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.
“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.
“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.”
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.)
“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.
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.