My Mother-in-Law’s Garage — Part 2
This article posted over at Burnside this past week. [If you'd like to go read PART 1, click HERE.] I’m posting all of it here on the blog because it’s important to me personally and I want to share it with you.
In the process of cleaning out the garage which belongs to my husband’s mom, I ended up sifting through other life accumulation (‘funny how circumstances work out that way sometimes, huh?). Initially, I brought a handy organized friend with me when I first opened the garage to look at all that remained to be sorted. She was there to help me matter-of-factly figure out what to do next. But, we were both surprised by my emotional melt down. I was paralyzed with the garage, and ultimately, so many stored-up hurts.
After much sorting and unexpected grief, with the newly emptied garage came healing only God could bestow. Maybe you can relate. I’d love to hear your thoughts. ~KjL
Dried Rose Petal image, Melissa Graf
Two guys in dusty coveralls close the loading door with a rolling slam. The big yellow auction truck pulls out of the driveway, takes the steep turn, and disappears down the suburban golf course street. I grab a broom and stand alone. My mother-in-law’s two car garage is finally emptied of the things no one wanted to keep.
I stare, momentarily paralyzed by the freedom.
My husband’s mother still owns the house. She spends her remaining days in a wheel chair at the nursing home down the street. Young renters now occupy the space where her husband bathed her, fed her, dressed her, and loved her as a loyal companion. No one imagined he would go first. Two weeks before he died, in a fog of cancer the beloved pastor wheeled his wife into the nursing home without her bags. He went home to take a nap. I delivered her suitcase, plant, and pictures. What remained was packed tightly in the garage.
To any who ask about him, she offers a practiced pastor’s wife smile. Her slow quaking hands can transfer a Kleenex from her pocket to her nose. Caretakers do all the rest. Many times a day she unconsciously checks and rechecks the finger where her wedding ring used to be.
She has no idea about the garage. The remaining artifacts of her life were no longer hers to manage.
My sleeve mops away an unexpected flow of tears mixed with dirt. I set down the broom, sit on the cool concrete, and take in the clean new emptiness. Tears stopped, face dry, I decide to head down the street to see my mother-in-law.
Three in the afternoon, still in bed, her head is sliding off the pillow. Outside the ground-level window just a few feet from her face, the limbs of a tall rose bush bend heavy with buds, pregnant with scarlet blooms. On the other side of her head, the bed stand holds a vase full of brittle dead roses left over from Mother’s Day. She resides in a rose scented limbo between life and death.
A large new bruise blooms blues and purples on her arm. She smiles to see me and speaks with a clarity that always surprises me, “Well hi!” I sit in the custom wheelchair parked by her bed, and smile back, “How are you?” And always the same exact reply, “Oh I can’t be complaining.”
I think if anybody has reason to complain it would be her. But she doesn’t. Ever.
“Where did that bruise come from?” I ask and rest my foot on the bedrail. She thinks, and begins to chat about the mysterious injury and other answers to questions I ask. I adjust her glasses over her ears and begin to clear out the bedside table. I pick up her growing stack of cards from friends and hold each one over her head. She looks up at each picture and name.
“Do you ever get sad about Don?” I ask about her husband, and wait for the smile and pat answer. She explains she doesn’t think about it much and smiles. In her world, unpleasant emotions are things to be managed, contained, shut down. I stumble through a status update of her empty garage and find myself again in an unexpected and teary flood. I weep a for the final clear out, for her emotional shut down, and for him, gone.
She can’t access my flood. We don’t share the grief. My mind automatically drifts to all the ways over the years when she has refused to engage. My list is as big as the contents of the auction house truck that just drove away.
I have carried a conflicted and guilty anger toward her, some days throbbing under my ribcage, pounding to get out. My cheeks and neck used to flush hot with the suppression of rehearsed words I refused to speak out loud about her son, about her broken distance from the boyhood heart of my husband. Today they are yesterday’s words, sent away with the unwanted items of the past.
I wipe the remaining garage dirt off my hands and wonder about what remains for her, for me with her, for us.
A student nurse clatters into the room with a wheeled tower of monitor equipment. Her supervising nurse follows and greets me and explains about my mother-in-law,
“I tell new staff about how she always smiles. Did you know she is the only one in this facility who never complains?” The nurse thinks about her own question with a pause, and answers herself, “She never complains.”
The nurse is right. I know this. But the awful truth is, I have often dismissed my mother-in-law’s smiles as something ill and untethered from reality. And perhaps there is a tiniest grain of truth there. However, one day, shortly after he husband died, the woman who has lived 40 years with the constant and crippling affects of Multiple Sclerosis said to me,
“I can still choose to smile. I can’t choose other things, but that is always something I can choose. Nobody else can choose that for me. It’s all I have left to give.”
Her thread of remaining dignity, her last empowered daily choice daily is a refusal to complain. The result impacts people around her with something positive … something that resembles Jesus to the tired hard-working caretakers around her. It is a choice of focus, a blooming gift she chooses to give.
It is the very best she can do. I can see this now.
As the garage slowly cleared out, my personal baggage with my mother-in-law followed, complete with my unresolved list for her, and so many things set in ice long ago. I see her final resolve and I recognize myself in her imperfect motherhood. Walls collapsed. Anger dissipated. And in the melt, I have gained a clarity of grace.
We are two faulty and broken women, mended mothers in a room of roses with a choice to make.
Blame or forgive?
Deny or grieve?
Wither or bloom?
To grieve is to cry, rage, accept, and let go. To forgive is to release someone from a debt they could never repay. Healthy grief allows festering wounds to heal. True forgiveness cleans out the spaces where we have stored garbage too long. Sitting by my mother-in-law’s bed, I realize that I have come to newly understand the healing and release of both. In all the accumulation, I almost missed the gift.
We all reside in a space between. Look to the right and find only dead dry petals of the past. Look to the left, life is bursting into color. Today, everyday, even in the worst of circumstances, the hardest choices are often as simple the turn of a gaze and the focus of a heart.
What will it be? Which will you choose?
Now that the garage is empty I can say it and mean it. Focus on what blooms.
Looking for more? You can read “My Mother-in-Law’s Garage — Part 1″ and my other sketches over at Burnside Writer’s Collective, HERE.
Dried Rose Petal image, Melissa Graf