It has been nearly two years since my mother in law died, succumbing to pneumonia, preceded by many years of medical maladies along with physical and mental suffering.
Not long after her death, wrapped in my own difficult mourning, I wrote a blog post that I titled Complicated Grief and blundered my way through trying to explain our relationship, the fall out, and her death, without seeming like a terrible person. That is where I made my mistake. To write, to foster a connection, you have to be honest. Truthful about both the ugly that was done to you, and the ugly that you did in return. And you guys, it was ugly.
Like so many sad stories it began with hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and insecurity. A puddle that blossomed into a impassable ocean filled with angry sea monsters that would tear apart any ship caught carrying olive branches. My mother in law didn’t have a monopoly on those sea creatures either, some of them were mine. This is what I couldn’t admit while she was alive, or immediately after. That as unwilling as she was to forgive and forget, I kept a tally of each transgression against me, and I stacked them up along the walls of my heart until they were a fortress. I broke off her sharp words and used them as arrows, our acidity became a moat. When she would try to manipulate a situation, I folded it up into itself until it was a heavy cannon ball that I lobbed back. Love may be the thing that requires aim to land true, but pain requires no such thing. You can send weapons in the general direction of someone and they will explode like shrapnel. Pain does not know boundaries, it respects nothing.
I mentioned that I had no relationship with anyone on my father’s side of the family, so my two grandparents on my mother’s side were all I knew growing up. My maternal grandmother passed away when I was five, leaving my stoic grandfather as my sole remaining grandparent. He moved to Florida not long after my parents divorce, and I saw him for our annual trip in the winter, and when he would come to NY in the summer. I never questioned whether he loved me, but I also can’t recall ever being in a room completely alone with him, until I was an adult. I had no expectations of what roles grandparents played in their grandchildren’s lives. So when I came home from the hospital after giving birth to my first child, a boy we named Sam, I thought my mother in-laws near suffocating grip on my life was because she was so thrilled to be a grandmother, and eager to make my life easier.
As evidence of this, she hired a caterer for five dinners a week and expected us to be at the table. It wasn’t a request. Every boundary my husband and I set would be steam rolled by my mother in-laws lawyer-logic. If I said I didn’t want to go to dinner because I didn’t like what the caterer made, she would ask for a written list of what I did like. If I said it was difficult to put the baby down for a nap there, she bought a crib (and a dresser, and a changing table, and a bookshelf, and said it was nicer than what he had at home). If we said the barking dog they owned that begged at the table relentlessly was too much, she would crate her, and then cry through dinner while the dog whined beside her. It wasn’t until I said “Linda, I just need some space for my family” that she turned on me. Abuse often feels like love, at first.
I’m sitting holding toddler Sam on my lap, pregnant with my second child, a girl. We are at Temple on Friday night and an elderly woman approaches me to tell me how sweet the kids are. “You should really let your mother in law see the kids sometimes… she misses them terribly” she says to me after the normal pleasantries are exchanged. I stare at her blankly, sure of myself that this woman is clearly senile because I’ve spent the last four dinners with my in-laws. A second woman walks up as the first leaves and echoes similar sentiments. My in laws are sitting in the back of the synagogue where my father in law, fresh from a knee replacement can stretch his leg more comfortably, and when I turn, she is staring at me, unsmiling, just watching.
It is April 12th 2009, my in-laws anniversary and I am 39 weeks pregnant with Marilyn, our middle child. We all go to brunch to celebrate and I am grateful for the early festivities. While at brunch, my mother in law requests we all go to dinner that same night and I look flatly at my husband, my eyes black holes of desperate and angry deterrent, but he acquiesces. That afternoon my toddler takes a late nap, and Joe and I fall asleep as well. My mother in laws 17th phone call wakes us, and Joe answers to her shrill near-scream that we have slept through dinner. That they came to the house to get us, and not only did we not answer the door but she claims that she saw me standing at the window, refusing to open the door for her. This, was when I realized how sick my mother in law truly was. I went into labor the following day, after an all night fight in which I went to their house to try to calm things down and was promptly kicked out, and told I was no longer welcome there.
At the hospital, despite my monotone consent that she could come meet her first granddaughter, my mother in law wept outside my birthing suite, making a spectacle of herself. I look back at those first photos, holding my precious daughter, and in my eyes I see the resolution of refusal. 2009, the year I became as difficult a person as she.
Like many cyclic illnesses, my mother in law would suffer bouts of paranoia and rage, and then guilt and attempts to buy forgiveness back. Outrageous gifts and promises were outweighed only by the strings she attached to them. Rebuke her and you would know sorrow, seemed to be her tag line. I rebuffed every offer of kindness she tossed my way, knowing the barbed hooks she secured them with.
I packed my husband and my children up in the car, loaded with diaper bags, kisses and well wishes and stayed home when they would visit her, feeling like I had won a round of boxing. On holidays when I had to attend, I was monosyllabic answers and averted eyes. While I never kept my children from her, I encouraged no love to grow in the sterile garden of our relationship. Whatever love my children have for her, and with my older two, it is much, she cultivated on her own. That is perhaps, the only kind thing I can say.
Inside I was the inferno and the waste land, giving myself anxiety attacks when I needed to see her. If she purchased something for my kids, I gave it away before they could see it. So she began to refuse to give them anything unless they retrieved it directly from her hands. If she brought up something she thought they might like, I shook my head ‘No’ and killed the idea, so she would spring things last-minute, in front of them. If she suggested something that I said ‘No’ to, she would look at them sadly ‘Your mother says no.’ she would say in mock conspiratorial whispers.
If once our relationship was a horse that she dressed up for shows, parading for the public the idea ‘happy’, then I had beaten the horse to death, and now drug it around with me like an albatross to bear witness to her wreckage. Look what she has done. I wanted it to tell people. She has caused this and I refuse to be expected to fix it.
The final six months of her life were spent in cycles of Home, Hospital, and the Charles Morris rehabilitation center. By this time, I had buried the horse, but I still visited the grave to agonize over the irreparable mess we had created. I’d like to believe that we had come to an understanding, that we were two people who both loved the same people, even if we couldn’t get along. But that is revisionist history. If she hadn’t died we would still be two cats in a bag, fighting it out to the death over something long dead. That is why I know I was wrong, because I want to change the ending. When we knew she was dying, I didn’t go see her. I wanted to be absolved without giving her a pardon, and frankly some things, we don’t deserve to be forgiven for.
The day before she died, when she had been switched to compassionate care and medicated into restless, fitful sleep, I went to the hospital and I told her that I would take care of Joe, and that the kids loved her and would be alright. I felt like a fraud. I meant the things I said, but only went because I was expected to go, because people were asking me if I was going to, and not because I had any stake in whether it comforted her.
If I could re-write history, I would tell her I forgave her. Out loud, not just in my head after the fact. It wouldn’t be part of what I include when, occasionally I go to Friday night services and bow my head for the silent prayer. I would have forgiven her in person, and spent the time going forward forgiving myself. Two years later, my ending line still holds true; “It is hard to end a thought without a moral, without a succinct point made neatly, but maybe that is fitting, grief is a messy thing after all.”