February 5, 2010

Weaving Celebration with Grief

Written January 31, 2010

My mother-in-law died on Friday morning, her nearly eighty-seven year old heart wounded by congestive heart failure and COPD, unable to beat no more.

Tonight I am helping my husband prepare for the rituals of celebration and grief.

Like the greatest generation, the rituals are passing on. This family will honor its matriarch on Monday evening and Tuesday afternoon the way she wanted with a "visitation", followed by a Christian service, followed by burial next to her late husband.

I am ironing two handkerchiefs for my husband. He is taking two suits. Does anyone wear a suit to a visitation anymore? He will, and so will our son, and so will my husband's brothers and their sons and their sons.

In 1982 my husband's parents were in a tragic car accident. His father was killed instantly, and his mother lay in the wreckage. The first on the scene was our nephew, age sixteen, coming home to his parents home from a date. (My in-laws had been visiting his parents.) Imagine the horror for this young man to discover his grandparents in this accident.

Our nephew became a doctor, married a nurse, and is now the father of three boys, the oldest of which will walk with his father as a pallbearer.

My mother-in-law loved her three daughter-in-laws, especially the one who married her oldest son. After the accident, my brother-in-law and sister-in-law took her into their home for two years. The entire family helped with her rehab and recovery, but the primary care came from BIL and SIL.

It was difficult for my MIL to be cared "for" but she had no choice. All of her life, she was the caregiver. Years ago she was a midwife and delivered many babies. She also sat with people who were dying as part of a tradition of her church. She cooked and served and laughed and loved and continually gave care and concern to all with her hands and her heart.

The accident was two years before I married into the family. I only met my husband's father on a chance encounter twice in college, and his mother was handicapped when I came into the family.

Amazing that MIL survived the loss of her husband and lived with her own handicaps for nearly another three decades.

The legacy she leaves speaks for itself. Her sons are all people of integrity as are her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She did not complete high school, but quit after her freshman year to work in a canning factory during the war. Yet she leaves in her wake a doctor, a lawyer, a college professor, several nurses, and as Garrison Keillor says, "all the children are above average."

Sometimes people called her stubborn, but this perseverance led MIL to learn to walk again and rise up against adversity.

As a child, she had the disease St. Vitus Dance and learned to walk again at age 12. At age 59, she was in the accident and learned to walk again. At age 81, she broke her hip and learned to walk again. Short in stature, under five feet tall, she was a giant in stick-to-it-ive-ness.

My son will fly back from college 1,000 miles away for about 28 hours. With his cousins, he will serve as a pallbearer for the first time. I worry about whether he'll hit the snooze button and miss the cab to the airport. Will he have dress socks? How wrinkled is the one suit that he took back this semester?

I think about what this will be like for him. There will be many more funerals ahead. I lost my first grandparent when I was the same age as my son. I was not devastated, I knew it was her time to go.

When I remember her funeral, I remember my Aunt Phyllis sobbing uncontrollably (she does that) and my cousin Jerry wearing suit pants too short with white socks (he does that.)

To use that cliche, this is the circle of life. This is the way things should be. She lived a long and full life. We gather as a family and we celebrate her life and the gifts she gave us.

Her family will each sort through individual memories and come to a peace with her beautiful soul leaving a tired body.

MIL came to our home shortly after Son was born. We had moved into a new house ten days before his birth (very, very, very bad idea) and my father drove her to our house from upstate to see her fifth grandchild.

MIL took the baby from her youngest son's arms. She sat down on the couch in our new family room and held him close, inspecting him from top to bottom. MIL, her youngest son, and her youngest grandson resemble each other, and have similar noses and facial features.

After about ten minutes of the inspection, my husband said to his mother, "Mom, did you happen to notice that we moved into a new house?" She had not -- she came to see the baby.