In mid-January, my mother-in-law who lives 2 hours away, suffered a stroke and fell. Apart from the concussion, her speech and memory were somewhat affected. My husband comes from a family of 3 siblings. His older brother lives next door to Mum, his older sister resides in another state, some 4 hours away from us. In the aftermath of what happened, my husband and I felt it would be best if Mum moved in with us. It wouldn’t be too far a move for her and as such, less upsetting. No one else disagreed with us so we began to make plans.
There was no vacant room in our home but we planned to bring a spare bed into our bedroom and make Mum comfortable there. It would require a huge adjustment on the part of all of us. Worrying about how I’d balance this with my work struggles made me deeply afraid of what was ahead. I saw that same fear in my loving children’s eyes too but I soothed them without sugar-coating it. In times of difficulty, I believed that we needed to focus on love. We would do that now too. Focus on loving Mum as best as we can, give her the very best from our hearts and God would take care of us. Granted, we had no clear idea of how we would manage as both my husband and I were both working full time. There were absolutely no care services in our remote town that we could rely on, but we figured that since the stroke had not impacted Mum’s mobility much, with help from our kids who were all studying at home, we could try and work something out. It would not be easy but we are pretty resilient as a family. Even if we messed things up initially, we’d learn fast.
What mattered was that Mum be surrounded by family in a secure and loving environment. I had suffered from fears all my life; I didn’t want Mum to fear being alone or anything. Because coming to live with us was hell enough for her. I had married her favourite son and early on in my marriage, she had made it clear she felt I wasn’t good enough for her boy. Besides, I wasn’t my mother-in-law’s idea of fun. Mum was an extreme extrovert; I went out of my way to avoid most social situations. She had 2 tongues in her, I sometimes had trouble finding the one tongue I had. We were polar opposites and Mum had scant patience with my dull ways. But she was good, old soul and over the years, I learned to not just accept her but to love her too.
But her move into our home was not to be. Without warning, one day, the hospital announced that they were discharging Mum into home care. With equal suddenness, my husband’s older sister who had been silent during family discussions, announced that Mum should be with her. We were concerned that my husband’s sister was taking on too much. Although her children were all grown-ups – unlike our much younger brood – her own husband was a recovering stroke victim as well. But there was virtually no time to talk things through.
What started off as a normal but busy day filled with meetings for my husband, ended very late that night. With suppressed anger and frustration, my husband packed his aching heart away and hastened to do his older sibling’s bidding. After work, he drove alone to the town Mum lived in. Strict lockdown rules did not permit me to cross the district border with him. At the hospital, he dealt with the discharge paperwork alone.
It was late evening when Mum had been securely strapped into her seat for that long drive to her new life. As the waning sun watched over that old town, so many people were returning home. But Mum was leaving the town she had come to live in as a young mother almost 60 years ago. Leaving the house where she held court as queen of the home for decades, the sepia memories of golden days spent with faithful friends. Leaving the graves of her husband, and her beloved baby grandson, the only death that had broken her to tears. Leaving without a chance of bidding her last farewell because her mind was going.
My husband had to slowly and carefully drive his frail mother to the meeting point with his sister at our state border. Mum was understandably not quite herself. She took time to understand things and it took a lot out of my husband to keep his eyes on the road and at the same time make sure Mum didn’t attempt open the car door midway through the journey. All through that long drive, she fiddled with knobs and levers just like every one of our babies had done years before. Still, she asked him nothing, as if the contentment of just being alone with her little boy was all that mattered.
Then, as the purple twilight skies gave way to night, someone must have whispered something in her heart. In a sudden shot of lucidity, Mum told my husband that she didn’t want to stay elsewhere. That she wanted to come home with him. I can only imagine how much it must have cost my husband, a devoted and filial son, to choke back his tears and instead, find the words to comfort his old mother, knowing that she now somehow knew that she was going where she least wanted to go all her life.
To be fair, my sister-in-law was having a very hard day too. As we were under lockdown, the rules were very strict, to the point of being inhumane. My poor sister-in-law had to rush to get a police permit to cross state borders, then, make that long drive to pick Mum up and immediately drive back across state lines before midnight that same day to avoid a hefty fine. After a rushed pick up, the poor woman finally made it home at midnight. My husband came home exhausted too but at least he came home to a hot meal and a loving family waiting to fuss over him and soothe him. While my sister-in-law pulled up to a comfortable home, it was empty save for a husband not quite himself. She had returned to a house with empty rooms because all her children now resided in other states, and she returned to a marriage she had marked and wounded in so many ways.
It felt so sad that it had to be this way but it was my sister-in-law’s call after all of wanting her mother with her. At some deeper level, I could guess at her intent. Facing failure at any age is difficult but it’s worse when you are older, close to retirement age or beyond, because in some families, some aspects of marriage and bonds with kids are cast in stone by now. We can hope for the sun to rise some day and some of us will strive to the end to make that happen.
But some of us just aren’t made to hope, to forgive or to seek forgiveness. Some of us find it too difficult to strive for a better ending to life. So, we try to return to a life lived years and decades ago, when things were much simpler and affairs of the heart less complicated.
For my sister-in-law, that meant taking into her home the mother who had petted and doted on her even into adulthood. Ever the optimist at all the wrong times, my husband’s sister refused to try to understand that even if Mum healed and improved, something in Mum had already been set into motion. There was no going back into the past where Mum stretched herself thin doing everything to ensure ease and comfort for her only daughter.
For a month, Mum was with her daughter and did pretty well. After holding our breaths, we finally exhaled. Mum’s physical recovery was good. My sister-in-law was a tender and loving caregiver, very efficient in her care. Still, we were worried. The nation was under lockdown so some of us like my sister-in-law and I were mostly working from home. But with the lifting of restrictions coming in February and with it a return to full time work for all of us, there would be no one to watch Mum at home when my sister-in-law was at work.
My husband’s sister is a difficult one to communicate with, if I may say so. On good days, everything goes well. But there are days too when this wall comes up that nobody can scale.
That wall was well in place when we tried to discuss Mum’s care going into February.
Suddenly, early this week, with no warning in the almost daily conversations, my husband received a text from his sister saying she had it with taking care of Mum. That she couldn’t go on. And she wanted my husband to come up with something. The change in her was sudden, to say the least – but less so to my husband. This was the way she had always been whenever the going got tough. Her coping strategy was to check out for a period of time and have others scramble to pick up the pieces.
In this case, those pieces was Mum’s sudden mental deterioration from early this week due to another stroke. Mum now required fulltime care but with lockdown, getting a homebased caregiver was not an option. And my sister-in-law had no backup plan in place for what we saw was coming and had tried to warn her about.
We had no care options in our town either but there were good nursing homes in the closest city in our state. Quietly, without letting on to my husband, I did some research. I looked for a facility that would allow us to bring Mum home on weekends, to let her be with family. Her mind was going fast. She barely remembered or recognized people who had been in her life. Whether she was with us or remained in fulltime care, it would not make much of a difference to Mum who would likely never go back to who she was.
But I wanted to try. 3 years ago, one day after Christmas, I had a dream. It was of Mum, living with us and utterly happy and at ease. In that dream, I had been warned by an unseen person that in having to care for her, I would be
What if that time warned of was now? To suffer for heaven knows how long but in the end to receive the joy of seeing Mum happy and well again, finally at peace with the world? I had to at least try.
City rates being what they were, it would cost much to keep Mum comfortable. There would be no chance of either my husband or I retiring early. But on the bright side, I figured that since I was at the losing end of keeping my weight down, maybe having less to spend on food would yield early blessings for me.
Yet again, it was not to be. After a few tense days and many prayers, my sister-in-law instead found a good nursing home just a few minutes’ drive from her home. Their rates were something we could afford. And they agreed to take Mum in immediately.
By evening, Mum had left the house again, intent on her secret journey, shutting gate after old gate to open new ones. All our efforts to hold her back are futile. It’s like she is growing wings.
And day by day, even as her body weakens, her wings strengthen, taking her closer and closer to the sun, one gate, one door at a time.
As I search for the final words for this post, the warm yellow~white winds outside rise to sudden high notes, strong yet gentle is their evening song. For long minutes, I lay my heart against them.
Then slowly, one by one, the winds gather gently. Softly, softly they lay the meaning of their song by my heart.