December is here in all of its twinkling, sparkling, glittering glory.
And while everyone seems to be hustling, bustling, hurrying and scurrying, I want to wish you a silent night or two… moments of stillness, grace and peace. And tidings of comfort too if your heart’s been bruised… or broken.
I still require an extra helping of comfort myself… because someone I dearly loved died at Christmastime, and I’m not sure my heart has fully recovered. In a post last Christmas, I shared the very last Christmas letter this woman ever wrote. And I remembered her, wistfully:
If you’ll indulge me for a minute, I’d like to tell you about this remarkable woman. She had rare grace, a quiet strength, a strong faith, and a mischievous grin that she’d flash every so often, just to keep everyone guessing. We were so different, she and I. She was quieter, gentler, more thoughtful. But she was also tons of fun. She loved parties and plays and road trips and dancing. In a ballroom… or all through the house. She favored folk singers like James Taylor, John Denver, Simon & Garfunkel, and quirky cocktails like a Pink Squirrel or a Harvey Wallbanger. Here’s the deal though – and she would tell you this herself, emphatically: she wasn’t perfect. She had issues. Insecurity issues. Daddy issues. Irritability issues (which she referred to as “hormonal fluctuations”). I’m beginning to understand what she meant by that.
The thing I liked best about her was how relational she was: she was an includer, an encourager, a helper, a pray-er, and she had good shoulders. I know this because I cried on them often. Every one of this woman’s friends later told me that she was their go-to girl. Because she made everyone feel like they were her best friend.
Today marks 21 years since I said goodbye to my sweet momma. She got sick on a Sunday morning and died two days later. I remember draping myself across her feet in the ICU, pleading with God. And begging her too: Don’t go. Don’t leave me.
The LORD gives, and the LORD takes away.
(And sometimes it hurts like hell.)
My momma went on ahead to heaven. Good for her… but… I was undone. Distraught. Completely crushed. I had no earthly idea how I was going to keep breathing… let alone “do Christmas.” Or life, for that matter.
I’m not gonna lie. Some days it was a sapping/sobbing/isolating/devastating struggle. I felt like I had a new label: bereft. I would see young women in the mall, shopping with their mommas and their babies. And it warmed my heart. And then broke it into a thousand pieces.
My mother-in-law did what she could. She and my father-in-law would take the boys so Steve and I could go to dinner or a movie. She’d make us meals now and then. They hosted one of the boys’ birthday parties for us. (Pretty sure my mother-in-law bought out every Thomas the Tank Engine item in the party goods section at Target for that kiddie soiree.)
She tried valiantly, and in hindsight, I realize I probably didn’t give her enough credit. But the truth was what it was… and is what it is. She wasn’t my mom.
I didn’t want Linda… I wanted Louise.
Linda was high-strung and finicky (which is a nice way of saying she could be quite a pain in the derriere.) She was an artist and fashion designer prior to becoming a wife, mother, homemaker and hostess, which meant that every detail of every party or presentation had to be perfect. The clothing label, the dinner menu, the wrapping paper, the fabrics, the flowers, the flatware. Appearances mattered. A lot. A lot a lot.
And while I like a clean house, a good pedicure and strong support (from my mattress and my undergarments), I guess I felt like I couldn’t cut it. My parenting skills, my denominational preference, and my athletic abilities were sorely lacking, it seemed. (I was a lousy tennis player and a hazard on the golf course. Which meant I was really only good for lunch at the club.) Most of the time, my mother-in-law let her actions (and non-verbal cues) communicate that message. But sometimes she came right out and said it.
Like the time she took me and my firstborn son (who was 3 at the time) shopping at a “finer” department store. Zack made a beeline for the stuffed animals and plush toys in the children’s section, and of course, he threw a fit – right there in front of the retail associate and all the other shoppers – when I told him to put the overpriced banana-toting monkey back on the shelf. When his protests reached an 8.2 magnitude on the tantrum scale, I decided it would be best (so as not to trigger migraines or a security escort) to just buy the orangutan and go home for a nap. Both of us.
My mother-in-law disagreed. She decided it was the perfect time to teach me a lengthy lesson about parental discipline and delayed gratification. Also in front of the retail associate and all the other shoppers. It was a group lesson, if you will. This from the woman who seemed to have indulged her sons’ every whim while they were growing up and was currently spoiling her dog like Leona Helmsley. (Google her. You’ll get the idea.)
In addition to being somewhat authoritative, Mom was maddeningly late for everything. If the celebration started at 7, she’d sweep into the room around 8:45 and command everyone’s attention from the moment she arrived until everyone else left. She was even late to her own parties. (Not even kidding.) Dad would play greeter and host until my mother-in-law emerged from the master suite sporting her Chanel lipstick, her signature bob, a killer dress and a dazzling smile. She was so pretty. Dad would swoon, and everyone would air-kiss and pretend perfect.
Three years after my mom passed away, Steve’s dad died from leukemia. The one who had seemingly held us all together (and held Mom in check, to no small degree) was gone now, too.
Initially, my mother-in-law chose to stay in the home they had shared, but within a couple years her physician had diagnosed her with early onset dementia (in hindsight, likely Alzheimer’s), and we knew she wouldn’t be able to live alone much longer.
One night during dinner, we started discussing the fact that Mom would need to move. Soon. There had been some troubling indications that she was no longer safe alone, and her doctor had recently told her she shouldn’t be driving. We agreed that the new assisted-living facility opening in a nearby community would be an excellent choice. She’d have a newly-built two-bedroom suite, and the ascetics would most definitely appeal to her. The only problem was that the suite wouldn’t be ready for nearly six weeks. We talked about the possibility of hiring home caregivers to bridge the gap. But Steve felt strongly that mom should come and stay with us until her new place was ready.
It was one thing when Mom herself had informed me (five years prior) that she was handing off the baton to me, and now I’d be hosting the entire extended family at Christmas each year: “You’re 30 now, so I think it’s time you start hosting the holidays.” I didn’t want the baton. I wanted to throw it to the ground and stomp on it. But I didn’t. Instead I took a couple cooking lessons. And got a membership to Sam’s Club.
But this was entirely different.
I would have to live with her. 24/7. For a month. Possibly two. (Lord, have mercy.)
My head started to spin.
I glared at my dear husband. Who was just trying to do right by his momma… and our brother and sister-in-law – whose youngest son was in the NICU. (Clearly, I was the only logical candidate for designated driver, laundress, cook and caregiver.)
My mother-in-law stayed with us for 40 days. It felt like 400. And just before we tore each other’s hair out, her suite at the Timbers of Shorewood was ready. Hallelujah.
Little did I know that her brief stay was only the beginning of a terribly lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s. And for those of you who’ve witnessed the effects of this ravaging disease, you know that it didn’t only assail her. We were all caught in the firestorm.
From start to finish, Mom’s illness afflicted her for nearly 15 years.
I wish I could tell you that I was a devoted daughter-in-law and attentive caretaker during those years. But I wasn’t. I treated Mom’s illness – correction – I treated Mom… like a burden. One that I bore bitterly.
Yes, I took her to her doctor’s appointments and the market. I invited her to all our family gatherings and picked up her prescriptions and dry cleaning. I chauffeured her to department store after department store (fashion remained a high priority until her cognitive function had diminished to the point where she didn’t know what a zipper was). I even – begrudgingly – returned every single fall fashion item she had selected because the cut of the garment didn’t suit her or the dye lot was inconsistent or the nap of the fabric didn’t please or natural light brought out the yellow undertones which were terribly unflattering. I ran around “doing the right thing” for my mother-in-law… with the wrong perspective and a lousy attitude. I was not kind, nor tenderhearted. Ebenezer Scrooge was more gracious than me.
I bemoaned the fact that I was solely responsible for Mom’s needs and requests (reasonable or not), and under the guise of “keeping her in the loop” I notified my sister-in-law of every appointment, errand and inconvenience I endured. I also took every opportunity to grouse to my husband and kids about their mother/grandmother.
So becoming, I know.
The fact is… I had become completely bitter. And no matter how beautiful you are, bitter is ugly. It is its own progressive disease. And at some point I realized, if I didn’t treat it, I would succumb to it.
Around that time, two things happened. First, my pastor preached a sermon about forgiveness. He talked about the fact that every relationship requires it. Ours to God. Ours to our children. To our partners. To our parents. And our friends. At some point, we all falter and fail each other. And it goes both ways. (Well, except with God. All the faltering and failing happens on my side… All the fault in that relationship lands squarely on me.) My pastor talked about that fact that regardless of how horrific the offense against us, no matter how deep the hurt and heartache, we have to find our way to forgiveness. Or bitterness will consume us from the inside out. To illustrate his point, he said, “Choosing not to forgive someone is like drinking cyanide and waiting for the other person to die.”
His message hit me full-force… like a sucker-punch to the gut. I was the one drinking the poisonous, proverbial Kool-Aid.
Not only was I bitter toward my mother-in-law, I was stoking a simmering anger toward Steve. In my mind, he had conspired against me to forcibly shackle me into Alzheimer’s patient-support services. And I was indignant.
The second thing that happened then was that my mother-in-law started quietly saying the same thing to me every time I came to see her:
“Thank you for taking care of me.”
This fierce, finicky, feisty woman was becoming softer, sweeter, more sincere. And it unnerved me. How could I continue to carry my grievances against someone who was so genuinely grateful?
I wish I could tell you that I surrendered my resentment right then and there. But I didn’t. Which is funny, because in hindsight, I can see that I was a lot more like her than I would have ever cared to admit.
Stubborn. Strong-willed. Slow to relent… or repent.
After several years in the assisted-living residence, it came time to move Mom again. This time to a memory care center with skilled nursing support. She no longer needed me to “care” for her personal needs, which was a great relief. Instead, I came to keep her company once or twice a week. Often enough to keep myself from feeling guilty… and anyone else from thinking me neglectful.
If the weather was nice, we’d sit outside in the courtyard and watch the birds build nests and the fountain grasses sway in the breeze. Most of the time we’d just sit there quietly, keeping company with one another. If it was warm and sunny or cool and breezy, I’d make remarks about the weather. But no matter what the temperature or cloud cover, Mom would tell me it was a beautiful day. And then she’d tell me again. And again. And once more for good measure.
During wintertime, I’d join her for a sing-along or a bead-stringing session in the gathering room. Sometimes we’d sit in front of the television and watch a video of a blazing fire crackling in its virtual fireplace. She wasn’t much of a conversationalist at this point, so I became fairly good at monologues. I’d tell her stories about her grandkids or share memories from years past – some sentimental, some silly. She laughed easily, though I wasn’t always sure she understood why she was laughing. But somehow she seemed to know when she was supposed to. And that made me smile.
By now, Mom had forgotten our names, her whereabouts, and any concept of time or season. She roamed the halls late at night, wore three layers of clothing in July, and seemed surprised when we told her she had been married to a wonderful man named Bob who absolutely adored her.
She had lost all manner of social graces and basic skills. The woman who had possessed such poise and impeccable manners would now reach her hand into a bowl of chocolate pudding and lap it up from her fingers.
You’d think I would have become more tenderhearted by now. Instead, I was just desperately trying to keep her from soiling my spiritwear before I headed to one of my boys’ ball games. I endured my obligatory visits with her… and I hurried back to my car and my comfort zone, as quickly as seemed acceptable to any of the staff who might be keeping tabs. For all intents and purposes, I was simply keeping up appearances. Because apparently, appearances mattered a lot to me. A lot a lot. (Hmm…)
There’s a verse in the Bible that says, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test my thoughts. Point out anything you find in me that makes you sad and lead me along” your path.
Slowly but surely, as Mom’s illness progressed and our relationship changed, I opened my heart to God’s searching and knowing and testing. In those minutes of quiet and stillness, those hours of bird-watching and sitting fireside together, Mom and I kept company. And God was with us. We grew closer, and I grew kinder, gentler, a little wiser.
My eyes were opened to things I’d never really considered before: my mother-in-law’s traumatic childhood, her haunting flashbacks and debilitating fears, the heartbreaking loss of an infant son, and her family’s long history of mental illness. I began to feel something I hadn’t felt for her before.
I was stricken with it. I say stricken because it stung a little when I realized I had never shown her any.
I started thinking about my own propensity to hurt others. Often unintentionally, but sometimes, premeditated… and targeted… hitting below the belt or aiming for vital organs. A biting comment, a purposeful slight, a nasty tone, a bold-faced lie. Some juicy gossip or not-so-good old-fashioned back-stabbing. The more I peeled back the layers of my own “pretending perfect” the more cold and calculating I saw. The more controlling and manipulative.
I took a long, hard look at my ugly.
And I discovered something life-changing in that soul-searching… I realized that when I’m guilty, I want a pardon. Not even a slap on the wrist, I want boundless forgiveness. Mercy! But when somebody wrongs me, I want justice to its fullest extent. Book ’em Dano! Make ’em pay. (What a double standard.)
Mom gave me that. The ability to see my own hypocrisy. It doesn’t sound like it, but it really was an incredible blessing. It gave me something I’d been lacking.
So I pondered and prayed. Alone and also sometimes with Mom. Though she couldn’t remember her own name, she would squeeze my hand and softly say “amen” at the end of our prayers together. And I found myself fighting back tender tears.
Not gonna lie, I still hurried out to my car (and doused my hands in sanitizer) after my visits, but the bitterness was beginning to lift. And my burden was getting lighter. I was finding my way to mercy… and grace… and peace.
Christmas is about gifts. Not the presents under the tree. The real gifts. The lasting ones. The ones we truly cherish. Togetherness, tenderness, laughter, love.
In those years that Mom lingered, her body very much alive but her mind and memory fading away, Mom helped me unwrap another gift. An extraordinary one. The gift of forgiveness.
There’s a song by Don Henley called “The Heart of the Matter,” and it goes like this:
“I’ve been trying to get down to the heart of the matter, but my will gets weak, and my thoughts seem to scatter, but I think it’s about forgiveness.”
Whether from God or someone else, I’m always glad to receive it. When someone graciously forgives me, I’m always a little stunned… and incredibly grateful.
And forgiveness is a gift I can offer too. I can give it freely – and here’s the amazing thing – it need not be preceded by an apology. (With some people, I’ve learned, I’ll never get one anyway.)
But the really extraordinary thing God and my mother-in-law taught me about forgiveness is this:
It’s a gift I give myself.
When I forgive, I push away the toxic cocktail of bitterness. And I receive the sweetwater of mercy. I drink it in. And splash it all around.
More forgiveness and mercy, more kindness and goodness, more perspective and patience and peace.
My mother-in-law passed away three and a half years ago… and oh, how I wish I had readily offered those gifts to her earlier and more generously/joyfully/lovingly. Before she died, though, I had begun to face my pride and my judgment of her. I had begun to let go of things I had held against her for so long.
At her funeral, my son Mitchell gave the eulogy. Through tears, he concluded his remembrance with this:
“I hold my grandmother in highest esteem… because she and my grandfather raised the two finest men I know, my dad and my uncle.”
His words struck a chord in my heart. Mitch was right.
Her shortcomings and struggles aside, Mom had raised the very best man I know. And that alone ought to merit a mountain of mercy.
We sang “Amazing Grace” at the graveside service and bid Mom farewell. But I know that because of the mercy of Christ, she’s still very much alive. Healthy and whole.
I imagine that she and my father-in-law had an exceedingly joyful reunion in heaven. And that perhaps she and my mom get glimpses of their sweet, silly, lively and lovely grandchildren now and then. And that maybe – just maybe – our Father God has communicated to her my heart’s cry this Christmas:
Mom, I’m sorry. For my stubborn pride. For being quick to judge and long to hold a grudge. I’m sorry my bitterness kept us from having the close, comforting relationship we both really needed. Thanks for sticking around long enough for me to learn the lessons of forgiveness. Took me awhile, I know, but I think I’m finally starting to get it. I love you, Mom. And I’ll see you again one day. Merry Christmas.
And merry Christmas to all of you, too. May the gifts we give this holiday season be drenched in love and mercy.
And may God bless us, every one.