My mother-in-law’s name is Joan. She is sixty-three years old and dying prematurely from ALS.
She is in the final stages of this relentless disease which has taken away, among many other things, the usage of her loving arms and kind hands, the ability to voice her love for us beyond a labored whisper on her rare “good” days, her ferocious dignity to live out her days mothering us instead of us taking care of her, and my time to tell her how I feel.
Her final months are upon us, and although I am a Registered Nurse and have counseled many people through grief, I am finding it nearly impossible to begin my own grieving process. As a nurse, I learned how to put on a tough exterior to make it through the difficult days. I find myself using the same tactics to make it through the process of losing my mother-in-law.
On the outside, I act like, “I got this,” yet on the inside, I am petrified of losing her. In the past two years I have tried to avoid what is inevitably going to happen by carrying on as though she had not been diagnosed with a terminal disease.
I want my children to be influenced by the person she is and not the person she was . . . and I don’t want my husband to lose his mother.
When we were told of her advanced directive wishes, I caught myself going, yet again, into nurse mode. I was too busy making sure everyone else understood what her wishes meant to really absorb my own feelings. Riddled with frustration, I have watched on the sidelines as her body has wilted away knowing there’s nothing I can do to stop the disease’s progression.
I have held my husband during the night as he is consumed with grief and put on a smile during the day, so our sensitive daughter does not pick up on our pain and try to carry it on her little back. I have tried to do my best as a nurse, a wife and a mother, but I wonder; how have I done as her daughter–in-law? Does she know how much I love her? Have I made her as proud of me as I am of her?
As her time with us is dwindling, I feel in writing this eulogy and seeing it in print, it will in some way imprint my feelings into her heart. I hope my words can do her justice.
My first assessment of Joan was that she was a simple, sweet woman who was happy . . . but I couldn’t help but think she must want more out of life. Boy was I wrong! She knew exactly what she wanted!
It was hard for me to understand a woman who seemed to live her life for everyone else but herself. It seemed like a life that still focused on being a mother to her adult children could be a life of missed opportunities.
I could not fathom how watching sports with her boys day in and day out could be enjoyable. I did not understand how tending to her husband’s every need could fulfill her own needs. I couldn’t grasp how coming to her son’s aid anytime he asked – even if this meant driving nine hours to cook his favorite meal – did not make her feel taken advantage of every once in awhile.
It took me longer than I want to admit to understand just how special Joan was. The turning point was when I realized that I, too, was special to her.
She was there after my first miscarriage as well as the two that followed. She was there to nurse me after my spine surgery when both my mom and husband needed to go back to work. She was there after the birth of my daughter, pulling her bassinet into her room, so I could get the sleep I needed to heal.
In some ways I regressed when she was around, defaulting to her also mothering me and taking care of my family when life had gotten too hard or too busy. She never once complained. I have never met a more selfless person.
Joan was my angel on Earth. All she wanted to do was give and never receive. For her, the gift of truly giving to others is what fed her beautiful soul. In time, I realized Joan’s reason for living was to be a mother and a grandmother. It was her true calling, and all she ever really wanted.
I was the one who needed to learn from her. I was the one going ninety miles an hour through life never really stopping to enjoy what was right in front of me: my family.
Joan has made me a better mother, a more conscientious wife and friend. Through her I have learned to give more freely and more often with ease. It is because of her example that I will pass on to my children just how special it is to be a mother.