One widow’s mother-in-law story, part 7, reflections (the last one, I promise!)
(If you really want to start at part one, I started this story back in May. [Yes, May of "this year!"])
The story of my late mother-in-law and how I cared for her after my husband died has been drawn out nearly as long as I possibly can. But the more I hear myself tell it – now that it’s over, two years later, now that she's really, truly dead (remember that she wanted me gone instead of her son, and to steal my child) – the more I learn about my first loss, and the one before that, and the ones when I was young. At least one of these bears telling through the lens of Audrey.
I’ve written about how hard it is to care for someone who doesn’t want to be cared for, and who doesn’t have long to live anyway, compared to a youngish, healthy man with a child and much more to live for, and compared to caring for a child who is purely on the up-and-up. I’ve shared how I feel the system of protecting our rights harms elders, creating paradoxes that our independence shouldn’t be expected to resolve.
I haven’t really ruminated much about what older folks, including widows what seems like a few years older than my group, face when they lose a partner: a wall, a future that’s shorter, their own mortality. I know Gavin and I couldn’t face it with his diagnosis, with failing treatments, with rapid decline. Death is not something you can look at: it’s too large. And what does that look like when you’re in your eighties or older? As a young widow, I’m grateful that it’s obvious to everyone I have many good years left, even if that isolated me from every single human I met while I was grieving. Maybe, even looking at Audrey, I still can't think too much about this. Others can, and I envy them.
I lost something else. I haven’t mentioned, not much, that Audrey and I had, apart from the end-stage Oedipal conflict, a warm relationship. One Valentine’s Day years back I gushed that she’d been nicer to me than my own parents, and in some ways, on some days, it was true. We were both completely “out of it,” as they say, after Gavin died. What a hole he left in our lives, how little we thought of our lives in those moments that lasted for months. But her dementia did more than distance her and stress me: it meant that I lost the possibility of her comfort and the chance to help her cope with the loss, too. We were robbed of a chance to grieve together, to live through the first year and the second year, too, as any sort of family.
Now that I know more about grieving families, I suppose all I missed during that time was the chance to have her judge me more (when in fact, she barely understood any of the things I was doing, as she forgot the world and its workings). I didn’t get the delicious opportunity to have her judge my dating. Strangely enough, even as I burned everything, she was too messed up to even criticize my cooking.
I learned, too, that grieving is a learning process: my daughter and I were on the upswing in life – we had to go on – and so each day of grief was like a lesson. Since Audrey’s couldn’t remember things, she couldn’t learn. Did she not experience the grief or did it just go nowhere, into depression and continued decline?
And there’s another insight about letting go. After she died, I held on to her notes, pages and pages of scribbled phone numbers with too few or too many disordered digits, questions to herself about whose name was what, the script declining and precipitously disobeying the fair blue rules on notepaper of every conceivable kind. Countless letters were drafted, front and back, to the editor of everything asking to be set free from involuntary captivity. Lack of comprehension abounded, and it seemed all the paper stayed balled up together in her purse or photo album, among sugar packets, none of them ever sent.
I wanted to save it all. I felt I needed evidence. I wanted forgiveness, an excuse, something to help me explain (to Gavin?) some vague day why I had to put her in the nice apartment and then later, in the nicer dementia ward. Even when the cousin from Ohio was responsible, it was clear I was still the “local relative,” I was the one the staff saw. There were ways in which I felt still responsible, even though I know I was off the hook. It was, after all, me that they called at 4:00 a.m. one night to tell me she was in a diabetic coma with blood sugar of 13 and that I should not request that she be sent to the hospital (of course I called the cousin).
I craved the evidence of her disease. But Mr. Fresh, who accompanied me to identify her body, who had never met her, was wise. He made me throw the papers, envelopes and sheaves of scribbly torn crazy pages, out. That’s not how you want Short Stack to remember her grandmother, he said. You don’t have to explain anything to anyone.
He was right. There is no audit for grief, and no standards in the large areas of action – outside of medicine – that we call “caregiving” and “managing care” that’s done by family. Audrey received the best care, later than she should have, but earlier than anyone else would have arranged. She probably lived longer for my assistance. And by the time she died I no longer felt I had to do it “for Gavin,” or the way he wanted. I had let go of those ideas at last and that marked some kind of change. In my new life, I strive to be less lawyerly. It's not that hard a habit to lose.
About Short Stack: although losing her Grandma did happen when she was older, closer to understanding loss, it didn’t seem to affect her any more than losing Daddy did. It gave her some new questions and then some new understanding, but she “got” more of Grandma’s illness. Over the course of the next year, as she learned about nutrition and avoiding apple juice, she seemed to be able to absorb that Grandma had died because she didn’t eat and drink enough. Shortie’s life was not framed by two losses: it was built of memories, like her last date with Grandma playing catch with a pink balloon in her nice bedroom on the dementia ward.
My last impression is of identifying the body, frail and pale, eye black like a panda’s from falling against a doorknob. A duty that hospice, who shot a Polaroid as they admitted Gavin, had saved me in the first case. I felt like steel next to her cold body in that large empty room, crossing the inlaid marble floor, in the midday. She was like a queen there and I was doing my job.
The cousin and I organized a memorial service – at which I didn’t tell anyone I was engaged to Mr. Fresh, even informally – and that was the last time I saw some of Gavin’s dearest friends, just a dozen people showed up including several of the old ladies who’d shared our vacations.
And to be honest, after everything, it was hard to be sad for any of that loss. Audrey had had a better life than she'd ever expected -- she had the satisfaction of dying with her secrets untold (probably unremembered) -- and she didn't know she was on the way out. It was a simple relief and one less weekly duty and with the second anniversary of Gavin's death coming up, I needed all the breaks I could get. Audrey wouldn't have understoodd my remarriage. She wasn't coming with me into my new life.
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