This is the elegy I wrote for my partner’s mother. Deeply personal, it concerns the challenges involved in living with and caring for an elderly in-law. I hope “What We Are Given” resonates with those who have waded through similar waters and learned their own difficult lessons.
For her last thirteen years, my partner’s mother lived with us. That the end of her life would be the end of this arrangement was a certainty we did not discuss.
Not that May ever really took part in discussions. Shy and withholding, she offered almost nothing in the way of opinions or desires. In as few words as possible, she would answer direct questions; more often she sidled away, moving onto some rescuing task. She would sometimes pose questions herself, but these were usually associated with the household—what time we’d be home, or when we wanted dinner, or how much food the cats should be given—never anything personal. I suppose she assumed that others were as disinclined as she was to divulge information about themselves. It was as if she were trying to erase herself, the way she shrugged off her worth and inched toward the sidelines. As quiet as she was, and as slight, you could sometimes forget she was in the room.
But May had a heart—that much she couldn’t hide. If Cindy or I were grieving over a loss—a pet, a job, a hope crushed—she would cross the room and give us a hug, sometimes she wept with us. Grief she understood, having lost friends as well as her husband. Though Fred died relatively young, at 63, May never sought the companionship of another man, nor did anyone urge her to. Such a thing was impossible; to know May was to know this. I never heard her utter a word against her husband, though she might have. A hard worker, Fred was also a drinker. Like everything else, she kept her chagrin over this to herself. As far as I could tell, there was nothing more important to her than loyalty to family, except perhaps work. May had a fierce sense of duty, giving devout attention to even the smallest chores.
In the first couple years after May moved in with us, other widows in the neighborhood invited her on various excursions, but she wouldn’t even join them for coffee, let alone a bus trip to Reno, and eventually they stopped asking. In the beginning, I think she was simply reluctant to share her history with others; later, as her dementia gained ground, her life became a daily battle to hide this affliction, and she retreated further into herself.
These were the hardest years, when she knew she was losing her mind. Nothing frustrated her more than her inability to access the words she wanted. Gradually, inevitably, her melancholy turned to acrimony. She saw no compensations in growing older, and almost daily she reminded us how painful the experience was, the suffering we had in store. If May could be accused of any cruelty, it was this. Silent on other topics, she managed to find words of discouragement.
I was, am, her daughter’s partner—actually, I’m her legal spouse. The lesbian daughter-in-law, I was likely not May’s first pick for Cindy, and I understand this: May came from a different time, and she was not the sort of person who broke rules of any kind. I recall the way she pursed her lips at the sight of a black man with a white woman. There was no question that she disapproved of my relationship with her daughter, no doubt that had she ever voted, which she didn’t, she would have voted against our right to wed.
You can imagine this uneasy dynamic. An elderly woman forced by her diminishing faculties to live in a situation she inwardly condemned, and two much younger women compelled to accommodate her. It could have been worse, I reminded myself. May was tidy, quiet, respectful of privacy—surely that was enough to ask of her. What more did I want? What could I expect from this damaged woman who was no more pleased with the living arrangement than I was? Cindy had told me that May had not had an easy beginning, that her father was a tyrant who, thwarting the possibility of lice, shaved his daughter’s head, then sent her off to school. Knowing such things about my mother-in-law, couldn’t I make room for the small inconveniences of cohabitation?
Friends used to tell me that my acceptance of the situation was uncommon, even heroic. Let me assure you, I was no hero. Memories of my intolerance, my smallness, shame me to this day. I fumed over her timorous ways, shook my head over her conformist behavior. Most of all, I resented her negativity, which seemed to invade every room of the house. I wanted her to show more gratitude for life itself, to age with a modicum of grace. Sometimes I literally turned my back on her, made no secret of my annoyance. There were days I wanted to move out, when I didn’t think I could stand another minute of her constant presence. There she always was, a witness to the worst of me.
Then there were other days when, appalled by my conduct, I would scramble for another chance. I would carry her toast and coffee up the stairs to her room—she could not manage these things as time went on—and seeing her timid smile, her pale grasping hands, I was gutted with remorse. I would pat her shoulder, ask if she needed anything else, wish her a good day. There were times when, leaving the house, I would suddenly panic at the thought of never seeing her again, and I would rush back up the stairs and give her a hug goodbye. I wanted redemption; I wanted her to see that I was better than she believed. More and more often, I did not believe this myself. She had me pegged me from the start, I thought, and had kept her silence for fear of causing trouble.
Eventually, leaving her alone became too risky, and we hired a senior care helper to oversee things when we were at work. May did not welcome this development, with any of the women we tried, and I know that the job was not easy. She was becoming more than a helper could handle, a challenge even for Cindy and me. One night we tucked her in, and a couple hours later we found her walking through the house, fully dressed, holding a folded blanket on which she had assembled various items—scissors, a pencil, paper clips, her watch—intent on bringing these things to a place she couldn’t name. Not long after that, when she lost her way even in the house, we moved her into an assisted living facility, where she declined more swiftly. At that point, fully eclipsed by dementia, she had become more docile and affectionate. There were moments she even seemed to enjoy the place, the other residents, as well as the songs and various shows provided by the staff. She died four months later, at the age of 84.
Some maintain that people can time their death, that they will often spare loved ones by passing away in their absence. Though this may have been May’s wish, to shield her daughter from the agony of that moment, I find it hard to believe that mine was the company she preferred. Cindy, who had been staying day and night in the room with her mother, had an appointment that morning in a city an hour away. I was alone with May, faced with a task for which I felt neither suited nor worthy. (The nurse, assessing the change in May’s condition, had gone to fetch an administrator.) May was not cognizant then; two days earlier she had slipped into a catatonic state, and we were told that she was likely blind but could still hear. When her breathing grew ragged, I put my hands on her shoulders and I spoke to her. Over and over I told her that I loved her, that Cindy loved her, that soon she would see Fred again, and all her friends, that she was going to a place of peace and unimaginable beauty. The words poured from me without thought or pause, and I came very close to believing in this heaven. I knew she heard me because she tried to answer. Over and over, she mouthed the word “love,” tried to make it audible, to make it known, and I told her that we knew.
In the first few weeks after her death, May came to us in sleep. Cindy and I had the same sort of dreams: short sweet visions of a happy, peaceful woman. Embarrassed by her false teeth, May used to smile with her mouth closed. In our dreams, her smile was unguarded, and I am comforted still by the memory of those images.
I spent long hours going through her faultless possessions, searching for clues, proof of her affection. She had saved nearly all her correspondence and notes, some of which brought me to tears: physical descriptions of people we had introduced her to, along with their names. I had no idea that she was making such earnest efforts to keep her life from flying apart. There was scant evidence of me in her belongings—a couple pictures of me and Cindy, a notice of a cooking contest I’d won. She had not saved any of my cards, and while this saddened me, I was not surprised. In more ways than one, her death was my discharge. I had a little more room in this world; someone who had caught me at my worst was gone.
Maybe she did love me, at the end. When she was trying to mouth that word, maybe she was including me. I can look back over those thirteen years and recall more than a few tender moments between us.
There could have been more. We could have loved each other better. With others, I have begun. That is what death teaches, what it gives us. A place from which to start.