Grief is a sacred journey

Time to Celebrate and Forgive

DSC04165-001The flower-decorated cake says Happy 100th Birthday. We hand out forks and napkins. Around fifty elders, over 90% women, murmur at the tables, their eyes filled with chocolate anticipation. Unlike many of us who always run late, people show up early at a senior residence. The party is scheduled for 2:00.

DSC04166At 2:10, the birthday girl (my mother-in-law Virginia calls herself a girl) hasn’t arrived. Her health aide Dawn went upstairs to get her fifteen minutes ago.

“Where the hell is she?” I mutter as I wait for the elevator. “I make this party happen and she refuses to come? Or she fell down? Or what?”

Pausing at her apartment door, I hear laughter. If I hear it, you know it’s loud.

Inside, Virginia sits on her red couch dressed in white slacks and a white shirt. An elderly gentleman sits near her and Dawn sits nearby. All three lean toward the coffee table and an open bottle of champagne. The man and Virginia raise glasses sparkling with golden bubbles. Virginia opened his birthday gift before the party.

Virginia is one hundred, drinking champagne, and bubbling inside and out. This scene is my reward for putting up with years of animosity and the effort it takes to help her live in her apartment.

“Hey, folks. It’s time to go downstairs,” I say.

“Oh, we’ll be there in a minute,” Virginia says with a flip of her hand.

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Throwing a kiss with the bottle of champagne nearby

“They’re waiting for us,” I say even though I hate breaking up this circle.

Dawn slides a sequined jacket over Virginia’s white shirt. I remember Virginia forty years ago, the woman who loved wearing white. That woman is still here.

Even though she’s nearly blind, Virginia grabs her walker handles like a grocery cart and heads for the elevator ahead of all of us. Is it the gentleman or the champagne?

Downstairs, when the crowd breaks into the Happy Birthday song, Virginia blushes and glows like a debutante. She grabs the old man’s arm and he walks her to a chair. Seated at the head of the table, she turns and throws her adoring fans a kiss.

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Vic and Virginia, ~2005

I snap photos while McGraw House staff cuts and passes out cake. I show slides of her life on my computer, the same slide show her son Vic made for her ninetieth birthday party. I hand out Clementines for those who can’t eat cake or don’t buy fruit for themselves.

Virginia’s white pants are smeared with chocolate icing. She can’t see it. No one cares. She’s grins as everyone wishes her a Happy Birthday. We move the slides close to her. She squints and tells stories about what she barely sees. She doesn’t mention the many photos of Vic who died in 2008.

When the cake is gone and most people have left, Virginia looks up at me. “I Love You,” she says. Her voice is loud and clear.

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What? She loves me? I met Virginia in 1967. She has never told me she loves me. Not once. After hesitating, I say, “I love you, too,” even though I’m not sure I do. She has exposed her heart to me as she never has before. I’ll figure out how I feel later.

When we walk back to her room, Virginia flops on her couch with a sigh and opens a gift that came in the mail.

“Elaine, why don’t you take these chocolates to Vic,” she says. Before I can respond, tears pool in her eyes. She remembers that her only child, the one she loved more than life, is dead.

“So would you like to have these chocolates?” she asks me.

Virginia with her chocolates the next day

Virginia with her chocolates the next day

***

With her two grandsons, 2013

With her grandsons, 2013

After Vic and I met in 1966, he became a bearded anti-war hippie before turning to meditation and vegetarianism. His mother was not pleased with any of this or with me. I finally made her happy by giving birth to two sons, her grandsons. During Vic’s illness, she counted on me and blamed me for not being able to save him. I haven’t shared much about this confusing relationship. How much of the problem was my fault? Will her temperament turn again? If you didn’t read my previous blog about Virginia, see To Forget and To Remember. It could have been titled, “I am not 100.” For earlier adventures in our long relationship, see Mother-in-Law Blues.

 

 

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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33 Comments
  1. Dear Elaine, this post was a real delight to read! Wonderful writing, great story-telling to mark a deeply healing and momentous day in both yours and Virginia’s lives. Throughout, I found my eyes racing ahead, eager to know how the day’s celebrations would turn out. And then I read, “I love you” and my heart filled up, bursting with happiness, shock and tears. Talk about an emotional bombshell! A beautiful one at that. Thank you so much for sharing your celebrations and forgiveness with us all. Such wonderful photos! Blessings, Deborah.

    • That will be that with mother-in-law blogs for a while–or I hope so. It’s been a remarkable few weeks for two women who were shadow figures for each other for 48 years. That’s a long time. I don’t think she’s consciously aware of the shift in energy, but I am.

      I’m imagining a blog about intuitive guidance, dreams, and the mythology/dream workshop with Jean Raffa for next week. It all happened because I followed a surprising intuition.

  2. As I see it, you got two gifts and only one came in a box. Though you don’t say so outright, I think Virginia’s “I love you” came as a shock. Years ago, I flew up to see my father on his deathbed and longed to hear those words but they never came. If they had, I know what I would have said in return.

    One more thing: I don’t think you have to love someone to forgive that person. You are inching along, Elaine. Thank you for once again showing us your vulnerable self.

    • I was shocked, Marian. Virginia has been angry at me for so long. I’ve defended myself against her for the same amount of time, harboring my resentments. That dynamic softened last year after she became more physically vulnerable and gave in to my demands that she accept help. I never expected a sincere I love you or even a thank you, but did experience a tender moment with her a few years ago when I took her to the ER for stitches after a bad fall. Forgiveness comes when we show our vulnerable selves.

      I’m so grateful there is a sense of resolution in this challenging relationship–and I’m sorry you didn’t have that with your dad. How we long for resolution!

  3. Wow, so many emotions in this post Elaine. Her lucid memory makes you wonder if she was coherent when she said she loved you, yet she corrected herself when asking you to take the chocolates home yourself.
    Your story reminded me of my paternal grandfather who never showed me any love or affection, mostly resentment that I was my mother’s daughter. In his last few months before he passed and I went to visit him he told me, “You are a good girl after all.” I suppose those words had many different sentiments attached as Virginia’s words did you. :)

    • Her memory slips around, but it’s amazing good for someone who is 100. Her adrenaline was up and that makes memory keener. I’m sure she knew what she was saying to me and said it purposefully. I’ve noticed how she has a hard time keeping track of who is dead and who is alive. Sometimes she asks me if my mother is still alive, if her husband Benny is alive, if Vic has died. I imagine her living on some threshold between the worlds.

      I’m glad you heard those hard-won words from your paternal grandfather. With all that must have preceded those words, you can still carry something positive forward in your memory of him.

      • Yes, it did change my perception of him. And I think that many people tend to re-evaluate their lives as theirs is coming to an end, perhaps admitting their wrongs. Not everybody does, my mother certainly didn’t but most do.

        • There are no guarantees, right? We hope people soften, but they often don’t. But sometimes there are miracles. I never thought this could happen, so I’m grateful.

  4. She finally did it. She said she loved you. A loud AMEN sister.
    You have been a saint in the way you care for she who has been ruthless (and loud) with her negative words aimed at you for years.
    You have stayed with her, showed her compassion, brought her pasta sauce!
    Vic asked you to do a hard task, and not unlike many of the tasks of the gods and goddesses you study, you have accomplished a huge feat, with O so many twists and turns.
    Great story, so well told. Compassion wins. Love wins.

    • Thank you, dear Lauren. You know the details of this messy family story. Yes, I purposely chose that photo of her looking at Vic with an adoring gaze.

      Vic didn’t ask me to take care of his mom. Not once. On the other hand, he might have assumed from my many years of dutiful action that I would do it. It does feel like a huge victory. Love wins! Just like we always hoped it would.

  5. PS the photos are great. The one of her looking at Vic adoringly is perfect. Your pics are always right on. You and she look so well.

  6. Wow! What a fantastic description Elaine, ‘Shadow figures’ for 48 years! A remarkable time, indeed. Thank you so much for giving me the hope, courage and inspiration I need to continue the ongoing relationship (battle!) I have with my own shadowy figures in life. Your workshop with Jeanie is going to be amazing, I just know it! Good luck with the forthcoming blog post. As always, very much looking forward to it already! I hope the day finds you well, Deborah.

    • I thought it was my psychological responsibility to deal with this. I assumed Virginia would never change and stop seeing me as a competitor who had stolen her son away. The shadow projection felt permanent. But, of course, nothing is permanent in life and the unconscious. Everything changes. She changed. I changed–and on the way I was given a lifetime of lessons about the shadow.

  7. Deeply beautiful, Elaine.

    Profound, as always, but perhaps more so for the healing between you. I’m glad Virginia enjoyed her birthday and pleased that your efforts did not go to waste.

    Thank you for this moment of joy,

    Casey

    • Thank you for your encouraging words, Casey. I’m slightly wary of this new situation, but it seems there has been a fundamental shift in the hardest relationship of my life. I worked hard to make this happen for so many years, but nothing budged so something in me had given up. This is so much to celebrate at a moment when I’m accepting my own physical limitations. Wishing you well.

  8. A heart-warming story beautifully told. Once again you bring me to tears and smiles at the same time. You really have a gift for this! I can’t wait to see what alchemy you and I will cook up with our combined gifts at our presentation next month!

    • Thank you, Jeanie. Our soup is brewing in the alchemical kitchen and the weekend is shaping up beautifully. Last night, I wrote about dreams that arose as we first conceived the workshop. Unconscious encouragement has accompanied the ideas from the beginning. I look forward to our Skype planning session this afternoon.

    • Dear Elaine & Jeanie,

      Me too! What to say ….

      I’ll be picking up this series for AinA over this weekend.

      Best regards, Skip

      • Thank you for sharing my articles, Skip. It’s Jungian Psychology at work, as you know. It was essential to learn about Jung’s ideas about Shadow in my 20s and then, as life unfolded, begin to notice a recognizable vulnerability and defensiveness that arose when my shadow was aroused and being projected. I’ve been both self-righteous and humiliated during those years. I’ve written letters (and kept copies) trying to explain how her actions impacted me. She never responded, although my attempts eased the tension. Because of Jung, I knew I had to stick with her after Vic died. It took 48 years to soften that projection–and I shouldn’t speak too soon. I think we have a few more years ahead of us, but it’s nice to have warm conversations with her. Yesterday, she asked me what Vic is doing. Then she remembered and wept. She allowed me to empathize with her grief rather than being angry at me. Big progress!

  9. It’s amazing how complicated relationships can be, especially those that remain after a loved one’s death. The reality is that we don’t have to keep ANY of them really, because the glue that kept them together (our loved one) is no longer here. And yet we do! To me, it is all summed up in the picture of Vic’s mother looking at him and smiling…you can see their love, you can see the joy that he brings her. Perhaps, for that reason only, we stay connected? I admire you for your efforts not only for bringing an old woman joy on her milestone birthday, but in honoring the love between a mother and son!!! Thank you for this beautiful post!

    • Thank you for your reflections. Vic’s mom was invasive and critical. He was loving and dutiful but kept a distance–and yet he shared her sense of humor, her work ethic, and looked so much like her. She adored him, yet she refused to visit him during his last two months even though she lived close by. I tried to get her to visit until his last days, but she always said no. She said she couldn’t stand to see him sick. She insisted God wouldn’t “take” her son, no matter how much her grandsons and I pleaded with her. Her guilt and anger were crushing after his death. I’m glad our relationship has resolved peacefully. It was right for me to stick it out and hope for change. As you say, family relationships are complicated.

  10. I am touched to the core Elaine – for me, it was a vicarious flip flop moment when she said ‘I love you’. Also, reading the comments and your responses to them and especially when you say about her refusal to see Vic in his last months and her guilt and anger thereafter almost breaks my heart. Even though it takes forever for resolution, it can and does happen. Bravo to Virginia for saying those words – bravo that you were there to hear them.

    • Thank you, Susan. She’s one feisty woman who had a hard life full of demeaning jobs and abandonment. Her refusal to see Vic was a terrible choice made out of fear about what she was losing. But she was unusually stubborn about everything, and I couldn’t talk her out of it. I tried. My sons tried. Friends tried, but she held her ground even when I called from the hospital a few times a day to report his condition and advise her to come. Because she wouldn’t take the many rides offered to come to the hospital, I had a friend go to her apartment and stay with her during those days. I seemed so wrong to be alone. She insisted to the end that he would not die. Regret poured in immediately, cloaked in defensive blaming and rage. So sad for her, but also hard for me to be blamed. Oh, ’tis a long old story of mother-in-law blues.

  11. I was looking forward to this post, Elaine, and it’s all I’d hoped it would be. Wow, what great reading, and how lovely for you to hear that “I love you.” I know your relationship with Virginia has been difficult, but it must have been fulfilling to hear her say those words. Gosh, you deserve them! You are so kind to be there for Virginia. Her 100th was clearly a special celebration.

    • This relationship felt eternally stuck in her anger and blame and my tight defenses. I couldn’t have imagined this outcome. So many families harbor these stuck unresolved relationships, so I feel lucky things moved. I’m glad the party had sweet surprises for all of us. Virginia doesn’t quite remember the party, but I tell her what a good time she had and that perks her up. Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Mary.

  12. Elaine,

    What a delightful story. Thanks so much for sharing it. Being a care taker to a elder is very difficult. I admire your grace in those hard moments.

    My mother-in-law was the same type of feisty woman and had little use for me. She died years ago in her sixties without once saying, “I Love You” to me. What a wonderful moment for you.

    • Hi Joan. Thanks for your kind comments and for reading my post. I’m sorry you didn’t have some resolution with your mother-in-law. I didn’t expect one. I’m still a little shocked by her softening and especially her willingness to say I love you. As we both know, it’s common for mothers to disapprove of their son’s partners. It still hurts and causes tension in the family. My husband was an only child raised by a single mother–the perfect son. No one would have been good enough for him and I understood this even when I was young.

      Among other things, she taught me the importance of staying conscious with every action and word with my son’s partners. If I’m a jerk, I want them to tell me so. My sons do, and I listen. I want to be in honest trusting relationships and that takes work. I’m sure you’ve learned plenty from your hard experiences, too.

  13. I so admire your devotion to your MIL and your honesty about not knowing whether or not or how much you love her. Your actions speak love, and they finally made a dint. I am a romantic and hope that the two of you will grow ever closer as she nears the end. You do, after all, have one great love in common — Vic!

    As I look at these pictures, one thing strikes me powerfully. Vic looked very much like Virginia, and even now, I see glimpses of his face in her face, which you must see also.

    The Christian saints advise us to look into the faces of others, especially difficult-for-us others and search for the face of Jesus there. It changes our hearts to do that. It must be one reason you haven’t walked away from this woman who for so long shut you out and criticized you. She and your sons are the closest living beings to Vic, other than you, here on earth.

    Blessings. I hope you are eating chocolate as you read these words. She loves you.

    • It’s true Vic’s mom and I loved the same man. That was the source of difficulty from her side, but after his death I hoped it would be a source of comfort for both of us. That didn’t happen. Vic looked so much like his mom and shared her sense of humor. He pulled back from her controlling and belligerent style when he hit puberty and went his own way. She had an 8th grade education and worked as a domestic when he was young. Once he realized he was smart, he did well in school and found his way to a different life. In those days, kids like Vic had access to great scholarships. So he and his mom had a certain closeness mixed with a great distance. My sons have a similar mixed relationship with their grandma.

      I know the value of seeking Jesus-nature in the other and know similar exercises from other traditions. I’ve always valued the positive choices she made on Vic’s behalf. She was deserted by her husband but did not desert her child. She worked hard to make a living for him when he was a kid. She adored him even when she didn’t understand him.

      We’ve had a few of those “where is Vic?” conversations the last few weeks. She depends on me and her trust that I will stay is a form of love. I see her helplessness and pain and that makes me want to comfort and care for her–so a form of love. Maybe we can go further or maybe this is it. Either way, we’ve come a long way this last year. Thanks for helping me think this through, Shirley.

  14. What a beautifully touching story, Elaine. A day you could have never imagined, and one I’m sure you will never forget. I’m happy for both you and Virginia, and I love the photos of you two together on her special day. You are a wonderful daughter-in-law to have made it through many difficult years with her, never wavering on your commitment to care for her (even when she didn’t want to be cared for). It’s a testament to your love for Vic and to the compassionate heart you’ve been blessed with. Thank you for sharing Virginia’s special day with us, my friend.

    • Thank you, Ann. I’m trying to open to this woman I’ve defended against for many years. It wouldn’t be possible if she were sharp like she was before, but as her memory softens, her anger softens into helplessness. The broken child is obvious now.

  15. Whoa! Elaine, this was a powerful post. I could feel your conflicting emotions about Virginia. And I melted, witnessing the 100-year old mother who relives, again and again, the reality of her son’s dying. This is real. This is life. OMG, it hurts and is exquisite, all at once.

    • Thanks for your comment, Robin. Last night I spoke with Virginia on the phone for about 20 minutes. She was scared and didn’t know where she was. She had called repeatedly. She gets more confused at night and wants to go home to CT where she lived 40 years ago. Then she wants me to explain what has happened since then. She wants to hear her history, what happened to people she cared about and who took care of them. She wants to make sure I won’t abandon her. After I reassured her she was a good wife and mother and I wasn’t going anywhere, she calmed down and went to sleep. I’m given an opportunity to relieve a little of her suffering and mend old wounds. It’s good for both of us if I to take advantage of this moment. Life is full of surprises, isn’t it?

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