For the fourth time in two years, our family has lost a loved one.
My sweet mother-in-law Betty moved to her eternal home on January 23, 2022. She was in her 91st year of living, and she lived it fully.
It happened quickly, and then, painfully slow. She was relatively well at her 90th birthday party in Maryland but developed respiratory issues three months later. The final three weeks were difficult, but she was not alone. She was loved on and cared for by two dedicated daughters and had visits from other family members and friends. My husband and I had Covid, so we remained in Florida, getting daily updates by phone.
I was at the bedside of both my parents when they passed in 2020, and I remember the long hours of watching and waiting and praying for them to recover or transition into the arms of God. I wanted both, yet I wanted neither. The aching tension that grips the heart during the process of losing a parent is unrelenting. What my husband and I discovered this time is that being far from a loved one’s final days is equally distressing, just in a different way. There’s just no pain-free way to do it.
My dad once told me to never be embarrassed by or ashamed of grief and tears; they just reveal how much you loved.
Well…this current grief is heavy because Betty was dearly loved. By all who knew her. Because she loved others. She welcomed everyone, was kind to everyone, extended mercy to everyone. There are only two people in my life who I have always seen exhibit lasting, unconditional love, and Betty was one of them.
I marveled at her lack of malice, even when frustrated with or disappointed by someone. She always assumed they had some struggle or burden that made them selfish or unkind, or that maybe she had failed them somehow. I so admired this, as I grumbled in my own heart about someone I was having trouble forgiving. Such grace Betty offered.
And always to me. She was a wonderful mother-in-law, which made me annoyed with all the MIL jokes/stereotypes that have been around forever. Not true for me, I always thought; I have a gem. I have two daughters-in-law, and I suspect I have already failed at being the kind of MIL to them that Betty was to me. She will always be my role model for this.
I smile every time I think of one routine Betty and I shared. Every time we came home to the U.S. from being stationed overseas with the Air Force, she and I would head to Lake Forest Mall near her home. Europe did not have American-type malls and while in Italy/Germany I always missed roaming through multiple stores, shopping for clothes or accessories. She was high-energy and led me to the best shops. We would spend hours shuffling through racks of items, then pausing for a soft pretzel.
On one shopping trip, probably 40 years ago, we got caught up looking at hats. I found a stylish black fedora that I loved. We both tried it on and mugged for the mirrors a bit. The hat sat beautifully on Betty’s soft permy curls, and I commented how great she looked in it. She agreed it was pretty sharp, but voiced no interest in purchasing it. I bought the hat. (I had it for a decade, wearing it mainly in Europe.) On the way home from the mall, Betty remarked, “If you ever change your mind about the hat, you can send it to me, because you know I look good in it.” Makes me laugh to this day.
Years later, I came across the fedora, something I had not worn ever in sunny Florida. I boxed it up and mailed it to Betty, where during chilly winters in Maryland, one might need a classy fedora. I included in the box a note that read: “It’s your turn. I know you look good in it.” She called me when she received it and we laughed and laughed. Tale of the traveling hat.
One precious thing Betty and I shared was our faith. We talked about God, religion, and Christian principles often in our 47-year friendship, and I always enjoyed attending Mass with her. We discussed things that puzzled us or frustrated us, blessings we were grateful for, and how heaven must be some kind of wonderful.
When The Passion of the Christ was released in 2004, there was much attention given to this honest, but graphic depiction of Jesus’ final, agonizing few days. Many people I knew had seen it and were urging me to do the same. I hesitated, but I didn’t really know why. When I asked Betty if she was going to view it, she replied, “No.” Her eyes welled up a bit as she added. “I know what He did for me. I don’t need to see it.” There it was. I felt exactly the same way.
Betty flew to visit us in 2019, I believe her last plane trip anywhere. We had a blast. She was always up for any adventure. The hubs took her to Kennedy Space Center and to the beach. Our daughter and I took her to Get Fired Up, where she painted two ceramic pieces: a wine glass for her daughter and a toy car for her 70-year old niece. “I always wanted to give Donna a car,” she joked.
She visited with my parents, met her newest great-grandson, and played with his 3 1/2-year old brother.
My last visit with Betty was on the day of her 90th surprise birthday party. While her daughters secretly prepared the venue, Betty told me about the figurines in her china cabinet, where some of the candy dishes came from, who gave her what. She didn’t remember the origin of some things, but it didn’t matter. Memories and stories rolled out about people and events that were important to her.
Once she was fancily dressed for dinner out with a beloved granddaughter and her spouse – the ruse created to get her to the party – she asked me to untangle a necklace in her jewelry box. She then pulled out two more boxes from a dresser drawer and together we looked for a matching pair of pearl earrings. As we fingered earrings looking for their mates, I started to sort and organize her jewelry. We sat on the bed together and rooted through all these trinkets like two little girls discovering their grandmother’s heirlooms. It was precious time.
We found the pearls she was looking for, and I adorned her neck and ears with these final touches. She decided on the proper elegant sweater, fluffed her hair in the mirror, and off we went to the lobby of her apartment building to meet her ride. It wasn’t a pumpkin coach taking her to a ball at the castle, but it sure felt like it.
I loved this woman. She was a constant, reassuring presence all of my married life. After every baby we had, she came to help for a week. In every Christmas box she mailed our family, there was always chocolate just for me. She knew I loved cloisonne earrings and gave me several pairs over the years. We both loved Blue Bloods and Olive Garden breadsticks. We both loved Jesus.
I know she is with Him now, and that is one thing that makes me smile in this time of loss. I know He scooped her up in delight, just like this image called “First Day in Heaven” depicts.
And she is now, and shall forever be, experiencing some kind of wonderful.