This is a piece I wrote while I was care-taking my mother-in-law. It’s for all care-takers who need to remember to breathe.
This isn’t about me. My mother-in-law was always quick to remind me of this in the sharp tone she used to mask her fear that I would pull my support, pack my “overnight” bag and leave her to die alone.
She is (name deleted) the red-haired lady who dressed for the TV camera and took the mayor and his council to task whenever she saw the need. For some, she was the voice of conscience; for others, the proverbial thorn.
For the last year that she lived alone I was her caretaker, the significant other who signed her outpatient release and unlocked her front door when she returned home from rehab with a knitting hip and a nagging fear that the world had changed in her absence. Now she’s living in a lovely assisted living home, grateful for her cheerful caretakers and the five frail women who share her life.
We didn’t start off the best of friends. Forty-some years ago she bought a black dress for her son’s wedding and refused to invite anyone from her side of the family. Frankly, she wanted better for him and she was not shy about letting me know.
I was the in-law who never seemed to please, but who hung in there trying. Some of the fault was mine. I didn’t share her vision of matriarchy with me on the bottom rung. I was unfinished when I married her only child and I acquiesced until her grudging intolerance became a pattern for us both.
A Portuguese daughter of Azorean dairy farmers, she had worked hard to raise her social status and she saw me as a spoiler. In the 50s she opened a photography studio on Higuera Street, and operated it for two decades in three-inch heels and picture-perfect makeup. In the 60s she bought a prime piece of real estate on Wilding Lane and designed her Tudor-style house. Her castle.
Over the years the two of us formed a history. Jaunts to old inns and cafes helped diffuse our differences. She taught me nuances of style on shopping trips to Monterey, Fresno and Santa Barbara. I drove her to San Bernardino and back the same day, a 600-mile round trip so she could buy a Pekinese puppy to replace her beloved Booper. On the way we dropped $60 on brunch at the Sheraton and giggled while a white-jacketed waiter kept our champagne flutes filled.
When a heart attack forced her to give up photography she became interested in city politics. At 85, she still drove herself to City Hall three days a week and attended meetings that lasted until 1:00 A.M.
But the years caught up with her. One morning she missed the last two steps of her stairway, tumbled and broke her femur. Two months later she was released from rehab with a walker, a commode—and me.
The days formed a comforting pattern. I made out her checks and she signed them. She scrutinized the grocery receipts, questioned the calls I received on her phone and tried to make things the way they had been. In the mornings I read to her from my novel-in-progress. I slowed my pace to match hers. We took afternoon tea with pound cake made of lemons from her backyard tree.
We acted in single accord, respectful of our limits, but it was not easy. Visiting nurses and physical therapists patted my arm and wrote covert notes encouraging me. They understood that my mother-in-law was difficult.
At the hospital I heard one of the nurses whisper, “She’s the daughter-in-law, not the daughter!”
The first time it happened, I smiled. But I realized that her son needed to be at her side; he’d missed the best parts of his mother, the adventures, her joie de vivre. He didn’t understand the glue that cemented his mother and his wife like a feminine Odd Couple; two women who never liked each other very much until we came to recognize the depth of our love.
One night, when I washed her feet and painted her toenails with vermilion polish, I looked up to find tears. She would never think to thank me, but I saw in her eyes that she was touched. We are not that different, I thought. When I am old and alone I hope someone touches me like this.
Now she’s waiting to die and I miss her already. Maybe Thomas Wolfe is right; we can never go home again, but we can travel to a place we’ve never been. My mother-in-law was right, too. This isn’t about me
Anne Schroeder writes and speaks on healing relationship in her memoir, Ordinary Aphrodite.