I don't know why, but one of my favorite parts of New Year's is when they inevitably show the montage of all those persons of interest - celebrities, politicians, and other well-knowns - who we have lost during the year.
No, I don't mean to sound macabre, it's actually a very emotional experience for me, realizing that those people are gone. I ponder all the times I had seen their faces, heard their voices, and I remember all the things they did that made us love (or hate) them. It proves to me that these people who seem make believe are just like me. For those who pass away well before their time, I wonder what their lives would have been like 10, 15, 20 years from now, and what other contributions they would have been able to make had they gone on to live. I realize all the things I've been blessed with that they will never know. I also wonder what life was like through their eyes - how cool would it be to get inside Paul Newman's head and see things the way he had seen them.
Usually with famous people, it ends there. By the time the clock has stuck twelve on New Year's Eve, I've sent my last mental prayer to their families, telepathically projected my sympathy at losing their loved ones, and then I go on with my life. But when you lose someone you know, thinking about their life sometimes help put things into perspective, and you understand them better than you did when they were still here. Such is true with someone we lost this year.
This is my mother-in-law, Pat, on the day my daughter was born nearly four years ago, cooing over her seventh grandchild.
Around Christmas of last year, Pat was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She started treatment in February, but that didn't last long - by mid-March she had had enough. At first, you get kind of angry when someone gives up, out of fear that they will suffer. But thankfully, Pat never did. She met her end peacefully and painlessly, with a dignity that we really didn't realize she possessed, a few weeks ago. And as it often happens when someone you know passes away, as we shared stories of her after her funeral, we all felt that we understood her better. The last few years had been a strain on everyone's relationship with her and eachother. But I'm not going to go into that, because frankly none of that crap matters any more. You realize that life is too short, and now that all those things that have been bothering us can no longer hurt Pat, they just don't matter any more.
I almost didn't go to see her that day, but they had called and said she had taken a turn for the worse, so I left work early and went to the nursing home. While my sister-in-law and I were there, one of the volunteers stopped in to deliver the mail. In it was a letter to Pat, from her dear friend Marian. My sister-in-law started to read it, but emotions caught up to her and she handed it off to me, so I read it. Pat had been mostly unresponsive, but we felt that while she could not respond, she could indeed hear you and understand. I caught a smile from her as I read the letter, so I know she heard me read it. Later, as I had my moment alone with her, I told her goodbye. I told her that her youngest grandchild, who for a while she went without seeing regularly, would never forget her - I would make sure of that. And I told her if she had to go, then she should go. She didn't deserve to suffer. Less than four hours later, she slipped peacefully away.
Like I said, after someone's gone, you look at them differently. Sometimes all the things about them that drove you bonkers while they were around suddenly make sense as you reflect on the person's life. Sometimes you learn something about that person that you never knew, or you remember something they had once told you and you feel like bragging about it now.
So, as our friend, LTH, sometimes prompts us to do, I've decided to offer up a serving of "cheese" to my mother-in-law, in the form of this:
Seven Cool Things About My Mother-in-Law
1. She had one of the funniest "how I met my husband" stories. She was a nurse, he was a patient. She had to give him a shot. She broke the needle in his butt and had to call for help, totally embarrassed. She felt really bad, but he laughed it off and asked her out. He passed away about 50 years and six kids later. She loved to tell the "needle in the butt" story, and would laugh every time.
2. She valued her friendships, as evident by my mention of Marian above. The two were friends for over 70 years. And I mean, REAL friends, not someone you're friends with as a kid, lose contact with and then years later, bump into at the grocery store every now and then. No, they talked on the phone, wrote letters and cards to each other, and would get together often over those seventy years. She maintained contact, sometimes to the dismay of family members, with others' ex-wives/husbands/girlfriends/boyfriends, as if they were still part of the family. She would be secretive about it when she thought it was necessary, but her affection for one person could not be compromised. If she liked you (and chances are, she did), she would like you forever.
3. She worked as a nurse for several years, building a house and having six children along the way. That in itself is an accomplishment. But when my husband was about 5 years old, Pat decided to change careers. She enjoyed nursing, having worked in maternity wards for most of her nursing career, but she was always loved history and literature and the idea of being a teacher. So, in the 70's, she went back to school, the oldest student in each of her college classes, obtained her Masters and went into teaching. My husband remembers times when he had to go with her to school, and she'd have to keep him quiet and busy with crayons and coloring books, while she listened and took notes in class. These days, it's not uncommon at all for people of various ages and backgrounds to be sitting next to one another in class, but back then it was. She earned her degree and went on to teaching.
4. Pat loved the "little things" in life. She had such an appreciation of nature, art and music, and she was happiest digging in the dirt or coaxing little seedlings to grow in the rocky soil or listening to classical music. She was one of those people who refers to plants in their "official" name - not "Lilacs", but rather "Purpilicus Lilicisus" ... No, I know they're "vulgaris" something or other, but you know what I mean. She had a knack for retaining facts about the things she loved, like her flowers, Greek mythology or her vast collection of china, teacups, vases. The funny thing about those is that she actually USED them! They didn't just sit and collect dust, but rather she would be marveling at how pretty a certain teacup was, then the next day she would have her morning coffee in it.
5. I have a job and one child. Some days, that feels like way more than I was ever designed to handle. Then I think of Pat, and how she managed to work, have a family, change careers, and build a home at the same time. Oh, and did I mention that while the house was being built, Pat and her husband lived in the only part that could be deemed shelter - the basement? I think 3 of the 6 kids had been born at that time, and not only that, but they also took in a few cousins for a while. As the house was built and they gradually moved upstairs, the only source of heat was the coal furnace. Pat remembers getting up in the middle of the night, this time pregnant with twins, running outside in the bitter cold to the basement door so she could shovel more coal into the furnace. She must have felt like royalty the first night the oil burner was kicked on!
6. She was goofy. And she of all people could appreciate the humor in the silly, goofy things she did. Among our favorites:
- The grilled cheese sandwiches she made for us....and forgot to put in the cheese.
- The time when my husband was a little kid, and he and his father waited in the car while Pat ran in to the grocery store. Moments later, she emerged, walked right past their car and got into a nearby car, granted the same basic shape and color as their own. My husband and his father just stared at her, and she happened to look up and see them, wave, then went back to reading the magazine she had purchased. Suddenly it hit her! In a fluster she thrashed about, gathering her belongings, and ran back to her own car, laughing.
- Her photography skills. She had just gotten her first digital camera and was having problems getting it to work. Seems she somehow kept getting her finger in the way, but for the life of her, she couldn't figure out how she was doing it. So we stopped by one day to see if we could help. As I looked at the images captured, something didn't seem right. Sure enough, each frame was filled with the blurry color of skin, so she must be holding the camera wrong. But what's this? Is that her wedding ring in the picture? No....could it be her....EYEGLASSES? Yup. As she snapped away, trying to photograph her flowers, her dog, the sunset, she was, in fact, holding the camera backwards so each picture was an extreme close-up of her face. She laughed as hard as we did. Oh, and then proceeded to ask "Where can I get more film for my digital camera when I use this one up?"
- Along the same lines, the only messages she ever left on an answering machine was "...well, okay then. Bye" Because she thought you had to leave your messaging DURING the recording "You have reached.....
- They dogsat our dog one day. We were having work done at our house and asked if we could tied Seiko, our 160-pound Great Pyrenees, out in their back yard so he wouldn't be stressed out by the commotion. As we left, she called after us: "What does he like to eat for breakfast?" We thought she was joking. "Fried eggs and bacon, Ma!" my husband responded. And so, several hours later we arrived to pick up Seiko. He was laying in the shade, staring at his dish which lay just out of his reach. As we approached, we saw that in it was two fried eggs, three strips of bacon and two sliced of buttered toast. Oh, on a china plate. Unfortunately, while his water dish was well within reach, she had placed his "breakfast" on a tree stump nearby ("Because I thought it looked nicer there") that Seiko's paw couldn't quite reach. She insisted on frying him up a couple more eggs before he left.
Wow, am I at Seven already? I could go on. My mother-in-law once saw Amelia Earhart, you know - she came to speak in the town where my mother-in-law lived as a child. She was the family historian, updatng the family Bible with births, deaths and marriages. She kept scrapbooks of all her children and grandchildren and their accomplishments. After retiring, she and my father-in-law did some traveling, among her favorites, San Diego, San Francisco, Savannah, Ireland, England, Paris, and her most favorite trip of all times, Greece. In a crowded house of two parents and six kids, there was always room for more. The girlfriend or wife of one of them, a family friend who had no where to go. They even raised a couple grandchildren for a few years while their Dad was away in the military. And yes, even the Swedish exchange student. Yes, she was Swedish, yes she was beautiful, and yes, she sunbathed on the deck in a bikini.
Last but not least, my favorite story, although it is as much about my father-in-law as it is my mother-in-law.
7. They never really saw anyone as being "different" - they treated everyone as equal. They were never interested in politics, and never pushed their beliefs on anyone, but they truly would not discriminate. The came from a generation that never quite grasped what "politically correct" meant, sometimes using words to describe a certain ethnic or religious background that may be deemed offensive, but if they used that certain word, there was never any prejudice or hatred attached to it. There was no such thing as differences in social status - my mother-in-law would strike up a conversation with Queen Elizabeth just as easily as she could a homeless heroin addict, and she would regale each one of them with stories of her gardens, or maternity ward tales, and yes, even the needle in the butt story. She would tell Her Royal Majesty that she was holding her teacup incorrectly if she thought it to be so, and she would offer to make a grilled cheese sandwich for the homeless person.
And so, on her favorite trip to Greece, where she bought earrings I saw her wear hundreds of times in the fifteen years I knew her, my in-laws were setting out on a tour of Greece with a tour group. Within an hour, the grew bored, feeling they were missing something, that this tour was restricted to "touristy" places and they wanted to see the "real" Greece. And so, they struck up a conversation with a young woman standing nearby, obviously a local. After chatting with her and asking her about where they should really go, and what should they really see, the tour guide suddenly interrupted and pulled them aside. "You know she's a prostitute, right?" They looked at each other, astonished, and the tour guide went back to his business of organizing the tour, answering questions. And my mother-in-law and father-in-law began their tour...with their newly hired tour guide, to beaches, historic sites, cafe's, markets that the other tourists never knew existed. Several hours later, they rejoined the tour group. I don't know if they told them what they had done, but I know that "the time we hired a prostitute as a tour guide" was usually the 5th or 6th story my mother-in-law would tell you upon meeting you for the first time. Sometime after the needle in the butt, but before shoveling coal into the furnace.
So, farewell to Pat - mother, mother-in-law, Grandma and friend. We will never forget you.