April 17, 2010

My husband’s mother died.

And before anything else, I’m telling you that she was a damn fine mother-in-law, the best I could have asked for. She always offered wisdom from experience, but never imposed her opinions in a way that made me feel like the child I probably was. She happily gave me her son, and regularly invited us over for excellent meals. Her character was the epitome of southern hospitality mixed with the class of the educated. Plus, she liked the Traveling Wilburys.

A few months after she retired and turned 60, her life paused, and then stopped.

And I felt so oddly distanced from that.

The reason? In the past, I’ve always been the victim, the closest to the loss among my friends and peers. Everyone else got to keep their relatives, while mine started dying off when I was four. This time, it’s my best friend and partner’s loss, and I’m not sure what place I take in the line of grief.

For the sake of context, here’s a little history: My father died when I was 15 – almost 15 years ago.  In the years leading up to this, I’d lost all but one grandparent. Two years after, I lost the last one.

Sufficient context; back to the present.

My mother-in-law had been sick for a while, but I’m not sure anyone thought things would end the way they did. In the days before we lost her, she actually appeared to be improving, and it seemed the worst was over. But on a recent Friday night, she decided she was finished with the whole ordeal, and we children (biological and otherwise) were called away from our various activities.

I made a firm decision to stay as close to her as I could until she passed – assuming that it would be soon. I wasn’t there when my dad died, but walked in the door about seven minutes later. I’ve never regretted that I wasn’t present for his expiration, or that I refused to go up and see him before they took the body.

But this time, I wanted the experience, and to let my mother-in-law know that I thought she deserved for us to go through this with her. I especially remember seeing my hand resting on the blanket where I thought her knee was. I couldn’t believe it was my hand. Attending a death is so surreal.

Once everyone assembled and spoke their love and goodbyes, the nurses took out the tubes and ramped up the morphine. There was a sense of climax, and finality.

But, as dying people often do, Mom veered from the script of our cinematic death scene, and stuck around for a few more hours. Most of us went home to sleep. We got the phone call at 4:42 am, and responded most strongly (at that point) with relief.

Why am I telling you this?

Most obviously, because it happened recently, because it it significant, and because it is interesting. Death usually is.

I’ve also done it to clear and understand my own head. Conclusion: My place in the line of grief is beside my husband, or wherever he needs me to be. He’s incredibly realistic and practical, and is handling his mother’s death as well as anyone could. But I’m sure there will be moments of unexpected and overwhelming pain for him.

Things I’ve learned?

It is easier to lose an in-law parent at 29 than it is to lose a biological parent at 15.

It is hard to watch your other half go through the shittiest thing that you’ve ever gone through.

It is a challenge to stop myself before auto-piloting into a “your mama” joke.

It sucks watching an old grandmother lose her only child and best friend.

Every now and then, I stop and think, “Damn… she actually did it. She up and died on us.” When she was diagnosed, it was tangible as a physical challenge. Now that the prognosis has happened and the challenge is mental, it’s strange as hell.

Weird things that have happened?

I had this dream that I had to help prepare my mother-in-law’s body. The goal was to put some nice lotion on her face, but she kept moving around, just a little. Unsettling.

I heard Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” somewhere, and realized that that was exactly the process we were going through, if perhaps in a slightly different sense than Beatle Paul meant.

Later, I heard the Traveling Wilburys’ “End of the Line,” and realized how much I’ll miss her.

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