Grief is a sacred journey

When Forgiveness Requires Patience

Instead of getting angry, nurture a deep caring and respect for troublemakers because by creating such trying circumstances they provide us with invaluable opportunities to practice tolerance and patience.” ― Dalai LamaDSC09332

“She’s amazing,” the nurse practitioner said as she discharged my mother-in-law Virginia from the hospital. “Funny and strong. Her heart is powerful. She looks like she’s 85.” A high complement to a woman who is almost 101.

“She’s sweet and cooperative,” the nurse went on. Virginia? The woman who harassed me for fifty years and chewed out her son because he dared to have cancer? It’s true. She’s become sweet and cooperative the last few years.

I’m still adjusting.

A few days ago at 4 a.m., a woman who delivers newspapers at Virginia’s senior residence saw a bruised hand sticking out of an apartment door. The rest of Virginia’s body was on the floor inside her apartment, wedged against the inside of the door. The woman called 911.

Tinker, Virginia, and a nurse

Tinker, Virginia, and a nurse

Only one bite

Only one bite

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An ambulance crew took Virginia to the hospital before dawn, but didn’t call family (me) or her health aide Tinker even though our phone numbers are plastered all over the apartment. By the time I arrived at the ER, Tinker was there holding Virginia’s hand. “This is my daughter-in-law,” Virginia told a nurse when she saw me. Virginia smiled and pointed at me with a purple finger.

One arm and leg were bruised and swollen. Nothing broken. Even with a walker, she’s survived rough falls for years, so I wasn’t surprised. Her white blood cell count was slightly elevated, so they booked her into the hospital to do more tests.

After one night in the hospital, tests came back clear and her white blood cells were fine. She returned to her senior apartment with round-the-clock health aides plus a visiting nurse and physical therapist.

Home again, entertaining the visiting nurse

Home again, entertaining the visiting nurse

My son thanked me for being dutiful. Yes, dutiful, although not always cheerful. I don’t want to spend hours in the hospital. I don’t want to manage her finances, her health aides and nurses, the shopping, and the rest. I’m tired of being a caretaker, but what’s the choice?

The first time we met in 1966, Virginia sized me up and gave a thumb’s down. By the end of that visit, she screamed Italian profanities, calling me a whore and her son a whore master. He and I lived together. We were in love.

“She’s the wrong girl,” she yelled at her embarrassed son. When Eros fell in love with Psyche, his mama Aphrodite did all she could to keep them apart. The Goddess and the mother both failed.

When outright hostility didn’t drive me away, Virginia unrelentingly criticized my hair, my clothes, my vegetarian cooking, my politics. She was just as hard on Vic, so he and I kept a distance from her, but not from each other.

Virginia with first grandchild David

Virginia with first grandchild David

Her resentment softened when I gave birth to two grandsons, but the truce didn’t last.

When Vic and I helped her move from Florida to Ithaca in 2007, she raged like a caged animal. She knew Vic was dying of cancer. She said she’d rather move to Ithaca to be near us than stay in FL by herself. I expected the move to be difficult, but cursing and raging at your dying son and blaming him for having cancer?

After Vic’s death, the blame shifted back to me. She needed to name the one who had killed her only child. Why didn’t I walk away then? I knew that underneath her defensive rage, she was a shattered mother who loved her only child more than her own life.

About two years ago, as she became (relatively) weak, dependent, and forgetful, her rage faded toward self-pity with occasional red flares.

“You’re so good to me,” she says now. She revised our fifty-year history and deleted her years of anger. It’s harder for me to forget.

Virginia and Vic 1945

Virginia and Vic 1945

Vic didn’t ask me to take care of his mother. His father wanted an abortion, not a baby. Virginia paid the price for Vic when his dad left her with a one-year old, an eighth grade education, and no way to support her kid. World War II saved her by providing a factory job.

I stayed to help her because she sacrificed so much for Vic and she had no one else. Even more I stayed to heal my resentful heart.

Although she depends on me and calls me her dearest friend, I’m not sure how I feel about her. I do know I’m not angry anymore. Just worn out.

Family, 1981

Family visit, 1981

Forgiveness is still a miracle, even if I had to wait fifty years.

***

We’ve all been tested by family. Is there someone who depends on you and resents you? How do you handle it? For other articles about my relationship with Virginia, see Mother-in-Law Blues: Lessons in “Don’t Bite the Hook” or My Lover’s Mama and the Negative Mother Archetype.

45 Comments
  1. I’m so sorry, Elaine, that for so long, Vic’s mom couldn’t see and appreciate the angel that you are ~ but we know better, don’t we? Your honesty, humility and grace are heart warming, and through your writing you set an example for all of us. ♥

    • ‘Course, I wasn’t so angelic when I felt under attack. I could be defensive and cold in earlier years. More recently, I was frustrated and resentful when she turned against me at my most vulnerable moment just after Vic’s death. She loved her son, that’s for sure. Although she’s with it in many ways now, she often forgets that he’s dead. I expect he’s very alive in her inner worlds, just as he is in mine. She always asks for her grandsons and is thrilled when they visit. She always thanks me. It’s recent, but it’s real. Forgiveness is a big job sometimes.

      • Oh, Elaine, that must have been really rough.

        • It was and is rough, Mary Jane. She’ll be 101 in a few weeks. She has short term memory loss, but always knows me and wants my dog Willow with her as much as possible. Judging from her comments, she seems to be reviewing our early relationships as part of a review about her relationship with my husband. She asks for constant assurance that we got along well and she was good to me and to him. I tell her all is well between us. And it is.

    • I second those sentiments, Marty.

  2. ❤️

  3. Oh Elaine, I’ve followed your posts for a few years now, I feel as though I’m familiar with Virginia. And in many ways she reminds me of my own mother, only near the end she never relinquished her anger or venom toward anyone.
    Forgiveness is a tricky thing. You put up with Virginia, I put up with my mother for almost 50 years. I bailed to save my soul, and you hung in as a kindness for your husband. Still the hurt never goes away, but it seems as though we both learned to understand what stirs the beast, and in that much we can reach a place within ourselves of compassion to find that forgiveness. 🙂

    • Thank you, Debby. I imagine this would have been much harder if it had been my biological mother as it was for you. I’ve known Virginia a long time, but she didn’t have access to every little girl vulnerability. My mother was distant and not interested in mothering after my dad died, but she wasn’t mean-spirited or critical.

      Two years ago, Virginia was warming to me about the time my book came out. She was proud of the book and had a health aide read ‘Leaning into Love’ to her out loud, every page, over a period of weeks. Her vision loss made reading it herself impossible. After the one and only sex scene, the aide said she had been embarrassed to read anything about sex to Vic’s mother. Virginia told the aide, “I’m glad they had a good time.” We never know. We’re such a mix of light and dark–and Virginia has a very funny side which I appreciate more and more.

      • hahah that is so adorable. She’s glad you had a good time! She looks rather indomitable but we know she isn’t. You are an angel for doing so much and will have no regrets, there is the light and your sons. Seeing the kindness.

        My mother lived a month shy of 100, and she was feisty almost to the end. I think the strongest ones are just that by their willfulnesss to do things their way. But it’s their strength and they are trying so hard.

        It was frustrating when I would want to help
        my mother but whenever she needed me, we were close beyond measure. And that is the black pearl beneath the sea dragon’s jaw. Namaste, you are a blessing. Your life is a blessing.

        And you get cranky just like the rest of us because of all your care-taking in all those areas. Glad you have Willow and trails to walk and beauty to inhale in the midst of all this.

        • I wanted to mention that as my mom got older she got softer and often went into a sweet surrender of gratitude.

          If Death is our greatest teacher then we have some valuable lessons to accept.

          Most of us play super-woman and wonder why we feel a longing . . . my understanding of life is that longing is for connection with our higher selves, closely followed by a feeling of connection with Source. And this why I fund a daily practice of writing and then meditation essential to trying to keep connected.

          Hope this is not too spiritual a post for this group but I know if I don’t speak my truth, then it is of no use to anyone but me.

          • Virginia softened a lot and so did I. She’s even grateful sometimes. I agree with you about longing, Sarah. Virginia spent a life longing for things she couldn’t have–a sad way to live. She was astoundingly unreflective and reacted from the first emotion that arose, but could also be generous and very funny.

            My daily practices of writing and meditation keep me going. Speak away, Sarah. I’m glad to know what you think and how you manage these hard things. Thank you.

        • Thanks for taking time to comment, Sarah. Yup, Virginia liked the sex scene. I repeat I’m not angel, but I am persistent at not wanting to carry around anger and bitterness toward her. I had to resolve that and it took a long time. Meanwhile, I feel responsible to see her to the end. Virginia has two living sisters, one 98 and one 93. They’re a feisty crew, each housebound in her own world, cared for by a son or daughter-in-law and none in nursing homes. I don’t think I’ll ever be close to Virginia the way I was with my own mother. As my mom sank into Alzheimers, I could climb in bed with her and hold her. Virginia isn’t the snuggling sort. I get tired and she takes more energy than ever right now because I’m beginning to see that she might run out of money before she dies. I have to figure out how to deal with that. It will all unfold and have little to do with my expectations. And unless she outlasts me, I’ll be there.

  4. Dearest Elaine,
    I’ve followed your posts about your grief before and after Vic’s death, about your attempts to cope with that, and I’ve read your wonderful book. You are a superb writer. But in this latest post about Virginia, whom I met once, I’m so very impressed by your understanding of her feelings, by your forgiveness of her feelings, but most of all I’m impressed by your honesty about your own feelings. It’s easy to gloss over difficulties, describe them in a better light, but you have not done that here. You are clear-eyed and honest, and that is rare. And you seem to well understand the Dalai Lama’s advice.

    • Thanks so much, Jeanne. It makes me happy to know you read here since we were so close when you lived nearby. Still friends of the heart. I said to Vic many times as he and I wrestled with our mutual resentments about his mom that, if I can ever forgive her, I’ll know I was getting somewhere spiritually. I guess I’ve done that. The Dalai Lama’s advice is often practical. Also Pema Chodron and her advice, “Don’t bite the hook.” I bit a thousand times.

  5. Elaine, it’s wonderful knowing that your relationship with Virginia has come full circle. iI now how difficult it has been and that you have stuck doggedly with it. You’ve certainly passed the 50 year long test! The Dalai Lama would be proud of you!
    Sending love…

    • Hi Peggy. Thank you for reading and for listening to my Virginia laments over the years. She’s back in her apartment enjoying the visiting nurse, aides, and physical therapists. Anthony and I visited this week. The next day I saw her again. She’d forgotten Anthony’s visit, but I reminded her and told her how much she enjoyed him. She doesn’t get defensive about short-term memory loss but is cheered when I tell her stories of nice things in her life–either something recent forgotten or something distant remembered.
      (I send you emails in Ireland, but they bounce back. Do you get any of them? I’m thinking of you and how happy you would have been to miss the first blizzard a few days ago.)

  6. Virginia has raged against the dying of the night long before her death, and she doesn’t seem to “go gently” though she has finally mellowed out. Bless you for pushing through the ambivalence to recognize her as a hurting soul. After all, she is the mother of your one true love.

    I don’t feel resentment from the family member who depends on me. (Picture a bird with an open beak.) He has mental limitations and so has needed me to set up a special needs trust fund – and before that help with various legal entanglements, bankruptcy and foreclosure to name a few. As trustee, I have thick files in a cabinet close by my writing desk that store the history of the past seven years: applications, bank statements, and so on.

    Like you, I chafe at being the caretaker, but I know Mother would want be to carry on with the next task of finding him a suitable place to live. Soon the home he has been living in will be sold.

    There are lessons for me to learn, including the fine art of bearing “one another’s burdens.”
    And forbearance – that too!

    Happy Thanksgiving, Elaine. I admire you for speaking your heart here. So many of us can relate.

    • Smiling, Marian. Virginia scared Death away. How else can we account for her vigor and good health? Or it’s the daily glass of Carlo Rossi Burgundy over ice. I cringe thinking of the taste, but it’s Virginia’s preference, so I buy it for her by the jug. The health aides know how to serve it just like she wants.

      I have some sense of how much you’ve done as a caretaker–and the endless talks with lawyers and bankers and helpers. I bow to you as you honor your mother and yourself. It sounds like you have more arrangements coming soon. Virginia’s care has been possible in an independent senior residence because I selected this place for her 9 years ago. It only took her two weeks to decide she loved it rather than hating it. It also depended on finding caregivers, so that was a mix of opportunity at her residence where many people need helpers but also good fortune. We’ve been lucky with Tinker.

      Thanksgiving feels important this year–and I hope we don’t get an ice storm. It probably won’t happen at lower elevations, but freezing rain is in the forecast for my hill tonight–changing to rain by 9 am. I hope the ice will melt so my friends can get here.

  7. This so reminds me if my mother who not only cared for the selfish mother who abandoned her, but who also took care of my fathers mother who was not nice, judgemental and not a very loving mother to my father.
    She was working full time, made meals, delivered them, drove them to doctors appointments, bathed them, clothed them and paid their bills.
    When my mom and dad were young, my dad worked the family farm and gave up a college education at Cornell so the family could afford to build a new barn. He invested in equipment and livestock. When his parents sold the farm and went to collect his share he was told there was no money left . My mother resented that so much as my father did most if the work because my grandfather was a drinker. I know for a fact she never got past that. However she and my dad cared for them till they died.
    I’m not so sure I would have been as accommodating.
    I told mom once that she and dad certainly followed the commandment ” Honor thy mother and father”

    • Oh, Marcia. What a hard experience. Your mother is more self-sacrificing than I can imagine. I took Virginia soup when I made it and vegetables from the garden when she still cooked, but now I buy groceries (with her money) and the health aides do the rest. I haven’t changed one Depends. About three years ago, I threatened to turn her case over to Adult Protection and let them make decisions because she needed help to stay in the residence where she lives (and to not cause a fire). I hired helpers and she made them leave. There was a last skirmish, but I won the war. Maybe my dog won for me, because Virginia loves having two afternoons a week with Willow while I run errands for her and for myself. The day-to-day care is done by health aides which means I communicate with them often, but I’m not in the trenches like your mom was. I would have exploded. My husband was a scholarship kid (as was I). His mom didn’t have money to send him to college, but he didn’t need her money. She wanted him to stay with her but at the same time was very proud to have a son at Dartmouth. He couldn’t wait to leave.

      So, I will care for her in the way I do which is careful but not too close. If things get harder, I have help from the social worker at her residence. For me, there has to be some balance between her needs and my life, especially considering the history.

  8. Wow, Elaine — you are one tough woman! If that had been I meeting Virginia for the first time, I’m not sure I would have signed on for the whole package… What a story, a love story, albeit a most unusual one. I have the utmost respect for anyone who is in the role of coordinating and/or providing care for a family member; it mixes so many kinds of roles and emotions, and it is neither simple nor easy. As I read the comments, I wondered — do the words matter? Does it re-frame it to see yourself as a “caregiver” rather than a “caretaker?” You offer yourself — your time, your skills, your patience, your sometimes reluctant heart — and it is all your “gift,” to her, to Vic, and even to yourself. I wish you a wonderful Thanksgiving, Elaine.

    • I was in love. We lived in Ithaca and she was in Connecticut. After we saw the lay of the land, we kept a distance. She had little influence except in Vic’s psyche. Good think he loved inner work because he had plenty to excavation to do. Vic laid down the law with her when forced, but he preferred staying out of the line of fire. That worked for me. She erupted when she didn’t get her way, but it was rarely as unhinged as that first meeting or when she learned her only kid had incurable cancer. I had to consider her family tradition. She and her Italian sisters (two still living) went after each other in the nastiest way and after a short cooling period, they were friends again. It wasn’t my style or Vic’s.

      I’m careless with words caregiver and caretaker. The distinction you make is important and I’ll adopt caregiver and leave the taker behind. I give a gift–and I take nothing from her in any way except stories.

      I wish you a peaceful and loving Thanksgiving, Paula. I know you’re grinding it out with elderly parents, too.

  9. “Depends on me and resents me.” Oh that sounds so much like my daughter who died. I was not Marika’s favorite person. And she was stuck with me, in and out of hospitals for almost 3 years, just when she was so desperate to be free of me. I loved her so much that I didn’t let her stinging remarks bother me. It didn’t matter that she was disrespectful and mean at times. I wanted so much for her to be happy, for her life to be perfect. I treated her like a princess. And looking back, I’m glad I did. Everyone should experience being loved unconditionally and terrifically like that.

    • I’m sure you treated Marika like a princess, and I’m so glad you did. I treated Vic like a prince. If it was in my power to give him what he wanted, I would do it.

      Virginia was named Regina as an infant and always by her mother, but in school, the Irish nuns decided she needed an American name (some things have changed!). They changed her name to Virginia. All her legal papers say Virginia, but I know her true inner name is “The Queen.” When she’s surrounded by health aides and nurses and Willow and me, all catering to her, she takes her regal position. Once she surrendered to needing help, she enjoyed being the center of everyone’s attention. Blessed Thanksgiving, Robin.

  10. Your enduring support, Elaine, speaks to your compassionate characteristics. “When others go low, you go high”. Should we all be as emotionally intelligent our world would be a much better place. In these stories, you teach all of us. Thank you.

    • Thank you, Norma. The driving force behind my persistence was the discomfort I felt about being angry and resentful in response. I thought about her and our edgy interactions way too much and felt uncomfortable with the bitterness I felt toward her. I was hooked in the complex and part of the field. By 1970, I knew too much Jung to pretend this was only about her. Taking her as a teacher seemed the best I could do. Among other things, she taught me how to approach my son’s lovers–with kid gloves and polite interest in their lives. I swore I would get along with anyone they brought home and I’ve done that. Fortunately, they both have wonderful partners. Thanks so much for taking the time to make a comment, Norma. I appreciate it so much.

  11. This is beautiful, Elaine. I admire not only your perseverance, but your honesty. Love comes in many forms. Yours is not sentimental, but it is true blue. Thanksgiving weekend blessings to you and yours, Jenna

    • Sentimental love is my favorite, but that’s not what Virginia and I share. Interesting that her only child was so different. She said over and over to him, “I don’t know where you came from”–meaning she had no idea who he was and why his values were so different from hers. He looked just like her and had a strong work ethic he’d learned from her as a child. In most ways, they were world’s apart. I stayed to take care of her because she stayed with him and defended him as a child. Families are complicated, aren’t they?

  12. Beautiful post, Elaine ~ inspirational. Holding resentment in our hearts does not serve and only prevents our growing. I’ve shared this across my pages, hoping to reach some in need of the lesson so beautifully portrayed here. Thank you xx

    • Thank you, Tina. I agree about not holding resentment in our hearts, but sometimes easier to know this than to do this. It took many years for me to stop reacting and cherishing my irritation. Thank you for sharing this piece. We all have people to forgive and people we hope will forgive us.

  13. You’re a wonderful person, Elaine. If I’d been treated that way, I’m not sure I could be the daughter-in-law you’ve been to Virginia. But I’m glad you’ve cared for her, and I do believe in karma.

    • Thank you, Mary. Like everyone, I’m a mix of positive and negative. My virtue with Virginia was a stubborn hope that I wouldn’t die carrying a bag of anger toward this woman I’d known for half a century. Now, I can see her to the end, but despite being almost 101, she doesn’t look like she’s going anywhere right away.

  14. Thanks Elaine, a very powerful post. Forgiveness takes time is the lesson I’m learning from this. Perhaps also that the person who makes cutting stinging unfair horrible remarks comes from a certain ‘place’ we cannot know or comprehend, and while this doesn’t diminish the pain of the receiver, it makes our bearing up or bearing down that little bit more bearable .. and a task that we have to fulfil irrespective –

    the comments are so valuable as is your response to them thank you again.

    • You’re right, Susan. I’ve never dealt with the death of my only child. Or had a sense that it’s my right to judge my sons or their partners. The pain of Vic moving away from home when he went to college (1959) and the pain of his death were too much for her. The only tool she had was defensive rage. I had many resources, but she refused all help, including hospice bereavement support and the priest and nun at her church. I can’t imagine her experience.

      The comments are valuable to me, too. Thanks for being part of the conversation.

  15. And so the saga of Virginia continues on. I too admire the fact that you did not abandon your mother-in-law even though she was cruel and hard to deal with. It will be interesting to see the impact of her life on yours after she leaves this world. She will be your teacher for a long time. I’m glad you can see her in this light. It helps me greatly to find a way to learn in situations I don’t control completely or even a little.

    Continuing strength for the journey, Elaine.

    • Thank you, Shirley. One of the benefits of experiential psychological work in the 1960s was knowing that if someone hooked me and I nursed my resentment or pain or whatever the reaction was, it was about me as well as that person. So, from the beginning, I’ve known Virginia was my teacher. It took a long to learn what I was being taught even if I had a theoretical understanding. (Aphrodite’s behavior toward Psyche helped me get it, too.) As long as I’m full of reactivity and inner churning, then the difficulty is mine as well as the other person’s. Then there were those easier times after my sons were born. Since writing this piece, I found two photos from over thirty years ago. In one, Virginia has her arm across my shoulders and smiles at me like we’re buddies. I look up at her with tired eyes and a resigned smile. She was quick to anger and quick to move on and forget everything said. I fumed and stewed. We still have some miles to cover.

  16. My oh my oh my, Elaine. It is the reactivity that is hard, and that poisons us. Boy do I know this. No matter how hard I try to follow the Dalai Lama’s advice, I often fail. Miserably. Repeatedly. And I know how much I wish not to be resentful of those who have carped and criticized and beaten me down. Especially when they are kin. In my case, blood kin. Who actually do love me and mine, but have so much baggage attached to that love that it is a very heavy load to carry. I think more than death itself I fear carrying that resentment through life, and having my attitude infect my children. I am glad to see it is possible to come as far as you have. There may be hope for me yet. 😉

    • Oh my, Paula. You know plenty about this world of love with privileges to pound on each other. I think it would have been harder if this had been my own mother who had her own neurotic qualities and expectations, but she was mannerly and admired me. It’s a miracle that I no longer resent Vic’s mom. I don’t think all my psychological work did much to change the situation. I don’t have any magic formulas except to wait until age and infirmity wear us all down. Not cheery, but I’d rather deal with her grief and fear than her defense system. When she’s a lost little girl, I feel for her.

  17. What a history; I can’t imagine those early years. And who would have ever thought you would be the one Virginia would depend on for her care. She is very fortunate and you are a woman with a beautiful heart. You’re right – forgiveness is a miracle, and sometimes it takes decades. It’s a shame she lost out on all those years that she could have (and should have) enjoyed with you and Vic. It’s sad that she put you both through hell at what was otherwise such a joyous time in your lives. At the end of the day, you’ll always be able to lay your head on the pillow at night knowing you stuck by her when she needed you, regardless of everything.

    • Thanks, Ann. I needed that. As Virginia fails, more is asked of me. But I must say she’s become so sweet and loving. I think it was always there under her defenses and hurt. Yesterday she said to me it’s “time for me to leave.” I said, “Virginia, we’re not in charge of that, so we’ll try to make you happy while you stay.” We’ll see what happens next.

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