It's been nearly a year since my mother-in-law died. I miss her - differently from the way I miss my own mother - but in some ways I miss her more intensely. Perhaps it is because her loss is more recent or maybe because she was the last of our parents to survive, so losing her was like losing all of them all over again. But, one thing I know, the relationship she and I shared grew sweeter as the years went by, and I miss her dearly.
My husband and I went to her now empty home a couple weeks ago to be present during a pre-auction open house Her home was important to her, especially as she got older, as it represented her independence and autonomy. She loved her little house in her little town; being near her sister; being able to drive herself wherever she wanted whenever she wanted. But, it's not the house that prompts me to write. Rather, it is the things that I found in the house that reminded me of her and of the years in which our lives became so serendipitously entwined as she shared her son with me and I my children with her. Here are some of them:
- The taped together computer generated 80th birthday banner we made my father-in-law in 1997 - It had been placed in the trash by industrious cleaners who did not understand its value to children now grown or a woman now gone.
- Stacks of envelopes she saved from that same occasion - She probably kept them to remember and/or write those who thought of her husband and her on their "big day" (their birthdays were separated by only one day).
- Two little snapdragon flowers that had survived years of fending for themselves - I remember our kids being drawn by the wonder of those flowers much like I was enthralled by the honeysuckle that grew wild in the cliffs near my childhood home. Well, there they were - two little undersized blossoms - growing by her house with their little "jaws" clenched tight - a throwback to years gone by when tiny fingers would poke inside them to discover their Jurassic Park like qualities. They caused me to smile.
- A laminated clip from Ann Landers (again, in the trash) - It had to do with donating ones organs after death for the benefit of the living.
There were other things - holiday themed window hangings, hand cut construction paper decorations, pages from coloring books, a paint by number replica of The Last Supper my husband had created for her as a boy, appliance manuals, stationery from far flung places our kids have visited, an old address book with loved ones' deaths recorded on the inside cover.... Things that my husband and I knew were there but had yet to gather together and bring home where we seem unable or unwilling to dispose of them - for to lose them feels like losing her for good.
Looking back, each one of these simple treasures coordinates with the others to collectively illustrate my mother-in-law's character, but perhaps the last in the list most perfectly embodies her. When she died, her organs were destroyed - they had shut down as she lay in the hospital - and nothing we could do, nothing her medical team could do could save them or her. Sadly, she was unable, in the end, to gift them to the living as her Ann Landers clipping from years ago suggested would have been her wish. And yet, her desire to enrich the next generation did not go unfulfilled, for she left the essence of who she was in each of us. Her devotion to her husband and her love of family, her wise (and sometimes funny) sayings, her spontaneity, her commitment to her church, her rascally sense of humor, her Sunday meals, her steadfastness in everyday things, her times spent with our children. She savored and saved them. She cataloged them. She cherished them as she cherished us. May I, through her example, be inspired and strengthened to do the same.