My mother-in-law didn’t care for me. I knew that long before our engagement was announced. I wasn’t even surprised when she tried to convince my husband not to marry me.
Early on, we were polite to each other, but I knew she was saying unkind things about me. I should admit that she wasn’t alone in that. I did my share of complaining about her, too.
Years later, I finally learned that what I was doing was gossip. Of course, at some level I always knew my behavior was wrong. A good indicator was that I did not want my mother-in-law to hear what I was saying. I greatly regret the harsh words I spoke about her, and like to think I have learned from it.
Gerry and I were married in 1989. It was April 2006 before the relationship between his mother and I began to change.
Lorraine may not have liked me much, but when it came to medical issues, she trusted me. She knew I had taken care of my own mom through ten years of various illnesses until her death two months earlier. I learned so much in those years that medical staff often asked if I had a degree in their field. Knowing this, when Lorraine found herself struggling to breathe one day, she called me. If she actually wanted to see a doctor, it had to be serious, so I hurried to her house and drove her to urgent care.
That was a life-changing day for us. She was hospitalized, and before discharge she was diagnosed with congestive heart disease caused by kidney failure. We were told she would probably be on dialysis by December.
On the day she was scheduled for her follow-up appointment, she told me she did not want to go. She said that at age 80 she was ready to just enjoy the rest off her life. I told her this was not like treatment for cancer. There would be no chemotherapy. I suggested she find out what treatment would be like and how it would affect the quality of life. She agreed to go.
I am so glad she opted for treatment. In her additional years of life we developed a closeness that never would have happened otherwise. We became so close that people often confused us for mother and daughter.
Still, at that time, it was difficult for me. We learned that she would be on Warfarin, meaning she would need to go back to the clinic for frequent blood tests. She was also scheduled to see a kidney specialist and a cardiac specialist. I realized there would be countless doctor appointments in the next several years, and that there was nobody else available to make sure she got to them.
In other words, we were going to be spending a lot of time together. I wondered how we would even talk to each other.
In retrospect, that memory makes me laugh. Years later, as we were driving to the clinic for lab tests one day, we were engrossed in such enjoyable conversation that I stopped paying attention to my speed until I saw the patrol car. The policeman who stopped me was a gem. He clearly thought we were pretty cute together. He kept asking questions designed to give him an excuse not to write a ticket. (Is this an emergency? Do you need a police escort? Are you late?) In the end, he let me off with a warning.
Over time, of course, her health declined. Sometimes she would fall and break something, requiring a brief nursing home stay for physical therapy. As a fall risk, she had to ask for everything, even to use the bathroom. She had no real independence. A big fear of hers was that she would one day need permanent nursing home care.
My husband and I made it clear that we supported her in her desire to continue living on her own. We were committed to helping her as much as possible. Of course, because Gerry was still employed, most of that help would come from me.
As she grew more frail, she required more assistance. For example, as her mobility decreased, she went from needing me to take her grocery shopping to needing me to actually do the shopping. As she lost vision through macular degeneration, she needed me to make sure she took her medications correctly. We continued to help her as she went from cane to walker to wheelchair.
Lorraine would sometimes declare herself a nuisance. At those times I reminded her that we never would have become so close if she had not accepted my help. Initially, I was only helping her out of a sense of obligation, but God took that small piece of willingness and made something great out of it — a sign of His great generosity.
At some point I started to realize what a blessing it is to be able to help those who are suffering. Even if our relationship had not developed, this was still an opportunity to follow what God desires of us. When we see suffering we can either turn our backs to the sufferer or help to the best of our ability. We choose to either turn from God, or grow closer to Him.
Lorraine called me one day, full of anxiety — a state of mind new for her. She wanted to get out of the house, thinking it would help. She asked if I was going anywhere. I told her I was going to Mass, and invited her to join me — although with some trepidation, as she was not Catholic and had not worshiped anywhere for as long as I’d known her. We had frequently invited her to join us on Sundays, but she had always turned us down.
This day, she said yes.
It was a daily Mass, so the group was rather small. To our delight, a couple of Sundays later she agreed to go again. This was the beginning of regular Mass attendance. Eventually, we invited her to become Catholic. On November 26, 2010, at the age of 85, she was received into the Church. Eventually, she became a regular at daily Mass.
Lorraine broke her hip in December 2014 and took her last trip to a nursing home. By now, she was mentally prepared for death. She had needed transfusions a couple of times earlier in the year, and each time had to consider whether she wanted to go through with it or not. She had also had to answer the question of whether or not to undergo dialysis when her kidneys declined enough. Though her doctor had predicted she would need dialysis by the end of 2006, she never actually got to that point.
However, her heart and kidneys were in poor enough condition that breaking her hip was more strain than they could take. She knew she was dying. She and I were together in the community room the day she let hospice know she was ready to leave us. A woman was playing Christmas carols on the piano while residents sang along. All of a sudden the music changed; instead of another carol, we heard the notes to “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” I knew that was an old favorite of Lorraine’s, and we grinned and started singing to each other. The smiles lasted until my tears started to flow, and I had to turn my face away.
When we realized we were truly witnessing her last days, and saw the comfort she took from our presence, we decided to take shifts so somebody could always be there for her. My husband and his brother took the day shift while our daughter and I took the night shift. On the morning of December 24, the men arrived at the usual time to be with her. She also had other company. As my daughter and I were preparing to leave, I said to everyone in the room that I hoped that Lorraine would still be there when we got back. I told them that we had been in this together since 2006, and I suspected she wanted me with her at the end. I thought she was sleeping and couldn’t hear me.
It turns out she was awake. She did hear me. This woman who had not liked me for years, who at one time didn’t want me in her family, now vehemently nodded her head, indicating I was right. At this most intimate time of her life, she wanted me with her. In that moment I felt as if there was no better way she could have said, “I love you.”
That evening, Christmas Eve, my daughter and I returned with the gifts my mother-in-law had asked me to buy. Gerry’s brother went home to be with his family. Gerry stayed, and the three of us opened her gifts. While we were doing this, she died. I realized it as soon as I went back to her bedside. I like to think she was aware of what we were doing and wanted to see us open her last Christmas presents.
Before dying, she had received her final sacraments. After her death, she received the graces of the Church in her beautiful Catholic funeral. This has been a source of great comfort to me.
God asks us to care for His people. He does not ask us to only care for those who treat us well, but to love everybody. I was not doing a good job of loving Lorraine, but could not, in good conscience, turn her down when she needed me.
In return, God took my willingness to do what He desired, willingness about the size of a mustard seed, and gave me a relationship I could never have imagined. While He was at it, He taught me that our behavior towards everybody is important, even those we do not much care for. He showed me to never give up on people. I even learned a lesson in suffering, I had never before thought much about the spiritual implications of suffering on the bystanders. In other words, I also learned that this timeless adage is true: God will not be outdone in generosity.