The experience I’ve had losing my mother-in-law has been incredibly sad & painful. Tim has his own path, his own grief, and his own experience to process. I have no comparison for this experience and I don’t pretend to know how profound it must actually be to lose a parent. I hope that I won’t have to know that personally for a very long time.
My husband Tim’s mom, Shirley, was delicate and elegant. She was devoutly Catholic, exceedingly proper, and never went anywhere without her hair perfectly coiffed and red lipstick in place. She read a new book almost every day. She referred to a rear end as a “seat”, because anything else would be downright indecent.
We sat yesterday afternoon with the siblings (all 6 of them) as they worked on the obituary and plans for the funeral. So many of my nieces and nephews draped over the sofas and crowded around the couch. It reminded me of the first time I met her, and this family, and how intimidated I was. I came to Oklahoma City and was absolutely overwhelmed by the sheer number of people in this family. I knew nothing about Catholicism, and felt dwarfed by the upper middle class surroundings that stood in stark contrast to my working-class upbringing.
Shirley never made me feel out of place. She was an includer. She always had the smile and even when she wasn’t feeling her best, she tried so hard to make everyone feel welcomed and important. She always remembered my birthday and went out of her way get thoughtful presents. She came to all my art shows and always encouraged me when I’d share about a work success. She absolutely doted on all her grandchildren. Even when she was unwell, she had seemingly endless patience for games of restaurant, tea party, and story time.
Slowly over the past few years that we’ve lived here in Oklahoma City, I came to feel like she was my “adopted” mom. Our dynamic was definitely parental. If she was the serene Reverend Mother, then I was the rambunctious fraulein Maria twirling on a hillside somewhere. Even though our views differed, she never made me feel like I couldn’t be myself. We had our weekly family dinners where we’d catch up on her stuff, and she’d catch up on ours. The girls would play at her feet and we’d savor the moments we had with her, knowing that one day, maybe not too far off, she’d leave us.
In the end, the greatest test of our relationship simply came as she became so ill that it became difficult to spend time with her. I felt affected and emotional, but somehow disconnected. She certainly had no shortage of ACTUAL daughters, and my responsibilities with my own little ones made it hard for me to do much. I felt her drifting away slowly, and as the last few weeks crawled by, I could see each day the toll her illness was taking on her. Her already delicate limbs and features narrowed and she looked remarkably like her teenage self that I’d seen so many times in photos. Her brilliant smile still flashed occasionally, but lipstick was no longer present. Her words slowly left her and soon all that we could make out was a whisper.
Our last moment together happened the day before she passed away. She look at me and pointed to Tim whispering that I must take care of him. (I was going to anyways, but now I definitely will.) I promised her that I would and I know she heard me and understood.
For me, knowing Shirley and being loved by her was a rare treasure. I will grieve for this beautiful woman who welcomed me into this family, made me feel as loved as one of her own, and shared so many wonderful memories with us.
If all we have at the very end, is what we had at the very beginning, then I can only hope I make the in-between time as meaningful and beautiful as she did.
Goodbye, Sweet Shirley.