Friday, March 21, 2014

On Loss and Grief and Being a "Good" Daughter-in-law

We are coming up on the second anniversary of the loss of my mother-in-law. We had what I think is probably a typical relationship among mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, which is definitely not the stereotypical relationship. That is, we usually got along, we usually liked each other, and we were almost always willing to bend the rules in the other's favor in order to make sure that Max, Ben, and Milo got what they wanted and needed in the way of a grandmother and mother. In this relationship, Chris was a guy we both loved, but their relationship was complicated, and we never talked about it. I needed Gaye for my own reasons and she needed me for her own reasons--so there was a direct line between us--it did not pass through Chris.

A day or two ago I was remembering the early years with Gaye. She was working for the CHP in San Francisco or Oakland, I'm not sure which. She drove a Honda sedan with the license plate GAZE. She was slender, smoked constantly, and was still trying to figure out how to store presents she bought for Max because I wouldn't give them to him if they smelled like a cigarette butt. We didn't fight openly about this. We diplomatically made our moves until the problem was solved. Although she didn't stop smoking until after the twins were born, maybe 7 years later, she did figure out how to store the items so they wouldn't be ruined in her apartment, and on my part, I didn't tell her what to get or how much to get Max (unless she asked). When we were rear-ended in a horrible hit-and-run, she bought us a replacement car. I liked that our lives were intertwined. I liked that some boundaries were firm and some permeable. I liked when she moved to be near us so she could help with the babysitting and we could help her as her health declined. I liked growing closer to her then.

To me, from the beginning, she was funny, sweet, smart, naïve, and competitive. I never won a game of scrabble against her. Not even close. But she liked my style of play (screw the points, I'm going for words that taste wonderful in your mouth. Look! I have all the letters for moribund!) and we laughed a LOT playing any board game with her, but especially Scrabble.

Back when she worked (and still smoked) she wore a girdle long after everyone else had stopped, probably because she had such a slender physique anyway. She would hold in her farts all day and then come to our house for dinner and a game and release the gas, which would reverberate as they escaped from the girdle. This NEVER stopped being funny to her (or Chris, or Max) and I was very embarrassed by it in those early years. Likewise, she loved potty humor, and I was embarrassed by it around her. I remember, very clearly, considering whether to ask her to not tell Max the off-color jokes when he got old enough (after all, he was maybe 18 months, but already talking a LOT).

When you are a new, young mom, you take these things very seriously. Every interaction with your child seems heavy with formative function. You stop swearing. You change seats if the kids in front of you won't stop swearing. You want the babysitters who look like they came out of the Partridge Family, not the ones with too much eyeliner and a propensity for black clothing. You hesitate when a certain friend offers to babysit because her husband is a little course. It's worse than thinking you know it all. You think you figured it out yourself.  You think you're smarter and more educated than the previous generation. You think you care more about your kid than they did about theirs. It's a temporary affliction. It lasts until the first time something serious comes along that you can't figure out on your own and your aunts or the older women at church help you get through. Then you wise up. Then you start listening.

So I considered whether to talk to her or not about this issue of the loud farts and the off-color jokes because I thought that was something *I* got decide. But I was at least smart enough to consider what would happen if I *didn't.* What was the worst thing that could happen if I asked her to stop? She could get her feeling irreparably hurt. She could stop coming to visit so often. She could withdraw, feeling unwanted, unapproved. What was the worst thing that could happen if I never said a thing? Max could fart in a few situations where he shouldn't because he didn't know that wasn't socially acceptable (I didn't know that little boys take forever to learn to hold it in until they can get to some place appropriate. Like maybe, fourth grade.) He could tell some off-color jokes to a friend and that friend (and their parents) could think he heard them from me.

Gaye loved Max. Like a crazy love. He didn't come too soon, or at the wrong time, or feel like any kind of an inconvenience to her. He was the best idea Chris and I ever had (until we had identical twins, which was also crazy, so she loved them, too, but not more than Max) as far as Gaye was concerned. She loved that he was a boy. She liked the name once she got used to it. He laughed and she laughed louder. I cannot express how much I needed someone to be as madly in love with him as I was, and she was. She was every part and parcel, every bit of heart and soul, as in love with Max as I was. She approved of my parenting (mostly, she did like to complain) and I decided then to approve of her grandmothering (mostly--there was still the issue of smoking). She was a diamond in the rough and in the end, just what I needed. I'm so glad now that I *decided* to accept her as she was then, because by and large she accepted me as I was--through depression, through spring instability, through career changes, through all those pregnancy losses, through everything. I would feel so ashamed now if I had made any other decision.

Of course I still miss her.

A while back, before she died, I read an interesting book excerpt in which a mostly irreligious doctor working in hospice starts noticing that in the two weeks before they died, many of his patients reported seeing a relative of theirs who came to bring them home. They knew then that they would die, and they were eager to go be with that person again. Sometimes he was with them when they saw the person--often across the room, usually smiling, most commonly a parent--most commonly the mother. He took an interest in this phenomenon that he initially wrote off as a hallucination and 20 years into recording the experiences he had, or rather his experiences with patients who had these pre-death visits, he wrote a book summarizing his thoughts about it. He had come to believe in a spiritual life because of the experiences, and to consider his own relationships because of them.

I remembered this when Gaye began calling after her father in the hospital, "No, Daddy, don't go, take me with you!" (that was a Friday, she would die the following Wednesday morning at 7:00 am) and I was so struck by the experience that I called her sister as soon after that as possible. It was, to me, formal notice. Her father had died when she was still quite young, and it was that young self calling out to him.

In my head, I've decided that when it is time for me to go, if I go in a slow way where there is time for this sort of thing, Gaye and Judy (who is still very much alive. Hopefully this doesn't creep her out.) will show up together. "Is that what you're wearing?" Gaye will ask. "You'd better get dressed," Judy will say, "How about that purple dress?" Gaye will suggest. "You can wear my gold earrings if you want," Judy will add. And I will know it is time to start saying my Goodbyes and probably look forward eagerly for the moment when they both come back to get me for good. That would be a good enough ending for me.


cubbie said...

you are exceptional at leaving responses to my blog and i want to reply in kind and this particular post deserves an exceptional response... but i don't have anything to say except thank you.

The Queen said...

Thanks, Cubbie :)

Kristen De Haan said...

This was beautiful. And I nodded so many times as I read it, thinking about my own mother-in-law. But also thinking about my grandmother who just died. Just a day or so before I got there, she was apparently seeing her father who she loved so much. He died when she was young also.
So thank you, my friend.