Learning to Forgive

Virginia with her grandsons 2013

Virginia with her grandsons 2013

Where is my Victor?” my mother-in-law asks.

“He died, Virginia,” I tell her quietly.

Her face scrunches into a grimace. She throws her head back to the right as if to shake something off.  An insect? A cobweb?  A feeling? Her emotion disappears as quickly as it came.

“How did he die?” she asks.

“He had cancer, Virginia.”

“Cancer,” she mutters as she brushes that word away with her right hand.

Then she tosses a treat to my dog Willow, the member of the family who never disappoints her. Although she’s 99, she was mentally keen until the last year. I’m surprised she’s forgotten her only child is dead, but her memory lapse is temporary. She shakes her head side to side in disbelief. I understand. I’m still a little surprised he’s dead although it’s been nearly seven years.

Virginia with Willow

Virginia with Willow

A moment of grief

A moment of grief










Vic warned me about his mom’s bluntness. First time I met her in 1967, she said my long hair needed a cut and I was too chubby. Ouch. I was twenty-two and tender. I loved Vic and wanted to get along with his mom. She saw me as a hippie and the wrong woman for her son. No one would have been right. Vic was her miracle child, born of a brief marriage, the sacred remains of her union with an abandoning alcoholic cad.

Virgina & Vic ~1948

Virgina & Vic ~1948

“You’re right up there next to Jesus,” I told Vic with a laugh.

He wasn’t saintly, but he’d moved a great distance from his mom’s eighth grade education and the housing project.

“I don’t understand my son,” she complained, but she loved him fiercely. When I finally pleased her by making her a grandma, she loved her grandsons with that same Italian passion.

In 2006, Vic told his mom he had incurable cancer. She insisted he would be fine and didn’t want to hear about the gravity of the situation.

with baby David 1970

with baby David 1970

“We have to move her to Ithaca,” I told Vic. “I can’t watch out for her if she’s in Florida.” Vic didn’t ask me to take care of his mom, but she couldn’t see well enough to drive and any friends who hadn’t died had moved north. I couldn’t abandon her.

She reluctantly agreed to move, but when Vic and I flew to Florida to help pack up her condo, we ran into Tropical Storm Virginia.

“Virginia, these clothes are thirty years old and much too large for you. Let’s give them to Goodwill.”

David, Anthony, Elaine, and Virginia ~1977

David, Anthony, Elaine, and Virginia ~1977

“You want to take everything from me,” she screamed. “I’m keeping my white slacks and my high heels. Don’t you dare give away my lawn chairs and plastic flowers.”

Within a month of moving to an adult independent living apartment in Ithaca, she volunteered at the library, the food bank, and the hospital. She was feisty, demanding, and almost happy, until Vic’s cancer returned.

She clung to denial until his death. Then she was furious about being left with me. How could God have betrayed her in this way?

When she repeatedly blamed me for Vic’s death, I defended myself with facts. When that failed, I walked out of her apartment, usually before I lost my temper. Sometimes I joined her in a few rounds of blame and always regretted it. After I refused to leave Willow with her, she stopped yelling which said more about her desire for Willow’s company than a softening toward me.

Virginia ~1995

Virginia ~1995

As her energy and memory weaken, bitterness and rage yield to the grief she defended against for years. She’s frail and forgetful, nearly blind and immobilized. Now that I don’t have to protect myself from her darts, I can admire and even enjoy her.

After nearly 50 years, I’m grateful for peace. I feel for this feisty woman who lost her only child and her independence. She knows she can’t live without help from me and the health aids I’ve hired—and she’s forgotten how she hated me for insisting she have help. I wonder if she’s forgotten why I was such a disappointment half her life ago.

When she wakes up in the morning, she tells her morning helper that Vic was just there in her bed. I’m glad she has this comfort. I wonder if she imagines him as a child or a man. I wonder what this says about her closeness to death.


Do you have family members who push your buttons and teach you about your limitations? For other blogs about my struggles to transform this thorny relationship, see Mother-in-Law Blues: Lessons in “Don’t Bite the Hook” and The Wounds We Carry.


    • It only took 50 years, Marty. I’m just too impatient. She and I had a lovely interaction to day and I’ll buy her lilies for Easter.

    • Thank you, Dear Elaine. It’s is alway illuminating to read your posts. I am in deep waters with my family and especially my mom. We moved her here this past September. It’s been up and down and everything in-between. Your post helps me remember to not take everything so personally…and to understand my limits with kindness. much love.

      • Oh dear, Jayne. It’s odd to defend oneself against our elders, but I had to set limits. It was hard to find the line between compassion and self-protection because the accusations were so hurtful and persistent. Sometimes it felt like child-rearing or dog training, I’m sorry to say. Sit. Wait. No growling. Then a treat for good behavior. When my reactivity and aversion became so strong I wanted to run, I had to enforce limits. I think the main change was her growing realization that she needed help and couldn’t manage without me, so maybe it was waiting it out on my part more than any action I took.

    • Beautiful and honest, dear Elaine. We are gifted with people in our lives who test our boundaries and our hearts. Your heart is big enough to triumph over judgment and a vision long enough to know it will change. I’m grateful for BF when I think of you.

      • Help me by translating BF, Therese.
        Thank you for your kind words. Since I began studying Jung in 1970, I knew there was a big fat shadow projection happening, but it was a hard one to work through, partly because I was the only one who wanted to change the power struggle to something mellower. I knew it was important to heal this relationship although I never knew how. My intention must have counted for something along with the everyday miracles of life.

  1. Forgiveness – a lovely theme for this season of resurrection and renewal. Thanks, Elaine!

    • Thanks for saying that, Marian. You’re right and I hadn’t thought of it. Our situation began to soften as she became more fragile physically and mentally. I’m glad she’s able to live in her own apartment with the help of health care aids and me.

  2. Beautiful and deeply moving. Another love note from Elaine! Thank you.

  3. I don’t have any words, just a stabbing in my heart for both of you.

    • We had a rough ride for many years. I’m grateful I stuck it out and we came to place of peace. Thanks for your comment, Susan.

  4. Hi Elaine,

    What a nice tribute to Virginia. Though you don’t spare her flaws, she is who she is, tough, strong, and loving. Also, it is wonderful that you chose to stand by her.

    I believe the date in the photo of your two boys at the falls is off by a decade or more!



    • Myra, you are my number one best editor. I was off by 20 years and you caught it. Thank you. It’s corrected.
      Virginia has flaws. So do I. She had a hard life, one I can’t imagine. She took care of herself and Vic despite no help and few advantages.
      Thanks again,

    • Hahahaha! We all have our flaws–I guess that’s why forgiveness is so very important.

      I forgot to mention how beautiful Virginia also appears in the photos. Even in the recent ones, a loveliness shines through.


      • Yes, Virginia is beautiful and wears her age well and naturally. She’s one hell of a teacher. I pray that with the help of health aids she can stay where she is in her own apartment. Our truce would likely dissove if she had to move to a nursing home.

  5. Thank you for this powerful piece Elaine, it got me right in the heart. Maybe she is preparing for her own death and ‘seeing’ Vic again, now, letting him know she’ll be there soon. Who knows.
    A blessed Easter to you and family, Virginia too.

    • She often says she should have died instead of her son. She would have taken his place willingly. Now she doesn’t speak of her own death. We have medical proxy forms (I’m it), power of attorney (me), and a living will with no DNR, so I’m glad she was willing to get those papers in order when she moved here in 2007. She fades in and out with memory. I’ll take lilies for Easter. I think she’ll have dinner at her residence because they cook a feast with ham and other food she loves whereas I’m a vegetarian. I’ll figure it out on Friday. Thank you for the blessings, Susan, and I return them to you. And a blessed spring, too.

  6. Probably everybody has people like Virginia in their lives. Your story might prove to be an example for many. Thanks for posting, Elaine!

    • I think so, Ann Marie. Jung calls this the shadow–a same sex person who pushes your buttons over and over while you feel stuck in an unconscious complex. Perseverance is the only thing I know for sure. Be safe in storms.

  7. It’s likely her abrasion toward you kept her from facing many fears she had about life and herself. She must be a wonderful person, because Willow thinks so! Beautifully written, Elaine.

    • Willow loves Virginia and the constant stream of scratches, soft words, and dog cookies. Willow knows her friends. Yes, it was easier to be mad at me and God than face her own grief and regret. Thank you, Karal.

  8. Forgiveness is a subject I struggled with for many years with my own mother. Vic’s mom’s antics seem similar, yet much milder from my own mother’s. You are a beautiful soul Elaine and I’m sure somewhere in her dark bitterness, Virginia knows how grateful she is to have you.
    On another note, you said she said she feels Vic in her bed in the morning. My last aunt is on her way to the next world and I have noticed that as the days go by she likes to talk a lot about her lost loved ones; says she’s seen some of them, etc. It really makes me wonder if as that time to go nears, if their minds go back to the past, in a re-evaluating sort of way, or if they actually go back and forth between worlds. One of the great mysteries of the other side I suppose.
    Wishing you a Happy Easter Elaine. 🙂

    • Forgiveness is easier because I wasn’t Virginia’s child. Virginia was also loving and generous in many ways. She simply didn’t care for me and wanted Vic to herself. Your situation seems so much harder. I don’t know what’s going on when Virginia senses Vic’s presence near her. If it’s memory, wishful thinking, or something about being in that threshold state between this world and the next one. It’s a mystery, but it certainly is common.
      Sending spring blessings to you. My flowers called snowdrops, the ones that usually bloom first, are under a foot tall snowdrift. I can’t remember having so many snow piles in April, but here it is. Thanks for your support, Debby.

  9. Really powerful, Elaine. And so honest. I must have met Virginia towards the end of her “good” time. I remember talking with her, thinking: she lost her child, having lost my own daughter is this the way I will look and sound when I’m her age? To lose your friends, your independence, and a child in your late years is totally miserable. Of course she’s imagining Vic is still there. Cheers to you for being able to do what you do for her.

    • You met Virginia six months ago. She was much clearer and stronger then, but she’s been “failing” and falling for about a year. She was excited at the book opening party and that made her engaged. Yes, she has lost so much. I’m glad she feels Vic around now because she didn’t soon after he died. And on we go doing the best we can to take care of each other.

  10. A moving piece, Elaine. I used to get frustrated with my father and my ex-mother-in-law after I brought them north to Ithaca to better care for them when they were in their 90s. “No good deed goes unpunished” is what I sometimes thought. But I’ll probably be just as cantankerous or worse when I reach that point.

    • Thanks, Lynn. I love your quip. I hope I’m not that difficult but, in truth, Virginia was difficult long before I knew her. And many years later, moving to Ithaca was just the latest thing to dislike.

  11. This is beautiful. I love that you were willing to take care of your husband’s mother once he couldn’t. It says a lot about your heart. What a beautiful way to honor your husband. It’s not easy to put aside the slights you received from her but it shows a lot of character and compassion. The world could use about a million more like you. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Thank you, Anita. My husband was dutiful but kept an emotional distance from his mother. She gave birth to the man I lived with for 42 years and raised him on her own with no support. I honor her for that. I couldn’t live with myself if I left her without basic support at the end of life. She lives in her own apartment, but I arrange health aids, buy groceries, bring my dog for visits a few times a week, and take care of all financial matters. She finally accepts that I’m helping her and not abandoning her. Peace restored after so long.

  12. Elaine, so beautiful. Few of us can imagine the agony of losing a child; I’ve often said, I don’t think I could go on. That she has says a great deal about Virginia’s strength. That you put your rocky relationship aside to look after her says even more about you. I believe that in her heart, Virginia knows how blessed she is to have you there caring for her. Thank you for sharing this story of life, loss, and true love.

    • And even more because she was his only parent and he was her only child. I always recognized her strength. I agree that she is grateful I’m there now, but five years ago she had to blame someone, so God and I got socked. Thanks, Ann.

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