I have been lucky. My sweet mother-in-law had a heart of gold and not a mean-spirited bone in her body. She was kind and generous, and over the years I came to love her dearly. On Tuesday she was admitted to in-patient hospice care, and yesterday evening she took her last breath. I don’t know why, when it was so very much expected, anticipated, and prayed for, I still wish I could turn back the clock on her gentle passing and give our family more time; give her more time. Her death leaves a hole in my heart too wide to fill and marks the end of the line for an entire generation of our family.
Still after all this time, after so many losses, I don’t know how to say goodbye, how to let go. There is always a sense that my lost loved ones are where I last left them, and though I know it’s not possible, I think of them going about their day in some alternate parallel universe that is just beyond my line of sight. My mother-in-law celebrated her 93rd birthday on December 10th, and when her breathing became labored and the hospital could no longer be avoided, I believe she knew and understood that her time had come. I am grateful she did not suffer, that we had a chance to say I love you, and that she was able to spend the last 14 years watching her only grandson grow into a truly remarkable young man.
I will never forget her joy at my wedding, the way she told everyone in no uncertain terms that I was her daughter (not her daughter-in-law), her incredible meatballs and sauce, the way she slipped my son a ten dollar bill every week, Sunday night dinners (and how when I took over the cooking, she would hand me a church donation envelope with $40 inside to “help with the groceries.”) She always took my side in silly arguments, admonishing her son — sometimes with nothing more than a sideways glance — to “listen to his wife.” There was nothing larger than life about her quiet way, she walked softly and gracefully through her days.
As certain as I was about my husband and our love for each other, there was, in the beginning, a question in my mind as to how his mother would treat me. She didn’t, after all, want me at that first Thanksgiving dinner when I was nothing more than the new girlfriend, and from her point of view, trouble waiting to happen. She was like that with so many things, wary at first, hesitant to embrace change, but she always came around. She flew to California for our wedding (terrified, having never ventured much farther than the tri-state area) and then because she loved it so much, she came back for Christmas, and then four years later for my sister’s wedding. When I was pregnant and on bed rest, my father-in-law would drop her off at our apartment in Kew Gardens and she would make me chicken sandwiches for lunch.
We used to joke that we were the Everybody Loves Raymond family. And though she was nothing like the meddling Marie, my mother-in-law was in so many ways the anchor that held us to this spot, this place in time. We bought our house less than a mile from my in-laws. There are so many reasons why I am grateful we ended up where we did, but the reason that rises above all others is the simple fact that our closeness gave my son the love and support and security of family. I remember telling my husband, if we can’t live near my family in California, then we are going to live near yours in NY.
My heart today is heavy, but I am comforted by the knowledge that hers was a life well-lived. Sleep well, sweet Rita. And know that in your absence, I’ve got this.