Ugh, here we were in the car again on our way to our monthly dinner with my mother-in-law, Lee. The upside to these outings was that we always went to a really nice restaurant. The downside, we always had to pay and she always found fault with something, someone or both. To say that I was not Lee’s biggest fan would have been an understatement.
I disliked her before I ever met her. She had not been an ideal mother. I loved her son (still do) and to know that his mother did not treat him well was to know that she was no friend of mine. I believed her to be mean and cold and self-centered.
One year we took her away for her birthday. Not because we were so nice, because she insisted. It was awful. At the end of the weekend I had enough and I let her know that I had enough. Our discussion involved her opinion that it was absolutely OK to treat the people who were closest to you with abuse and my opinion that the people who were the closet to you deserved the best treatment.
To her credit, the next time I saw her (and after that) I could see her trying. She would start to say something to me and then change her mind. She did not always succeed but she was trying. Still I rarely missed an opportunity to tell a joke or a story to my friends which emphasized how awful she was.
One day I realized, if I am telling stories about what an evil witch she is, what does that make me? Doesn’t that just make me another kind of evil witch?
And as Lee aged, as fiercely independent as she was, if she needed anything she would ask us. She may have believed that it was OK to verbally abuse family, but she also believed that family was where you turned when you needed help. Like it or not, I was family. I felt strongly that helping her was our duty, but I did not look forward to that duty. I did not know how I could perform this duty.
One day I had an epiphany. I don’t know exactly when or how, but it occurred to me, “If the only good thing I can say about this woman is that she gave birth to the man I love, then that is good enough for me.” That was my turning point. It didn’t mean I agreed with everything she said or did, it simply meant that this one good thing enabled me to see her in a whole new light. As you know, once you can see one positive thing about a person or a situation you begin to step away from negativity and you step toward a more positive place.
Lee fought long and hard against giving up her independence. When at 96 years of age it became obvious that she could no longer live on her own, she was very upset. She did not want to go live with a bunch of old people, stashed in some room and forgotten. Her fear was that she would be dumped in a home. We spoke at length about the situation. I promised her that I would find her a place that I would live in if it were me. I promised her I would visit her once a week. “No, you will visit me at least twice a week”, she demanded and so I did. Two times a week, we walked, we talked, we read, we looked at pictures. Oh and we laughed. She teased me, I teased her. My visits with her became my break time.
Well now Lee is gone. In more ways than one the joke is on me. That mother-in-law who I met when she was 85, the one who I thought I would soon be rid of, was part of my life for 13 years. In those 13 years we went from hostility, to careful cordiality to friendship. Now instead of saying goodbye and good riddance I can simply say, “Goodbye Lee”.