My mother-in-law’s funeral was the day after Mother’s Day in Seattle. We had told our Chicago kids not to make the trip out—the airlines just gouge you now on last minute reservations—but our son and daughter-in-law insisted they come so we could all be together with them and our daughter’s family. I am so thankful they did.
My mother-in-law was ninety and her quality of life was so diminished by dementia and heart failure that we shouldn’t have been shocked that she died. But we were stunned by the phone call at 10:00 am on that Friday morning. Maybe it was because I had talked to the social worker at the Home the day before, and she’d said that Esther was pretty much the same as she’d been the month before when we’d visited.
“Just fading a little more each week?” I asked. “Going gently into that good night?”
“I couldn’t say it like that, but yes. And she’s comfortable, not in any pain, and still eating.”
My husband and I talked about it a dinner, wondering how much longer she would be able to last. Would she make it to her 91st birthday? That she was still eating seemed an affirmation of living, but what kind of life was it anyway? It took two peopIe with a hoist to get her out of bed. She rarely opened her eyes. We didn’t want her to suffer and we knew she wasn’t going to get better.
Yet, we both felt anguish when she died. Death is so final. There it is and nothing will change it. Anything you wished you’d said or done—so what? Not happening. Ever. The line that separates the living from the dead cannot be crossed.
My husband had had major surgery three weeks before and wasn’t really cleared to fly, but we started packing. We were definitely spacey and unfocused. Just after noon, we got a call that the orchid I’d ordered for Mother’s Day had arrived at the Home. That was a little weird for everybody.
The flight to Seattle was difficult even sleepwalking through it. We barely talked to each other, and both of us went into deep sleeps at times. Then our daughter picked us up at the airport with her 11-year-old son and 4-month-old daughter. The endorphins stared flaring as soon as we saw them. Everything calmed down a bit. When the Chicago family arrived in the evening, all of a sudden it became a celebration of life. Sadness and loss were set aside as the new baby met her cousins! The beaming smiles on all the faces as they passed baby Joeli from one to the other, helped heal my shaky heart.
Although this is off topic, I have to add a conversation I heard between 9-year-old Quinn and her cousin, Eli, the new big brother.
“So, the last time I saw you, you couldn’t wait to have a sibling. How do you like it now?” Quinn asked, sounding a bit like Dr. Phil.
“It’s okay,” Eli said. His enthusiasm level wasn’t high.
“It’s not what you thought?” Quinn asked.
I couldn’t resist. “He thought he was going to get you, Quinn. Someone to play with.”
Eli laughed a little, but agreed. “Yeah, Joeli doesn’t do anything.”
Quinn nodded sagely. “Just you wait. When she starts crawling, it will be better. She’ll be more fun.”
I looked at her in amazement. How does she know that? I wondered. Just listening to that conversation was priceless. I have to thank my mother-in-law for bringing me all these treasures.
Our return to Palm Springs was easier, but looking back, I realize we settled into a gloom that bordered on depression. On the one hand, we were lucky to have the luxury of quiet days and evenings. So often in the world today, you’re expected to “just get on with it!” No more weeks of coming to terms with the seismic change death brings in your life. On the other hand, we suffered from a malaise that almost paralyzed us. Mid-week, I received a note from a friend that helped so much. Joan wrote, “The loss of a parent is so final, bringing up past loss and grief, as well as the acknowledgment of the fragility of life.”
It was an “ah-hah’ moment. I realized we had been grieving not only for Esther, but for all our parents. This last Sunday was the tenth anniversary of my dad’s death, and I cried more that day than when he died. We lit a candle and said a prayer for all our parents—very healing. Then we did go out—to a 100th birthday party. Talk about an affirmation of life!
This week is much better. We are more normal—whatever that is. We are moving forward. I did clean out my office, which I’ve been going to do for four years. I also sorted through my father’s stuff I’ve kept on a shelf for ten years. The garbage and recycle cans are full. We both are aware of the sense of an ending in our lives. We’re leaving the past behind—the goal is to appreciate each day that much more.