When I started writing about my relationship with my mother-in-law, I wrote the first essay as a break from my Middle East writing, to have something new that wasn’t filled with Calls to Prayer and swirling desert cadences. I wrote my day-to-day life with Jeanne in an essay about the intimate acts of caregiving.
As that first essay reveals, I knew early on that the story of our extended-family household would reach its resolution only when my mother-in-law passed away. We lived each chapter together, and in the early mornings I wrote the events of our relationship as essays, each one complete on its own but linking together to form the narrative of Jeanne’s final years—the darkest, hardest years of my life so far.
I’m still sorting it all out—the frustration, love, and physical hardship. Yesterday I re-read an email I wrote to Todd’s brothers in 2007, telling them how painful it had become for their mother to have her blood pressure taken. We were in the midst of a cancer scare, waiting for test results, and I thought the pain might be related to cancer. But Jeanne didn’t have cancer. Her body was simply wearing out. I feel the weight of how the nurse’s blood pressure cuff constricted Jeanne’s arm, Jeanne cringing each time but seldom crying out. She had her blood pressure taken at least twice a week for eighteen more months, bracing herself each time for the pain. Now it’s my turn to cry as I remember when the pain started and how much suffering still lay ahead of Jeanne, all of it with the hope that she would “get better.”
The comfort comes as I remember the final chapters—the confidence Jeanne had when she decided to forego fruitless treatments and painful procedures (including the blood pressure readings) and the way her dark depression lifted when we all stopped pretending she would get better and began to help her through her final journey.
Now that I’m assembling essays into chapters and chapters into a book, I find that the last two years of Jeanne’s life were full with repeating thoughts and motifs, like the chorus of a hymn. As full of loss and lies and tensions as our life together was, the memories I have of Jeanne’s final years form a story that’s worth telling, perhaps a story that will even end up to be lovely.