Dying with Dignity and Other Things That My Mother-in-law Is Teaching Us


Life is funny, dear readers. You can be going along, skipping in the sun and then……kablooey….your entire universe just falls apart. Like stars falling from the sky and then turning into fireflies before they touch the ground, flitting off into the darkness, never to be seen again. And this is how our life has been in the last few months. My mother-in-law had the much dreaded and LONG overdue girl surgery and was told it was successful. Then…less than a month later, we find that cancer is eating her alive in that horrid way that only cancer can do. She went back for another surgery and suddenly it was “I’m sorry, there’s nothing more that we can do.”
She, in her ever typical way of complete stiff upper lip British fortitude, joked, “It’s Amish coffins and Hospice for me.” And this was the firs lesson. That this is not the worst thing that is happening in the universe at this second. It feels like it is because we love her and adore her. But in the gigantic scheme of things, she is okay with this. It was almost a shrug of the kind that tells you that it was bound to happen eventually and we must accept it and move on. This seems to be the epitome of this woman who grew up in the shadow of the last Great World War, the one that supposedly would end all others. She grew up with the whispers of rationing and long nights in the bomb shelters still engraved sharply on the edge of everyone’s memory. In a very religious family that understands acutely how everything happens for a reason and according to a plan that is so much bigger than all of us.
I have heard her say quite often lately that this is what happens. That all of the people that went before you will be waiting for you on the other side to pull you into their arms and love you once again. And this is the second lesson. That belief in something is important. It doesn’t actually matter what. It does matter that there is actual belief in something, however. Belief is what makes us human. Belief is what differentiates between the possible and the impossible. Belief makes us reach for things that may or may not be attainable, but through the simple act of believing become achievable. This is important because we are, after all talking about a little British girl who was misled by an Indiana farm boy and flew across the sea to a place that had not even existed in books for her. We have heard these stories of her coming to America and laughed at that naive girl. Because in hind sight all of our lives could have been so much different. The Fix-It Guy was conceived in England and never set foot there himself. He wonders at times why his mother didn’t get back on the plane and go home. Because in reality, her arrival in this country should have been a giant blinking arrow sign pointing back the way she came. But I understand. Stranger in a strange land and all. Poor naive young girl.
The daughters have been spending lots of time with her. Listening to her stories. Recording her. Going through pictures and boxes of belongings from what seems like a few lifetimes, I’m sure. But because she is the only one here from her family, and the girls and their father have never had any experience with that part of their genetic background, this is an important process. No one else can tell them who these faces are in the photos. What these places are. What the events are. This is another lesson. That these memories that we call our lives and carry around inside of us are important. They may not be important to us, but they are important to someone. I do not know which pieces will be important for this family that I have become a part of, but they will all need a piece of it at some point. There will be more generations here. All of them firmly weighted on the Fix-It Guy’s shoulders…but perpetuations just the same.
She is ever patient. Telling us about postcards and letters and photos and clippings and saved or found objects long forgotten in boxes. This is another lesson. The understanding that this family needs these things and that they are important. At least they have realized that when she is gone, all of the bits become unimportant if no one knows why she thought they were important.
They watch endless movies with her. Feed her. She will not eat. But will eat anything that we fix and bring to her. Suddenly, nothing that she wants is ridiculous. It is important because she wants it. There has been some kerfluffle over a ring that Fix-It Guy’s father is holding hostage over a long paid back debt. He actually claimed that her family would have wanted him to have that ring. The ridiculousness is insane and off the charts. This dying woman wants a ring that belongs to her and he is saying he can’t get to it. If he isn’t constantly reminded, she may not see it before she dies. Sigh. Some things are so hard.
We are spending a lot of time there. I catch her watching them. As if she is memorizing everything about these moments. It is ghastly and real and final all at the same time.

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