It is eight days before Christmas and my mother in law is dying. I’m sitting on the floor of Jill’s parents’ guest bedroom as Jill leans over the newly installed hospital bed, gently cajoling her mom to swallow syringe after syringe of children’s liquid Tylenol. Below the window, the oxygen machine hisses and gurgles, and from the living room I can hear the faint sound of the Chiefs/Chargers game; I know it’s because of the holidays, but the fact that there’s an NFL game happening on Saturday night only adds to the strangeness of the situation.
Of course, it’s not strange, not really. That’s the thing about death—it feels exceptional when it’s happening to you, but it’s completely ordinary. It happens to everyone.
Death is complicated and messy and hard—I know this, firsthand, from my father’s death, and from the deaths of the moms of two of my best friends, but that doesn’t make it any easier when it happens again. Less surprising, maybe.
I am less at a loss for what to do as I probably was the first time. I know that it matters to sit here, to bear witness even if there isn’t anything to do but wait. I believe that it’s important to find moments of life to savor, even among the absurdity and the sadness, even if that means driving an hour-and-a-half to celebrate Hanukkah with friends, to eat latkes and cuddle puppies and acknowledge the now of this moment, as imperfect and challenging as it is.
Still, I’m learning newly. New dimensions of tired, new pinches and challenges inside family life, new awareness of how sacred twenty minutes with your wife, some leftover dinner that nobody had to make, and two glasses of wine can be. I am reminded that she and I make a good team – we always have – and that competence, that usefulness, the deep love that roots it – can be comfort. Watching her care for her mom, the tenderness and the fierce protectiveness with which she makes every decision, tugs the same string inside me as seeing her with our newborn son did.
Shiv is down the street tonight, staying at his other grandmother’s house. He’s been especially snuggly with her today, overly-affectionate almost to the point of being clingy. Though he hasn’t articulated it directly, I know it’s because he’s realized that this will one day happen to her as well.
He loves Jill’s mom, but he never really got to see the best of her; she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a year after he was born. I’m thankful we took so many photos of the two of them in the beginning, big smiles of delight on both their faces. They would sit together at the back window of Jill’s parents’ old house in Shreveport, watching the birds and the squirrels. Or she’d bounce him in her lap, singing nonsense songs and pausing at random intervals so that he’d squeal with anticipation.
I wonder what he’ll remember of her, how these last few years will stick in his mind. It is a shame to think that, as the Alzheimer’s robbed her of herself, it also robbed him of her, just as he was growing old enough to really form relationships. As we have had to do with my dad, whom Shiv never got to meet, we will do with Jill’s mom: teach him about the person we wish he could have known.
When I first met Jill’s parents, I was scared of her mom. Jill’s dad was charming and easy to like, but Billie Jean intimidated me. Her reputation preceded her—a woman who could hunt, fish, grow, and cook anything, better than anyone else, even (especially) the men. She had been an exacting, no-nonsense mother to Jill, her only child. She had an intensely critical streak, despised incompetence, inefficiency, laziness. She was a registered nurse, so you can see how her personality suited her profession; this is a woman who has never cut a single corner in her entire life.
Over time, I found ways to connect to her; at Christmas, she’d spend hours sitting at our dining room table, working on whatever new puzzle we’d just gifted her. I’m terrible at puzzles, but I’d sit there anyway, sometimes the two of us in silence, sometimes me managing to pull a story or two out of her. If it wasn’t a puzzle, then it was Scrabble, which Jill and I persisted in playing against her even though she always, always won.
Not unlike my own mom, these were the only times that you’d ever see Billie Jean sitting down; we used to joke that she was like a shark—she had to keep moving or she’d fall asleep. She was constantly up to something in her kitchen: cooking, cleaning, organizing, putting things away. Or there was something to tend to in the garden. Or something to fix in another part of the house. Nothing went to waste on her watch; we have Ziplock bags full of peas in our deep freezer that she has been rinsing out and re-using since 2009 (they’re labeled in Sharpie, of course).
She was also a damn fine cook: best cornbread I’ve ever had in my life, and the best fried okra, too. Thankfully, Jill has apprenticed in the methodology for both, which she’ll someday pass onto Shiv. I have a notebook full of Billie’s recipes, which I spent one winter break copying out by hand—pies, soups, preserves, pickles. I snagged a couple of her purple glass pie plates, too, and her angel food cake pan.
Sometimes, on winter nights like this one, when Jill and I were visiting her parents and all of us were staying up late to watch whatever sports game was on, Jill would pipe up at about 9:00 pm: “Mom, will you make us some doughnuts?” Obligingly, Billie Jean would grab a can of Pillsbury biscuit dough from the fridge, shape a hole into each round, and fry them all up on the stove. Off to the side, she’d lay out little dishes of chopped pecans, chocolate glaze, and powdered sugar, so we could customize our own. They were delicious, of course, but they also seemed to somehow exemplify my mother-in-law’s particular genius.
The funny thing is, I don’t know that Billie Jean has ever thought of herself as my mother-in-law. She doesn’t even know that Jill and I are married, since we made things legal just two years ago, well into her Alzheimer’s confusion. Even before that, I doubt she ever would have used the term; I’ve always been introduced as Jill’s “friend,” and until Shiv was born, Jill and I slept in separate bedrooms whenever we visited her parents’ house.
As you might have guessed, this woman I’m sitting next to, who most likely will not live to see this year’s Christmas, we don’t see eye-to-eye on very much. We disagree politically, religiously. We have very different ideas about parenting. And we come from such different worlds that we almost certainly wouldn’t have been part of each other’s lives if it weren’t for Jill.
That’s the one thing we always had in common; we both love Jill. Though she never said this outright, I think because Billie could tell that I loved Jill, that I was good to her, that we were happy—and I guess it didn’t hurt that I am a polite, Southern girl who can eat a respectable amount of fried catfish—despite our differences, I got a pass. I gained entry into a world that was as strange to me as it now feels familiar, learned more things that I will ever be able to accurately count up, and grew to love, and be loved by, this formidable woman who, it turns out, has a devastatingly quick wit and gives really excellent hugs.
You don’t get to choose your family. I doubt that either Billie or I ever would have imagined that we’d be in this room together, here at the end of her life. But there is a strange kind of grace in this, how life can pull and stretch you beyond what you might thought possible, how it shows you that the rules of love you’ve been playing by were much too small all along.
It’s been years since I’ve had my mother-in-law’s late-night doughnuts; Shiv’s never had them, and that’s a shame. Come what may, we’ll make that one thing right tomorrow. For Billie.