Grief is a sacred journey

Mother-in-Law Blues: Lessons in “Don’t Bite the Hook”

Smile for the world

Smile for the world

“My doctor gave me a prescription,” Virginia says pointing vaguely toward a piece of paper on her counter. “Will you fill it at Wegman’s?”

“Sure,” I say, picking up the slip and reading. “It’s for a walker, Virginia. I got you a walker two months ago when you wanted one. You made me take it back.”

“I didn’t do that.”

“You did.”

“I know,” she says, hanging her usually defiant head in defeat.

“Wegman’s has groceries and a pharmacy. They don’t have walkers,” I say. “And I don’t want to spend hours finding a walker you refuse. Do you really want this?”

“My doctor said I need it.”

Scowl for me

Scowl for me

“Your doctor said you needed it two years ago,” I say with bitchiness creeping into my voice.

“I need it. I need it,” she says, raising her voice, defiant again.

“Wegman’s won’t have a walker, Virginia.”

“Will you figure it out?”

“Yes,” I say, trying to contain my irritation. My mother-in-law is 97 years old, 90% blind, willful, and fighting for independence. She’s also angry that her only son died. I don’t blame her for being angry, but she’s stuck in self-pity and I’m tired of her bad temper and bitterness. She refuses to hire help she can afford and cooks for herself even though she burns much of what she cooks. Still, I have to admire her spunky toughness. She volunteers at the library information desk and another morning at the Food Bank. I’m sure she’s the oldest volunteer in Ithaca.

One morning, I stood in front of the library information desk without speaking. She looked up with cloudy meandering eyes, squinted, and saw that someone was there. Since she couldn’t see well enough to recognize me, she smiled and greeted me with the kindness she shows strangers. I rarely see this part of her.

Walking with no walker

Hanging on (with Willow)

With her prescription in my wallet, I drive her to Professional Home Care for a walker.

“Don’t you have a smaller one? I don’t like these,” she whines at the woman who helps us.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, they don’t come smaller.”

“OK,” Virginia says, defeated again. We practice using the walker. Put the brakes on before turning and sitting. Don’t release brakes until standing and facing the walker.

“Let’s go,” she demands before mastering the simple brakes.

“Will you practice in your apartment hallway? I’ll help you,” I offer.

“OK,” she grumbles, “but I don’t need your help.”

A few days later, I stop by her apartment with my dog Willow. Virginia’s hair is in rollers since she is willing to pay to have her hair done at home once a week. She feels her way around her apartment without her cane, holding on to chairs and tables, wobbly, bumping into things. Four canes lean into various corners, and the walker sits against the window wearing a bright pink scarf.

The walkers new home

The walker’s new home

“Have you practiced using the walker?” I ask in a cheery voice. “Let’s practice now.”

“No,” she snarls. “I don’t need it. I’m OK with my cane.”

“Virginia, you don’t use your cane inside. You fall down in your apartment and on the street. It’s a miracle you haven’t broken a hip. You need the walker.”

“No,” she scowls.

In my head, I hear Pema Chodron say, “Don’t Bite the Hook.” This is my cue to back away or cause a showdown. I laugh at myself and surrender as I did over canes, an aide, burned food, and a medical alert necklace. Virginia is of sound mind and stubborn temperament. I will not win.

‘Til death do us part.

When I married Vic, I was 22 years old. I never imagined then that, after his death, our vows automatically transferred to his mother.

***

I’d love to hear your stories about caring for aging parents, especially the belligerent ones. How do you find humor in the situation? For a post about caring for my own mother, see My Mother’s Blessing.

Leaning Into Love captures the heart from the extraordinary closeness of Elaine's marriage to how she and Vic transform their struggle with cancer and despair into a conscious relationship with mortality. After Vic's death, Elaine leans into her ongoing love as grief leads her through overwhelming emotional and spiritual depths on a journey beyond their time together into her new life.

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29 Comments
  1. Oh, Elaine, I can feel your frustration. My former m-i-l was like this at times, hard as rocks, don’t need your help. Her mind was failing fast, so there were also times of tearful crying for her own, long dead, mother. She talked as if she were back at home with her family, as an adolescent. Other times, she was paranoid and accusatory. Then, the mellow moments when we were old friends once more.
    After writing this, I found a bright spot (maybe). At least you know what to expect from your m-i-l. Being on that roller coaster of emotions was so stressful, but I’m not sure I could have endured a consistently bad attitude. It’s that old greener grass conundrum!
    I hope her anger over Vic’s death recedes with time and that you both gain some peace in your relationship, before she too, is gone.
    Big warm hugs,
    Patti

    • Thanks for your story, Patti. And you’re here to tell the hard tale. We know we’re not unusual in our struggles.

      I hope I expressed the humor of my situation a little. She humbles me because I become impatient and edgy with her choices. On my good days, I consider her my teacher. Yesterday I couldn’t find the walker. It was under a counter, out of view and hard to reach. Goodbye, walker. She never accepts life with surrender to what is. She comes from an Italian family that loved to argue and fight. She rails against her fate and gets mad if people say she’s doing well for 97. I wasted lots of breath trying to get her to talk to her priest or nun or a hospice counselor after Vic’s death. She wasn’t going there and still won’t. Our relationship was best when Vic’s and my sons, her grandchildren, were young and now she loves my dog, so I leave Willow with her a few times a week. She shows me where I need to soften my rough edges and helps me laugh at myself and life.

      Thanks for those hugs and I’m sure you need some, too.
      Elaine

  2. This is such a familiar tale. We are going through various iterations of this scenario with my 95-year-old Aunt (severe) and my 95-year-old Mother (less severe right now).

    My heart goes out to you!

    • Thanks, Mariann. I haven’t written about my mother-in-law sagas, but decided the stories are too good to keep to myself–and too familiar to many. It’s all about keeping my sense of humor, and writing about it brings gives me objectivity and shows the silliness and failures of my attempts to help. (The walker is now stuck under a counter, behind a table.) We need support groups.
      Warmly,
      Elaine

  3. You were a wonderful daughter, and you’re a wonderful daughter-in-law. I admire your strength and clarity in writing about these situations with both sincerity and humor. My Parents and Mother-in-law have passed, but I’ve been in similar situations. My Mom had dementia and was often combative, and my Mother-in-law was always a pistol, and this did not abate once she became infirm. The decline that comes with advanced age is horrific. One thing I do know, though— it is not a given that relatives care for their aged parents. Many don’t bother, because it’s painful, with no winning answers to problems. Your choice to do this is a beautiful thing. I appreciate your willingness to share your stories, because it helps me to process what I’ve been through.

    • Thanks so much for responding and affirming my choices, Ali. I’m glad you saw the humor in the situation and the teaching. I hope and pray that I will not be a pain in the neck to my kids when it’s my turn to accept help. I hope to show the gratitude that my husband Vic showed me when he was ill and dying. Giving love to the caregiver is the best reward of all. I had that with my mom at the end of her life and with Vic, so I felt supported while I supported them. Maybe that will come around with my mother-in-law. There are glimpses from time to time. My role in her life is complicated and less clearly defined because she’s not my mother, but she has no one else to help her, pay the bills, balance the checkbook, and run errands. Somehow, with grace, we’ll get through this together. (I’ve said in previous replies that yesterday the walker was stuck under a counter behind a table. Someone must have helped her “get it out of the way.” I passed the test and didn’t respond. We’ll see what happens next.)

  4. Elaine, your story sounds so familiar! I remember getting Adrian a walker when his doctor first said he needed one. Naturally, I ended up taking it back as he refused to use it.

    As for mother-in-laws, my first husband’s mother ended up taking my side when we split because she wanted to be close to her granddaughter. That relationship with me lasted until she died at a few days before 95, here in Ithaca where we’d brought her when she couldn’t manage on her own any more.

    • Nice to hear a positive mother-in-law story, Lynne. So nice. And you get the walker, but Virginia is not mentally impaired even though she’s 97. She just makes poor choices from my point of view, but not from hers. So many human problems are universal. Thanks so much for comment.

  5. Elaine! My M-I-L could bring me to tears early in my marriage. About a decade into it, I realized that she really just wanted to be seen as the wise matriarch so I started using a neutral response with great success ~ “Oh! Is that how you did it? I’ll have to give that some thought…” “Thanks for telling me about that …” Those kinds of responses worked better than “Well, my pediatrician says …” which would just gain me a lecture about “back in the day”. She lost her “filter”, as time went on, and would say whatever came to mind. “What are you doing with your hair?” she asked me on an admittedly bad hair day. “I’m growing it out” I replied. “Well, I don’t like it.” At this point I just laughed out loud and said, “If we’re voting … which we’re NOT.” I gained courage as I got older. She died in 2010. I don’t miss the fact that so many interactions were rough but I must say that I share stories with my clients; it helps them know that they can develop their own “relationship management” style. I also share this quote from Lee Jampolsky who reminds us that we can often change the “dance”: “Don’t take all the roles offered you. You are at your relative’s house for the holidays and a family member begins to say something that typically leads you to feel upset. Instead of taking the role offered, as you have done countless times before, choose to see beyond their words. See only that they want to be loved. This is forgiveness; the gentle recognition of love in the moment, and it always leads to happiness.” – Lee L. Jampolsky Elaine, I love the conversations you start …

    • Hi Lynne. My MIL and I had good times, especially when my kids were young. We still have good moments, but it’s harder since Vic’s death. She always expressed resentment and anger freely, so I learned to side-step early on. She needed to be the matriarch, so I learned her recipes passed down from her mother, gave her credit for my cooking style, and celebrated Christmas Eve rather than Christmas day as my family always did, because Christmas Eve was the big celebration time in her family. This worked. Now, she likes it that I run her errands, leave my dog in her care for a few hours (time limited because she can’t take the dog outside), and bring her favorite soups I’ve made. I cook what she enjoys, partly to keep her from setting her place on fire. She gave me Power of Attorney (she could have chosen one of my sons), so there is no hiding her dependence on me if/when she can’t make her own decisions. My two sons stay in touch with Grandma. If she’s having an anger attack (these can go on for weeks), my daughter-in-law is most likely to cool her down, but by phone because they don’t live nearby. I see humor in my own weaknesses and our situation (and hope that came through in the piece, but perhaps it didn’t for you). Yes, love and forgiveness. The best way, the only way. I am persistent in this practice, and she is my most challenging teacher. Thanks for your stories, comments, and wise advice. Sometimes, since I’m human, the implementation details get tricky. I love Pema Chodron because she uses her own failures as examples and laughs at herself.

      • Isn’t it true that our relationships with our MILs can be loving, frustrating, jaw-dropping ~ all those things? I, too, credit my MIL for many things that I cook and she loved that legacy. She SO wanted to be an integral part of our lives (we lived 2 hours apart) and I learned to give a little, sometimes, but also hold a boundary when necessary. All this was possible only after I found some confidence and my own “legs”. It is clear that you are navigating the relationship with love and compassion… and a sense of humor.

        • I hope so, Lynne. It’s an ongoing learning process, a continual spiritual practice, and always humiliating when I lose perspective and become emotionally reactive. Ah, this being human… Practice, practice, practice. Thanks for adding more to the discussion.

  6. OMG Elaine. I see myself with my father who hated losing his independence. And my mother who insists still on driving. I loved reading this. It made me think also of my poor son when it’s my turn to curtail my crazy lifestyle. Because I will be the crankiest one, I’m sure.

    • Robin, I promise my sons that they’re allowed to give me a swift kick if I’m difficult. Yes, it’s important to negotiate needs, but surely we can be nice about it and assume our caretaker is trying to help us, not thwart us. We’ll see what it’s our turn.

  7. I love the way you write, Elaine. Regardless of subject matter, you always put the reader smack dab in the moment.

    I can relate so much to this essay. My father hated using a cane and hated the walker even more. So many times he’d get angry if we suggested he couldn’t walk across the room without his cane.

    At the end of his life, he ended up in a hospital bed and couldn’t even stand up on the walker. A year before he died, he ended up in a rehab facility for a couple of months. The physical therapist spoke firmly to him and told him to get up out of the wheelchair and grab hold of the walker. My father, who had a brilliant mind trapped in a body that betrayed him, sat in that wheelchair and cried and drooled like a baby. He kept begging God to let him die. I begged God to let him die, too, so he would be free. I’m not ashamed of that. But I am ashamed that I wanted to slap that PT across the room, because I hated the way she spoke to my dad. She didn’t know him. She didn’t know the handsome man who took such pride in his appearance before the stroke robbed him of that. All she saw was an old man bent over in a wheelchair, hands curled up in fists. Food plastered to his faded shirt. Drool swirling from his open mouth.

    As I watched from across the room, I took out my cell phone and began snapping photos to send to my siblings scattered across the country. The PT admonished me like a child and told me it was against the rules. But I managed to hit “send” and get those photos to my brothers and sisters before she ordered me to delete them. She said it was the rules.

    Sorry I rambled here. The idea of relying on a cane and walker seems such an easy thing to if you need help keeping balance or getting from point A to point B. Even now, I wonder how I will react if I get to live long enough to need help. I have no idea.

    I hope I never get nasty with my sons. I hope I don’t poop my pants. I hope I was a good daughter to my dad.

    Kathleen

    • Wow, Kathleen. You have an outline of a wonderful blog here. It’s hard being old and hard being sick. It’s horrible when medical staff is unkind and they can be when the patient isn’t in control, as with my mom with dementia and your dad after his stroke. I also wished for my mother’s death and Vic’s, too. It was the only way out of suffering. So glad you broke the rules!

      It is hard for Vic’s mom, but I have only one rule and that is not to yell at me or slam down phones. She’s doing better with that. I don’t talk back, I just leave, so she now knows anger won’t get her what she wants. Even if she’s furious she lost her son, she still wants to see Willow. We share love for my sons and her grandsons–and for Willow. The walker is tucked under a counter behind a table with more and more stuff stacked on it. I promise you I don’t bite the hook. I let it go and writing helps me do that. Also, just in case readers think I make my self or my marriage sound a little too good, I thought it time to bring in another perspective.
      Thanks for your story and a sneak preview to a blog coming soon at your site.
      Elaine

  8. Elaine, I come here to read you inspiration. I truly commend you on being such a wonderful, caring person with a huge spirit. So glad I found you! I am sorry that I cannot share a story with you as I have a shattered past with my own mother and never had a mother in law.

    • Debby, mothers are so often difficult. I’m sorry you didn’t have a good relationship with yours. I did when I was young, but after my father died when I was a teenager, she checked out. No arguments, but lots of distance between us, including geographic distance. Our relationship got better, believe it or not, when she developed Alzheimer’s, because she lost her rigid defense against grief and finally spoke of her pain around my father’s illness and death. She had stuffed it away for forty years. Thanks so much for your kind words. No stories necessary. I’ll read your blog for those.

  9. You are so kind and your words always wise :). It’s strange the way people keep things pent up and somehow they find a way to creep out. It seems when your mother’s vulnerabilities were exposed, she no longer had the power to maintain her defenses. Everybody has a story and portrays themselves in certain ways to mask something. My mother is still alive and probably not long for this earth, I have struggled with the guilt from her my whole life and now when she is reaching the end, I still cannot find myself, wanting to go back, although the guilt consumes me, hence I wrote a book of my memoir and through writing it discovered how much she had really played on my emotions my whole life. It is really sad when people hurt the ones they are supposed to love in life over and over and don’t even realize they are doing it and are left wondering what they did wrong.

    • Sounds so hard, Debby. I’d have to go back at least once to say goodbye, but maybe you’ve already done that. I would be too curious about my own psychological reaction to her frailty to skip a last meeting. Maybe guilt-ridden, too. Looks like your book ‘Conflicted Hearts’ is about this very relationship and it will be coming out very soon. Any minute. Right? You must be excited.

      • Yes Elaine, in about three weeks. I went back many times Elaine, I battle it everyday with myself. Perhaps it’s why the book took its own direction, It was painful to write, yet cathartic. It started out as a book about me and life lessons then every road seemed to go back to my mother. We all make choices and have to find a way to live with them. Thanks for your wise words, :)

        • Three weeks. Right around the corner. Fantastic, Debby. I look forward to reading your tale. I’m glad you went back to see your mom, and I’m glad you tried so hard. That’s all we can do. So many issues are not resolvable, so we can only do the best we can do to protect ourselves and forgive the other person. That’s me with my mother-in-law. I had to settle for “what is.” Wishing you well with your book. I know you have lots of hard work both behind and ahead on this project.

  10. Your compassion is whole because it is not watered down with evasive niceness or rationalized, ritualized avoidance. You stand. You stand up to it. There’s an immovability to it. It’s like iron or diamond, come to think of it, a wish-fulfilling gem. Brava!

    • Wow, Fred. You think so? I’ll try to take that in. Maybe, in this messy situation, my soul is being polished and smoothed a bit at a time. Mostly I notice the rumbling of my ego complaints and her grumbling about being ripped off by life. I notice how slow I am to learn how to help without getting personally pulled into the complexes. I show up because some part of me must–from a deep place, not because Vic asked me to take care of her. He didn’t. Grateful that Willow brings good cheer to both of us and that David and Anthony listen, problem solve, and laugh with me–and call their grandma much more than most grandsons would. Thank you for cheering me on.

      • Yes to all the messy but my point was it doesn’t–ever–stop you.

        • Thanks for emphasis, Fred. One of my strengths and weaknesses is that I don’t let the messes stop me. As Vic said about me, they’ll put on your tombstone, “She tried REALLY hard.”

  11. I’m torn! Like you, I have to say I admire her spunk! It’s incredible that she does so much and is mostly independent at 97!!

    On the other hand, she doesn’t sound like much fun to be around!! One thing is for sure, she’s very blessed to have a daughter-in-law that is *willing* to transfer that “’til death do us part” vow to her!!

    I’m sure Vic is extremely grateful; your care for his mother – even in her … ahem, ‘less pleasant’ moments – certainly speaks volumes about your love of Vic. You are an amazing woman. xoxoxox

    • Thanks Ann. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t take care of her body. She’s been in a terrible mood as long as I’ve known her, but recently she’s inviting women who live on her floor in for a glass of wine. This is new and makes me happy,. As I was leaving around 5 on Tuesday, a sparky elderly Italian lady came in with a big plate of meatballs. Virginia supplied the wine. I hit the road. My M-I-L has an amazing side. I see it. I’m glad she’s making new friends. It could make life easier for both of us.

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