking about right now, you'd wonder as you nibbled jelly donuts and stared, rodent-like, until you'd eaten the entire box and had to throw away the evidence. She never had to throw away any evidence. In fact, she rarely threw away anything because unlike you, she wasn't wasteful. She was resourceful, uncomplicated, and helpful. And I struggled mightily to love her.*



It used to comfort me, that everyone struggles with their mother-in-law. It's a foregone conclusion at this point; a cultural cliché. How many sitcoms would we not have without the iconic, overbearing matriarch to beef up the storyline? No one meddles like a mother-in-law, and no one resents the meddling, the idiosyncrasies, the everything more than the woman who marries her son. I fed my resentment because I was insecure, because, over the course of my marriage, every one of my weaknesses became a question she could answer with a strength. All my deficiencies were, in her presence, magnified. It didn't matter that I could create beauty out of chaos, that I could make you feel like you were the only person in the room, maybe even the world; that you always knew where you stood with me because I made a point of telling you. And how I'd look into your eyes so you knew I meant every syllable. When she was around, what mattered was the three-month's worth of ironing she could whip through in an afternoon, how she never put off essential errands to read a romance novel, how she excelled at every quotidian requirement at which some part of me believed a wife and mother should. And, how I shrank in the shadow of her confidence. I was an adjective, she was a verb. And out of all the parts of speech, my husband liked himself a verb.

Even so, I let her read over my shoulder that day. She was always supportive of my writing, she liked my blog, and I was making a superhuman effort to not be childish. My story was never published, though, because that weekend, Whitney Houston was found dead in a bathtub and every news outlet in existence was engaged in the rubbernecking, cranking out a 24/7 combination of greatest hits and speculation that took the wind right out of the Valentine's Day sails.

Months went by, and then a year. I stopped writing my blog. She complained of mild abdominal pain, I was busy running a business and tending to my family. I had a sick child of my own, newly diagnosed with a terrible, and chronic, condition--and all of these things together made time and verb conjugations irrelevant. There was just "the now," the minute-by-minute comprehension of our new reality, the waking up and wondering how we'd even gotten where we were. The last occasion she and I spoke on the telephone, each of us was in a hospital room, hundreds of miles from the other.  "I wish there was something I could do," she lamented. I remember thinking we had plenty of time; that she would be fine. And that if anyone could "do," it was her. A few days later, she learned her doing days were over. There was no more time. She was sent home to die. In typical fashion, she continued to floss, had done so even in the hospital. I remember thinking that flossing would be my absolute last priority if I'd just been given weeks to live, that the only thing I'd be doing with my teeth was gnashing them, which would go along really well with my garment-rending, and a long way toward making my dissent known. Make no mistake, my fate would be protested, hard. My mother-in-law's reaction to her fate? I believe it went something like this:
"I guess I'm a little disappointed."


We were the last of the family to arrive. After the initial hello, the shock of the body in Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer, during which I had to walk outside on the deck and take in huge gulps of survival air, I stretched out beside her on the bed, filled with regret. Time was no longer slippery, it was slipping. I wanted to tell her how sorry I was for being difficult. For all the times I wasn't gracious. It was never her; it was always me. I am as sure of this today as I am about anything in my life. I'd decided, driving up the I-80 under what felt like one giant storm cloud , that it didn't matter anymore--that she was all the things I'd never be, that she embodied an ideal I'd never live up to, that I was messy and impulsive and too much in my head, that I did things like forget to pack shoes for my children, things like forget to tell them to wear shoes, things like not notice either of these details until it was too late to turn the car around even though half of us were barefoot. And, ultimately, I suppose I was the kind of person who was not okay with herself, who let this keep her from really loving other people, including a woman who now lay dying somewhere in New Jersey.

Days passed and we cared for her, the daughters-in-law trading shifts and stories. I nursed my regret and downloaded a book on hospice care and what to expect in the final stages, and in between combing her hair and keeping her comfortable, we waited. Our waiting was an electricity, a charge in the air of the room...I was terrified she would die on my watch, that the moment would come and I'd be looking out the window and miss it. What if she had something to say? What if I had something to say? What if neither of us heard?

It was on a Tuesday evening; I was reading a copy of Allure magazine underneath a stream of fading light that came in from the corner window, while my sister-in-law, Valerie, kept vigil at the bedside.  I'd assumed the "final breaths" would be more of a series, that she'd begin the mandibular breathing I'd read about, and that this would be the first sign of many, or at least a few, that death was imminent. But there was only one breath; and by the time Val motioned me over for a closer look, she was gone, and the magazine was still in my hand, slack at my side with my finger still tucked in the page. She was a light that just..went out. I can't think of another way to put it.


Death is a thin place. I heard someone say this once, about a funeral. That the veil between here and whatever's on the other side is translucent, at times imperceptible, when someone is leaving us. Whether we're closer to the Divine, or simply nearer to our unencumbered selves, it's one of the only times in life when everything that exists between people is just sort of laid bare: Here I am.

I wonder why we wait so long to take off the masks?

There is no good answer. I waited as long as I could, until one of her last mornings, when we were alone and I was able to sit beside her and list all the ways I wished I'd been different. I don't know if she heard me. I hope she did. Either way, I still believe I received a huge gift in all this; the opportunity to look hard at myself, and my flaws---and live. To be transformed--made better, by regret. If you ever can do this-- if you get the chance, you should. And I don't just mean be with someone in their final hours, though it is a wonderful, mysterious, exclusively human thing, and something I endorse wholeheartedly. It's the getting down to the wire with another person, when there is absolutely no time left to say what needs to be said, that I recommend.

Even if you never get to say you're sorry.

Even if you wish things could be different but it's too late.

Even if the only person left in the equation is you, and this is a conversation you whisper in the dead of night with only yourself. You get to live, and if you are really lucky, be so transformed by the knowing better, that your corner of the world,  your every relationship--becomes a thin place, becomes Divine.


*I didn't ever NOT love her. I just didn't love her the best that I could, and she was lovely. This quote, from Rebecca Wells, sums up perfectly my current feelings on love of all kinds and feels appropriate here:

"The point is not knowing another person, or learning to love another person. The point is simply this: how tender can we bear to be?"

I am trying, now, to always be as tender as I can bear to be. Mostly.

13 comments:

Kristine said...

This was a beautiful post, it makes me want to sit in your old kitchen with you, both of us with a St.Germain cocktail and have one of our talks! Miss you- Kristine

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Christopher Burlak said...

"How tender can we bear to be..." a simply beautiful confession. No luke warm blooded person could help but reflect on their impact on their fellow man (or woman) after reading that. It reads like the beginning and unfortunate end to a great novel. I think Tina Fey would play you in the movie.