I’ve avoided talking about what happened back in April because it’s still rough. I’m having difficulty sketching out this post just because of the lump in my throat. But, it’s time.
On April 11, 2010 my wife’s mother died. She lived life the way most of us wish we had. She didn’t go jumping out of planes or pushing the speedometer to 106 mph just to feel the rush of flying on the highways. But, she lived life without fear. Fear of what another person might think about her clothes or opinions never entered her mind. When you get a 12 year extension on a death sentence you stop sweating the small stuff.
I first met my future mother-in-law on November 8th, 1998. That weekend had been the first official date I had been on with her daughter, my future wife. It was the kind of date that makes you wonder why she called me the next day. After all, I totally embarrassed her at the movie theater, laughing and literally slapping my knee at the comedy of The Waterboy. The fact that her daughter had punched me in the leg as I dropped her off was probably my only saving grace. She must have felt bad and called me up, asking me over. I didn’t know I would be having dinner with her parents as well. After all, I had never met them and was totally unprepared.
I remember meeting this little white haired lady with these bright red rimmed glasses. She had this spiky hair and round face, full of rosy cheeks. My first initial thoughts was that she was the offspring of Elton John and Sally Jessie Raphael, if that were possible. She puttered around the kitchen getting dinner ready while I took on the task of dealing with the aspect of meeting my future father-in-law. “Now, he’s probably going to want to show you his guns. It’s a scare tactic. He’s a farm boy.” My wife informed me before descending into the finished basement of her house, decked out with a living room, game room and full kitchen. Being the smart ass that I was, I needed to break the ice and diffuse any tensions that might take hold of my first official meeting with the parents. After introducing myself to her father, I took the initiative to say, “So, I hear you’d like to show me your guns.” The laughter alone made me feel 100% safer and dinner was a breeze.
As we became closer, I felt as if her parents were an extension of my own family, years before I had even asked my wife to marry me. That was five years later. But, over that time, I learned a lot about my future in-laws, including my wife’s mother.
I almost didn’t get to meet her. Just that last year she was fighting for her life. She was diagnosed with stage IV renal cell carcinoma. That would have been a death sentence for nearly everyone. Her only saving grace was that she had been giving that diagnosis while already opened up on the table. The doctors knew there was a tumor, but they had no idea what else was there. They proceeded and she was put into a study where a high dosage of a drug was given to her. She was literally taken to death’s door with her immune system, only to ring the bell and run away. She came back from the brink and you could never tell she had been sick.
I got my first real glimpse of the real character my mother-in-law was that first Christmas. The whole house decorated as if the North Pole exploded in their home. It was amazing. She would literally take off most of the month of December to enjoy the holidays and enjoy them she did. The day after Thanksgiving her husband would go to hunting camp for the next week while she’d decorate. I could only imagine the electric bill. Scattered around the house were reindeer, snowmen, elves, animatronic Mr. and Mrs. Claus, wreaths, bows, and the lights, oh the lights. It was like a shopping mall with no stores.
Come Christmas Eve, they would throw out a spread that would make you want to take a long winter’s nap. She took such great pride in presentation and everyone took home a party favor. She reminded you if you didn’t, too. Along with the food was a sing along of Christmas Carols. She loved a good party and loved the holidays, especially Halloween and Christmas.
Oh, we had our differences. There’s no doubt. But it was never anything that didn't get resolved quickly. We'd argue over stupid things and sometimes I felt she but into stuff that didn't need adressed. In fact, at first she even told my wife not to hang her hopes on me. “He’s not going to stick around. He wants to go to California.” Had I actually done that, I would have went alone. After the cancer in 97, there’s no way my wife would have moved away from her parents. We all try to deny the existence of our own mortality, as well as the mortality of our parents, but after going through what this family went through, my wife wanted every minute with her. But, I didn’t quite understand it. I couldn’t. My family was always there. It never mattered how far away I moved or how long it was between phone calls or visits. I accepted that my parents would be there when I did call. I took them for granted. But, I never took offense to the statement about the longevity of our relationship. It probably made me a more mature person.
I stayed and I became a part of that family. My wife would tell you that her parents loved me more than they loved her. I just think it was different. We got along on a different level. I understood her. Of course, it was always easier buying her mom Christmas presents. I could spot a good gadget or tea cup that she would love. I mean, how many grandmothers did you know nearing retirement age that had a Sirius satellite radio in their car along with a docking station for her iPod? She loved little things that lit up or whirred. A Dollar Store pen that lit up and had a Santa or Black Cat on it tickled the hell out of her. She would go shopping for Christmas all year long and each Christmas morning the house was wall to wall, floor to ceiling presents. They could be little things that she picked up along the way or they could be the big purchases. She never disappointed.
Neither did the cancer. It put up a good fight. In 2006, she had to have more surgery and this was the one we thought was going to get her. She lost her spleen and some of her pancreas. She spent a week in recovery alone, though that was because of a administrative snafu. Still, I had confidence that she would be back. She didn’t disappoint me. She was now my mom, too. I was damned if I was ready to let her go. She just looked death in the eye, flipped him the bird, and told him to, “Eff off!”
Even after that bout, she never seemed to slow down. She could out and beat the best of the holiday shoppers. You could just see her shuffling around the mall with those dangly snowflake earrings, snapping her gum in frequent crackles. She’d come home with a sleigh full of purchases to wrap later, on the pool table. She’d fire up the Christmas music or put and put on a pot of tea.
She always tried new things, no matter what the consequences. She loved her cooking shows and would often make us guinea pigs to her culinary whims. It’s sad that I know who Paula Deen and Sandra Lee are. I could sit there and watch them with her simply because she enjoyed them.
She loved musicals, too. If it wasn’t Christmas music she would be enjoying a good soundtrack like the one from Chicago. I remember taking her to see the Phantom of the Opera when it came out a few years ago in movie theaters. Her taste in movies was a lot like mine, including taking her to see a James Bond movie, much to my wife’s chagrin.
And she was a good Grammy. I say that, not taking anything away from my own mother, but my mother-in-law had a style all her own. My daughter loved her and loved having her babysit her while my wife and I were at work. I had always hoped that she could retire exactly when she wanted to but unfortunately, after 15 years as in HR, her job was terminated due to redundancy. Also, the cancer had come back.
This was a new one. We had all gotten over having the stomach flu in February of 2009 and something about my mother-in-law seemed off. She would have trouble remembering things and would fight to find the right words. My wife knew something was up and told her to get checked out. She left work one day to go get a scan. Now, she had been through countless scans over the years because of her history, but not once had they thought to check her brain. There it was, a tumor, pressing on her brain, causing the confusion. It led her to stop the car at mailboxes and run through red lights. The doctor called before she had even got back to work, telling her to get to the ER in Shadyside. It wasn’t good. She called me and told me to pick her up and bring her straight to the house, so that her husband could take her while I made plans to get my wife and break the bad news.
The tumor was there and then it wasn’t. The week after St. Patrick’s Day, my mother-in-law went in for brain surgery and three days later, she was home. Afterwards, you couldn’t have known she even had a tumor. It was a piece of cake and she was home free, or so we thought.
Nearly ten years had gone by from the initial diagnosis to the second surgery in 2006. Now, it was just three years later for brain surgery. My wife was worried that her mom was running out of house money to play with at the table. Her mom had never seen the ocean and she’d make sure she’d see that. It wasn’t so much a bucket list for her mom, but for her. As we sat in the waiting room after surgery, we flipped through vacation guides. We didn’t know another obstacle would present itself before June.
Mother’s Day was spent in Shadyside hospital. My mother-in-law was riddled with pulmonary emboli. She had to be put on a high dose of blood thinner and we feared she wouldn’t be able to make the nearly 12 hour trek to the beach. We also found out that she had developed another tumor, in her only remaining ovary. But, since she was going to have to wait for a few weeks to have surgery, thanks to the clots, we decided that she should just go to the beach anyway, and we did.
I remember seeing her propped up in the back of the van, keeping her legs elevated. We’d make frequent stops for her to get up and move around. I wasn’t sure she was so keen on the logistics of planning and executing a trip like that. Yet, once she got there, she enjoyed the hell out of it. Vacationing in a nice big house, seeing the ocean for the first time, sleeping in, she loved it. Our last night there, after the car was packed and the house was checked, we noticed some leftover frozen custard that was just going to be tossed. So, the fondest memory I have of that trip was sitting in the kitchen, finishing off the last of the frozen custard with my mother-in-law. I asked her what she thought about this whole thing. She couldn’t understand why people went through all this trouble to go to the beach. The sand gets in everything. You deprive yourself of sleep. You fight over stupid things like maps and exits and directions. Then, I asked her if she would do it again, perhaps next year. She said she would. With that, we ate the last bites and called it a night.
Surgery to remove the tumor went like clockwork, like it always did. However, there was a new wrinkle. Her abdominal fluid showed signs of cells. It was determined that this was not renal cell cancer but ovarian. She would have to endure chemo. She went for six treatments over the next 18 weeks. The time over the year she should have enjoyed the most was nearly negated with vomiting and exhaustion and the loss of that spiky white hair. She began wearing a wig because she refused to not go out and do things, but the vibrancy that she had with walking around a mall or driving in her little car was diminished. She got tired more easily. She started to feel like fighting was pointless. She was tired. No more surgeries she said. I’m done.
Apparently, she wasn’t, just yet. 2009 was about as bad a year as you could tolerate. Brain surgery, pulmonary emboli, ovarian cancer and chemo would disgust anyone from wanting to see another year of the same. However, in March, after a full work up and scans, she was given a green light. She was, for all intents and purposes, cancer free. Another deal, another set of cards, and house money back on the table. We began planning another trip to the beach and there was general enthusiasm from her about going. We were looking to put the previous year behind us.
We had a lovely Easter dinner and enjoyed company. Then she started getting a headache. Now, this was a woman who could tolerate pain. On a scale of one to ten, it would have to be somewhere near 20 for her to complain but this was different. She went most of the week after Easter with the headache and finally went to see a doctor. They didn’t feel worried and sent her home. On Friday, April 9th, she enjoyed Chinese dinner at our usual restaurant and felt better. On Saturday, it was almost unbearable. My wife took her to the hospital. She said the pain was if someone had hit her in the back of the head with a baseball bat. She was totally cognizant at the hospital and rattling off all the medical information she had always had to recite when she went anywhere like that. Soon, everything worsened and they decided to life flight her to Pittsburgh. She went into a coma and they nearly lost her on the way.
This woman who had beaten cancer for 12 years. This woman who loved Christmas. This woman who loved her family and life with such a fervor was now gone. She was alive, but nowhere to be found inside. From what we can tell, she had an aneurysm. Her brain bled, filling up her skull, causing the flow of oxygen to cease. She could not breathe on her own and she would not wake up. They tried to remove the swelling, hoping to alleviate the pressure and give her a chance. It wasn’t enough, or it was too late. In any case, she was alive because she was on life support, until we said otherwise.
To actually hold the fate of someone in her hands, to make that decision is not something I would wish on anyone. I wanted her to fight. I wanted her to come back. She always had before. But not this time. We gave it the night and on Sunday, April 11th, we had to chose. There was no chance she would ever regain consciousness and even if she had, she would never be the same person we knew. I knew she would never accept that quality of life, not in a million years, but I didn’t want to accept the finality of it all.
On the way to the hospital, we had to explain the situation to our daughter. She was too smart to dumb down the issue and we didn’t want to use an analogy that would confuse or scare her about what was about to happen. We simply told her what happened and what was going to happen. My wife told her we were saying goodbye to grammy and that she was going to live with Jesus. My daughter asked if Jesus was a nice man. My wife said that he was and that he was the nicest man you would ever meet. My daughter said, point blank, “Well, good. Because I would kick him in the balls if he wasn’t.” You can only imagine the simultaneous laughing and crying that went on in that car. Somewhere, in the aether, I imagine a snort and a cackle, along with the snapping of gum.
We still went to the beach this year. It wasn't the best trip we have ever had, because we were missing someone. She would have enjoyed the trip, it was much smoother this year. She would have loved seeing the wild horses. She would have loved the house we had this year, with a great view of the sound. She would have enjoyed the dinner we had at Captain George's. She would have loved seeing her family having fun. She would have loved to see alot of things. She would have loved to see her youngest granddaughter's first day of school and first peanut butter paint job on our living room. She would have loved to see her new kitties growing up fat and sassy, just like she would have wanted. Still, she got to 12 years she would have never had and in that time she got to see one daughter graduate college, both daughters get married, another grandchild be born, the beach and twelve more years of Easter and Fourth of July and Halloween and Christmas. She got to see her husband learn how to play bass and play in a band. And now, you could say, she sees everything with a great vantage point.
It’s been seven months since that day and every day a new challenge faces us. How do we cook that? How do I fix that? What does this benefits packet all mean? The things we would always ask her are discoveries we would have to make on our own. Still we laugh and still we cry over the memories. Still, my daughter says she misses grammy and wishes she could be here. Still, I do, too.
Today is her birthday. She would have been 66 years old. She would have outlived us all if she could. With all her maladies and missing parts, she could have run circles around me. And regardless of how bad it gets, I plan on making sure this holiday is as magical as any, for her sake. I want the party and I want the glitz. It’s not to take the place of what she did, but to honor it. She loved a good party and that’s what life is, a party.
Eat, drink, and be merry.
Don’t forget to take your favor.