Sunday, November 21, 2010
Seeds of growth
I have been divorced since 1988, but I saw one of my former sisters-in-law tonight, for the first time in nearly 10 years, and before that, a dozen years more. When I first met her, she was just a girl and, in the way that girls often do, was eager to tag along with me when I married into her family. Almost immediately after meeting her, her mother became very ill and bedridden, with a mysterious and unknown illness, diagnosed only afterward as possible multiple sclerosis, but with no great certitude. I had quit my job when I married because we moved to a different city, and I was asked to nurse my new mother-in-law until her doctors decided that she was too sick to stay at home. It was a hard time for me because, although I had been through a variety of violent and difficult times, those times had more numbed than matured me. And so I found myself, only recently homeless, newly married, and nursing a stranger. I did the best I could, I nurtured her as best I was able, I held her while she gasped for air and cleaned her when she vomited or soiled herself, and when I was overwhelmed I went to the basement after she slept, to wretch and sob with fear and self pity. And then I'd pull myself together and greet my young sister-in-law when she came home from school. I listened to her reports of the things in her life, good and bad, I rode with her while she was learning to drive, and I tried to be a calm presence in her life where so much was in upheaval. The strain on the entire family was tremendous, and I learned many things about all of them during that time, about their strengths and fears and weaknesses, and about my own.
Eventually the doctors decided that my mother-in-law had to go to the hospital, mostly, I believe, so they could force-feed her to buy themselves some time to figure out what was wrong. From time to time, I took my sister-in-law to visit her mom. The visits were uncomfortable for me because my mother-in-law believed that I had refused to care for her at home and she was angry at me; she would turn her face if I came into the room and refuse to speak or acknowledge me.
One night, not long after my first anniversary, we arrived at the hospital and I told the desk aide we were there to see my mother-in-law, giving her name. The aide told me with a gesture that she was 'over there,' and said I'd have to use the back elevator. I had a very bad feeling but I didn't want to ask anything directly or go where she was pointing because of the young girl I had with me. I glanced in the indicated direction and saw a covered gurney with a toe tag sticking out from under the sheet. I felt very afraid, afraid of everything: I was afraid of death, afraid of making a scene, afraid of upsetting my sister-in-law, afraid of my own emotions, and afraid of the responsibility this put on my shoulders. I told the aide that I was there with the patient's daughter, to visit, and asked if perhaps the patient's condition had changed. The aide looked up and replied, "oh, I thought you were from the funeral home. She's dead."
My sister-in-law seemed not to have heard and I ushered her back to the car where I sat and tried to explain this shocking news; we had never been told that her mother was ill enough to die because the doctors were convinced that her illness was large psychosomatic. I told my then-sister-in-law that I was sorry, that her mother had passed peacefully. After a lengthy stretch of quiet, she asked me how long it would take for her mother's soul to reach God and I answered, without hesitation, that her mother had been in God's hands every minute of her existence and that was where she was now. I was a little surprised to hear myself, surprised to sound so calm. But later my sister-in-law became the most religious of women, and I spent years doing bereavement work, spending time with many people who lost or were losing a loved one and many who were dying. It never occurred to me until this week to wonder whether our shared experience might have provided the kernel for both our futures.
We didn't talk about any of that on this visit, and it was good to see her. I have wondered more than once what my former sister-in-law remembers from the night her mother died. I have always hoped that she didn't hear the aide, and didn't see the gurney, and I didn't have the nerve to look into those dark corners now, 35 years later.