Grief is a sacred journey

Forgiveness Revisited: Resolving Old Resentments

with Virginia, July 2017

My son’s partner Jenna had a dream last month. In her dream,

My mother-in-law Virginia is dead. Jenna wipes Virginia’s face with a warm wet cloth and Virginia’s eyes pop open. Alive! Jenna is upset because Virginia is old and suffering, but mostly she’s upset for me, Virginia’s exhausted caregiver. A powerful dream voice says, “Sometimes they come back for Resolve. She is waiting for Resolve.” My son Anthony says, “My mom has to tell her what she did wrong.”

Jenna and I discussed her dream and the idea of resolve: a resolution, clearing the air and making things right, resolving to do something that’s been neglected. The best clue came from the Latin root of resolve which is solv” or “loosen.” A destructive old pattern needed to be loosened and dissolved.

Jenna and Anthony, Hector Falls

“Did you ever tell Virginia how much she hurt you?” Jenna asked. “Did you talk to her about it?”

“I tried, but it never worked,” I said. “She always lost her temper, so I defended myself by keeping a distance. Your dream tells me I need to say more.”

I pondered the word “Resolve” and decided to have a conversation with Virginia while it was still possible. Mentioning old wounds felt uncomfortable, but the dream advised that I tell Virginia what hurt me and make sure she knew she was forgiven. I trusted I could be tenderly truthful about the pain she inflicted when her son Vic introduced us in 1967. Also when she blamed me for his death.

I would skip the hundreds of other times she unleashed anger on me, but stick with the two hardest moments in our fifty-year relationship. Her short-term memory was too porous for more. But her feelings? She still had plenty of feelings. I waited until we were alone one afternoon.

Vic with his mom, ~1944

“Virginia, I need to tell you something.” I sat knee to knee with her and looked in her eyes. “You hurt me when Vic brought me home to meet you when I was 21. You screamed at me and rejected me. You called me a whore.”

“I didn’t like you,” she said, looking away. “I couldn’t even talk about you.” I guessed she meant Vic wouldn’t let her criticize me. She paused and considered. “You didn’t like me either,” she said with a flip of her Italian fingers and a roll of the eye.

“Virginia, it’s true. I didn’t like the way you treated me. It’s up to the older woman to welcome the young ones into the family. I needed you to be kind and welcome me.”

The Matriarch Virginia, ~1990

Her mouth quivered. “I’m sorry,” she said, looking in my eyes. One tear rolled down her cheek.

“I forgive you,” I said. “I want to make sure you know I forgive you.” I paused to let this soak in before I went on.

“You were mean to me when Vic died,” I said, knowing I was walking on explosives. I had to be truthful for my sake as much as hers. Just this once.

“He died? What happened?” His death is always news to her now, although she was clear and angry about his death until she was 100. Things have changed the last year. She rarely mentions Vic anymore, but when she asks, I usually say he’s traveling. This time, I needed to be honest.

“He died nine years ago, Virginia. You blamed me for his death even though I’d cared for him and loved him. You blamed me even though I took care of you. I know you loved him more than anything, so I didn’t leave, Virginia. I stayed. I’m still here taking care of you.” Another tear slid down her cheek.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. I reached out and held her hand.

“I want to give you something,” she said, feeling around her chair for a purse she hasn’t had for years.

“Virginia, this isn’t about money,” I said. “It’s about forgiveness.” But at 101, she’s still all Italian. Suddenly, we were funny characters in a Fellini movie. She rubbed her fingers together to indicate paper bills between them and felt around her for that long-gone purse.

“I want to give you some money. Let me give you some money.” (To understand this, you have to know that the day Vic died, her first words to me were, “I want to go to a lawyer and take you out of my will.” I helped her see her lawyer and make it happen.)

Uneasy truce with Virginia, ~1995

“I take care of your money now,” I said. “It’s safe with me.”

“Thank you, but please give yourself some money,” she said with wet begging eyes. It was the only way she knew to apologize.

“OK, Virginia. You win. What do you want me to do with your gift?” I asked.

She didn’t skip a beat.

“Please take my son out to dinner,” she said. “Take Vic to a nice restaurant.” I paused and smiled, realizing it had taken two minutes for her to forget her only child died.

“OK,” I told her. “I’ll take Vic out to dinner if you remember everything is OK between you and me.”

She reached out to hug me. When I leaned toward her, she planted a wet kiss on my cheek.

***

The man we both love

Since our conversation, Virginia has broken three ribs, had more infections, and is more confused. She’s still in her apartment with a team of health aides, our angels who help me keep her out of a nursing home. Every time I’m with her, I remind her that we’re OK and we love each other. She nods her head, understanding at least for that moment.

Do you have difficult conversations you’ve avoided? What do you need to resolve? To read about the first time I met Virginia, see My Lover’s Mama and the Negative Mother Archetype. For one of many articles I’ve written about wrestling with my resentment toward Virginia, see When Forgiveness Requires Patience.

34 Comments
  1. Jenna’s dream is fascinating on a number of levels. And what you did was amazing. Hard, of course. Sometimes we have to create the situations that enable other people to make amends to us. I’m thankful you took the step.

    • It was a fascinating dream, Mark. Discussing the dream with Jenna helped me figure out what to do to clear up unfinished business while I could. It’s challenging to bring up difficult events from the past with someone whose memory has slipped, but in talking about the things that happened 50 years ago, Virginia was entirely clear. Conflict and resolving conflict was a common thing for her. I used to cringe at what she said to her sisters. Then they wouldn’t speak a while. Then they talked it out and let it go. In 1967, she wouldn’t have found anyone acceptable for her Golden Boy, except maybe Princess Di. In 2008 when Vic died, anger at God and me seemed to be the her only choice.

  2. Elaine,
    How beautifully written. I could feel and see Virginia’s tears and the two of you touching knees and you spoke your truth. I could not help but think that you are giving to Jenna what Virginia should have given to you when you were young. Jenna is lucky. Thank you for sharing.

    • Thank you, Debra. After that conversation, Virginia seemed to be going downhill, but yesterday she popped back again. She has amazing vitality and is glad to agree that we’re OK now and all is forgiven. She’s forgotten our conversation, even though I haven’t. Jenna is lovely and easy, but I always vowed to love and be kind to anyone my sons brought home. It was the least I could do.

  3. I have to sit with this because as I read tears flowed….from many places within. It is so honest. As usual, your words touch my soul. Thank you, Mary

    • Thank you, Mary. It was a touching moment and writing about it cemented the importance of the conversation. Virginia is remarkably vital some days and able to express strong emotions. It’s only with the softening of memory loss that we could talk about hard issues without big walls of defense. I’m glad I took the chance.

  4. Wow, such a powerful story Elaine. Surely, you could write a book about your relationship with Virginia – angst, hurt, love and forgiveness, so much material. I know Vic is shining down on your from heaven. You’re a saint to have endured all that you have. 🙂

    • I don’t feel a bit saintly, Debby. Staying in the first place was the closest to saintly, but I nursed my resentments for a long time and complained about her a lot. There were also quite a few incidents after Vic died when she yelled and blamed. Many times I told her she couldn’t do that, walked out of her apartment with my dog Willow, and made her make the next move. A few weeks later, she would call and tell me she missed Willow. I told her Willow came with me attached, so if she wanted to be with the dog, she had to stop yelling at me. It’s only in the last two years that she wanted to make peace. I’m glad we had time to clear the air.

      • I understand that Elaine. You’ve endured plenty from her, yet you were resolved to stay despite a few exits. And from all I’ve read about her through the years, I’m calling that act saintly. <3

        • My halo is a little tarnished and, fortunately, it isn’t required any more. But there’s always more with Virginia. We’ll run out of money in a year or less. Medicaid will pick up her care then if I move her to a nursing home, but I’m trying to avoid that. We’ll see how it all works out.

  5. Like a character in an Edward Albee play, you prove you’re not afraid of this Virginia. What bold actions have brought you to this place, Elaine. Your magnanimous spirit is amazing!

    Regardless of your true feelings, you have expressed patient love and unfathomable forgiveness toward this difficult woman. But it has taken a physical and emotional toll. I’m relieved that Jenna has come alongside to help bear the burden. My take: Anthony has found a gem in this kindred spirit.

    • This conversation felt bold, Marian. That’s the right word. As always in human interaction, I wasn’t sure how she’d react or where this would go, so was prepared to back away if she got upset. I knew I’d forgiven her, but Jenna’s dream made it important to tell her so. I fully agree about Jenna.

  6. Oh Elaine. Such a brave lady you are. I admire your determination and your courage. I hope this conversation with your mother-in-law brings you peace. You certainly have earned it. Blessings to you, dear one. ♥

    • Thank you, Marty. I like ending every interaction with Virginia with a reminder that all is forgiven between us. That makes her happy and me, too. Yesterday at her apartment, while working out some scheduling and food issues with her health aides, I said, “My only goal here is to take good care of Virginia.” From the other side of the room, she said, “Thank you, Elaine.” I was amazed that she was paying attention to what we were saying and caught the main point. Even though she’s almost blind, her hearing is obviously fine–much better than mine.

  7. Crying my eyes out. You’re beautiful Elaine.
    Love you, Jhenna

  8. You are gift Elaine. What a remarkable Resolve, for you, for her and all those that have the negative mother archetype. Thank you Elaine.

    • Thank you, Janice. Isn’t it the best when a dream makes a resolution clear? I’m not sure I’ve ever been given guidance through someone else’s dream before, but Jenna knows Virginia and spent a few days caring for her. She also knows my side of the situation well and is a power dreamer.

  9. Elaine, I applaud your courage and your compassion. I had to have a difficult conversation with one of my sisters a few years back, and I’m so glad I did. We are very close now.

    • Those conversations are hard, but if we can have them without anger and defensiveness, they heal everyone involved. It took me this long to make sure I didn’t have traces of anger left. After Jenna’s dream, it felt like the right time. Thanks for your comment, Lynne. I appreciate your perspective.

  10. What a gift to you in this to have Jenna, to whom you are in the same position as Virginia has been to you, but clearly you have chosen such a different way of being. And what wonderful fruit from that rich relationship.

    • Yes, Jenna is a gift in many ways. I was determined that I would love whoever my son’s loved and welcome them to the family. Virginia was a good teacher in this way. Fortunately, there was no test or awkward stretch with Liz (my older son’s wife) and Jenna. I loved both of them immediately.

  11. What a special conversation….hugs to you dear one…time for new beginnings

    • Thanks, Alicia. I feel like I’ve done all I can to clean up old anger (and karma). I’m amazed there has been resolution for us after many hard years.

  12. I so admire your courage in confronting and forgiving and for not running away, Elaine. I will remember this story.

    What love you have for Vic to be willing to endure his mother’s tortured love for him, and now, finally for you.

    May you feel the resolve you have given as a gift, and may you be flooded with love both from your dear sons and their loved ones and by some sign from Vic that leaves a lasting presence in your soul.

    • Thank you, Shirley. I wonder where you are in this world right now. You’re traveling in a few ways.

      Many people for so many years asked me why I didn’t walk away from Virginia. I couldn’t because the anger had become part of me and I was so reactive to her jabs. In Jungian terms, my shadow was activated and angry, too. I needed to forgive, understand my own defensiveness, and clear out the inner mess. That feels done now. Today, my son Anthony and Jenna (the dreamer) are doing my Friday chores for Virginia–taking in paychecks for health aides, visiting and checking in, and doing the shopping). Vic always feels close in my world and heart. He would be proud and glad that I turned our loss into a new life.

  13. You are a brave woman. I am in awe of your honesty and ability to confront such a painful situation. Thank you for sharing.

    • Thank you for your kind generous comment, Gail. I’m amazed that the difficulties of elder frailty and short-term memory loss also make Virginia less aggressive and more able to express affection. She tells me she loves me all the time now. That began about a year ago. Something similar happened to my mom when she had Alzheimer’s, but still knew me and a few things about herself. In that case, it wasn’t about anger, but about shared pain over my dad’s death when I was 14. She wouldn’t speak about him until then and it was healing to finally say that we both had suffered from the silence. That conversation had also waited 50 years.

  14. Money? No, I don’t think so. Just take Vic to dinner, one to remember. Choose a significant date. Repeat annually. That will be enough. Splendid idea, Virginia! You will happily not be present at a major celebration created just for the loving couple, Vic & Elaine. THAT will be the forgiveness needed & accepted.

    • I’m smiling, Rea. Thanks for your comment. I didn’t think I’d actually have such a dinner out since Vic and I didn’t love restaurants. I still don’t. So dinner on the back porch, maybe with dry red wine. I also don’t want to use her money. You can imagine how much it costs to have 24 hour health aides and we’re in danger of running out of funds in a year. A year is a long time when someone is 101, but Hospice just did an evaluation and denied services. She has a good appetite (for pasta and waffles), no weight loss, and no terminal diseases. The cracked ribs will heal if she doesn’t fall again. As always, there’s no way of knowing will life will bring us next. For me, forgiveness happened and apologies accepted.

  15. Re-solve – that word has stuck with me on re-reading this Elaine. There’re often problems and/or challenges in our lives especially where family relationships are concerned, that need to be ‘solved’, re-solved and dissolved. How wonderfully synchronistic that Jenna had this dream, asked you the question which you then acted upon. Thank you for sharing this.

    • That word caught me, too, Susan. It could go in lots of ways, but I especially liked the Latin root of loosening. Families bring the best and worst out of us. We can look shiny to the world, but our family sees the whole picture, along with their projections. Jenna and I have a synchronistic bond for sure. Thanks so much for your comment and loving support.

  16. Whoa, Elaine. This is you at your finest, most sensitive, most loving, most giving. You certainly don’t go for the easy ways out. There’s nothing easy when it comes to communicating with Virginia. And trying to reach a resolution and promote peace for everyone in the situation – well, that’s ambitious. Thank you for showing me that this difficult path can work.

    • It can work, Robin, but it depends on the other person’s willingness. As Virginia grew more frail and dependent, she lost her combative edge and her desire to blame me for her situation. I don’t think peace could have happened without this change in her. With my own mother, it took early stage Alzheimer’s for her to talk about the grief of 40 years before when my father died. Until then, she was a wall of defenses. Patience required.

Leave a Reply