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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.
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.