After my mother-in-law passed away unexpectedly earlier this month, I tried to console myself with the idea that her suffering had ended. But the more I thought about what her life had been like, the more confused I became. She had spent so many years coping with pain, that it was impossible for me to imagine her being free of it. It had fused with her identity so completely that I could no longer detect a self that wasn’t articulated by and through pain. And I’m not sure she could, either.
I won’t lie to you. Living next door to her for nearly two decades was not easy. Despite the fact that she is no longer with us, the pain she experienced will live on in her descendants. I witness its impact every day. And no matter how hard she worked to suppress that pain, to repudiate its insistent call to action, it will always be part of her legacy. That’s why I feel the need to confront it now, even though doing so is excruciating. But it would be a disservice to her if I did not at least try to give a sense of what she was like when she wasn’t completely consumed by its demands.
She will be missed, most savagely by her daughter and surviving son, who struggled to reconcile their difficult childhoods with her reluctance to seek forgiveness for the role she played in them. She may not have been nice to the people she encountered in the course of her daily routine — several primary care physicians refused to see her anymore after she had verbally abused them or their staffs — or reliably caring towards the family members who needed her to be. But she was a powerful presence and a survivor who, in spite of everything, can be admired for persevering in the face of difficult odds.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of her personality was her capacity for finding pleasure in small things, even when her interactions with other people were fraught. She loved all her cats, including the two black-and-white rescues she took in after her second husband died, who remained terrified of almost everyone else for the five years they lived with her. She loved a good mystery, alternating in recent years between large-print hardcovers and the audiobooks that were almost always playing while she slept. She loved the old French burger at Mimi’s Café, about which she would inevitably say that, “They make it real well, just the way I like it”. And she loved being organized. Her house is full of notepads and journals with all the information she wanted to have ready at a moment’s notice.
Right up until the end, she was surprisingly self-sufficient in spite of many setbacks over the past few years, including the fall in March that had left her with a badly broken leg that was still mending. She wasn’t up and about much — something that had been true for most of her nearly two decades in Tucson — but got a lot done when she was. She had survived so many previous medical crises that she seemed indestructible. Her daughter and I frequently wondered aloud whether she would outlive us all. That she not only failed to do so, but died prematurely, under circumstances that are still not clear, is extremely hard to bear.
When we last talked on the phone, only a few days before I discovered her on her bedroom floor, she made more effort than usual to ask how her daughter and granddaughter were doing before talking about herself. But she still came up with a classic “Nana” moment, complaining that someone from her biweekly cleaning service had thrown away a pot because it was dirty. She was eager to take it up with them when they next came to her house. That was the morning I found her, though. The police turned them away. And the pot turned out to be right there in her kitchen cabinet after all.
My mother-in-law was an extremely smart woman. Though she only had a high-school education, she read voraciously. She was always checking things out of our local library. She also regularly bought books at our local used bookstore, then traded them in for others. I’m not sure whether she considered the ones left on her bookshelf special or just hadn’t gotten around to exchanging them. But they gave a good sense of her taste, which was solidly mass-market when it came to fiction, though with a distinct preference for works by women. She had enough of a gift for making whatever she was reading sound interesting that I would page through her favorite authors myself. Although I did not find them as compelling as she did, I liked the way she liked them.
I could go on. It’s getting hard, though. Every detail I call to mind feels like a distraction, a way to ward off a pain that can only be suppressed at our peril. That would mean acting the way she did. Because, whatever else she was doing in her daily life, the impulse to manage her pain took precedence, with serious consequences. Every time new emergency personnel came to her home – a frequent occurrence in recent years – they would express astonishment at the sheer number of medications she was taking to combat her pain: a regimen of painkillers staggered just enough to give her an hour or two of reasonable alertness each day; anti-seizure prescriptions to numb her nerves, even though she had never had a seizure; and benzodiazepines to take the edge off everything else. But the ones who had been there before, like many of the EMTs from our nearby fire station, could no longer muster surprise. To them, she was just another one of those unfortunate individuals whose bodies have become so dependent on prescription drugs that it is almost impossible to tell what they are really like without them.
If you’d had the chance to meet her, though, during one of those increasingly rare times when she was out and about, you would have been hard-pressed to see her as one of the sad casualties of the opioid crisis you hear about in the news. Even though she spent the vast majority of her time in the darkness of her bedroom, as dead to the world as a hibernating bear, she put on a good façade for the public. One day, after feeding her cats, I waved to one of our longtime neighbors, whom I hadn’t spoken with in months. He had heard the news and extended his condolences. “I know she had a lot of medical problems, but it’s still hard to believe,” he said. “She was still going outside to get her mail every day and would always stop to talk if she saw me.”
I knew, without him having to say so, that this stopping-to-talk was not necessarily something he had welcomed, though he was always cordial with her. She had a way of making you feel cornered, even if you were standing on the opposite side of the street. She talked so much that it felt like she had a daily quota to meet. Although she would go through the motions of reciprocity in order to keep a conversation going, she always ended up communicating a lot more about her life than her interlocutors did about theirs. Because she didn’t do much outside of the house besides shop and go to medical appointments, the details she shared were usually mundane to the point of absurdity: how Wal-Mart had stopped stocking the sort of bagged oranges she wanted; how another front-desk person at her primary care physician had treated her rudely; how someone had tailgated her on the way to the library.
In the end, though, she would invariably make her way to the topic of pain. Even people who had never met her before and would probably never see her again were subject to a monologue about the precise nature of her current pain and the regimen of prescriptions she was using to combat it. She was particularly fond of explaining the relationship between the pills she took like clockwork and the ones she only relied upon for “breakthrough” pain. More disconcerting than this exhaustive detail was the cheerfulness with which she conveyed it. As soon as she had managed to dispense with the preliminaries necessary to make it seem as if she was interested in having an exchange, her eyes would light up. It’s hard to imagine a person appearing to take more pleasure in the recitation of pain.
It wasn’t until the third or fourth time that a person spoke with my mother-in-law that the cracks in her façade would start to show. Although she could always handle strangers with aplomb, talking to people she already knew proved more difficult. In the nearly thirty years I knew her, she regaled me over and over with stories of the wonderful friends she had met while running errands. But apart from family, the only people she truly stayed in touch with were a woman who once lived down the street from her, whom she used to have lunch with once or twice a year, and a longtime friend who had once been married to a serial killer.
I sometimes had the impression that she didn’t like talking with anyone who would remember what she had said. During her numerous rehabilitation stints over the past decade, usually after a bad fall, the fellow patients she liked best were the ones suffering from dementia. When I visited her at the facility, she would invariably introduce me to “friends” who seemed to have no idea who she was or staff members who were too busy to listen to what any of their patients were actually saying. I’m sure she did this because she didn’t like the way regular interlocutors looked when she began to launch into one of her monologues. Captive audiences are not much fun when they feel their bondage so acutely.
The problem wasn’t simply that she told the same stories over and over, but that anyone who knew her well could tell that they were full of falsehoods. That’s why family posed such a problem for her. She was forever constructing alternate histories, in which anything remotely painful was transmuted into innocuous pleasure. Her daughter found this “Hallmark” side infuriating, in part because it invalidated her own experiences. And I found it frustrating as well, even though I didn’t have to grow up with her as my mother. Even the minor arguments we would periodically have were soon edited into nearly unrecognizable form.
I remember one time when I had to drive her to Urgent Care, because she could not get an appointment with her primary care physician. Since her daughter and granddaughter were out of town, I decided to take her out for Chinese food while we waited for her new prescriptions to be ready. Unfortunately, most of our conversation that night was devoted to the rudeness with which she had treated one of the pharmacy’s employees, just because the poor woman had pronounced her name as “Helen” with a silent E on the end instead of the correct “Helene” that rhymes with “seen”. Things became so heated that we almost left the restaurant before our orders came. Yet when she recalled the experience months later, it had been imbued with the warm glow of nostalgia. Not only had she written our conflict out of her retrospective narrative, she didn’t even seem to remember the incident at Walgreens at all.
The operative word in that last sentence is “seem”. I had experienced her mode of forgetting so frequently over the years that I knew it was never as simple as appeared to be the case. Yes, she had put the evening’s unpleasant aspects out of her mind, but that didn’t mean they would stay there. Nine times out of ten, if you brought something like that up again – and her daughter and I felt a perverse need to do so – she would stick to her revised narrative. Every so often, though, a door inside her would open just enough to let the light stream in.
Perhaps because I was not related to her by blood, she regularly told me things that she was reluctant to discuss with her own children. It also helped that I have a good memory, because I could usually summon the cues necessary to keep her talking on those rare occasions when she was willing to share. I can still picture her sitting next to me in the parking garage at BASS Tickets in Concord one day in the early 1990s, waiting for her daughter to get off work so we could go out for the evening. Her father had just passed away, so I tried to say something comforting. She turned to me with a snarl. “I’m glad he’s dead. That man was a tyrant.”
Later, after her daughter had confronted her about this statement, she denied having said anything negative about her father at all. Because I couldn’t let her confession go, though, I brought that day up every now and then just to hear her tell me one more time that I had fabricated the whole tale. And then one day a few years ago, after I’d taken her out to breakfast following a medical appointment, she confirmed that my memory of the conversation was correct after all. I felt validated, at least for a while. By the time she passed away, though, she had once again started pretending that I had made the whole thing up.
It’s an extreme example of a tendency my mother-in-law exhibited over and over. Unless you wanted your interactions with her to be dominated by tension, you had to reconcile yourself with the knowledge that she was a woman who would consistently make up the story she preferred to tell. Although even close friends of Donald Trump are baffled by his refusal to stick to facts that most sane people agree with, even when it’s obviously to his benefit to do so, I have no trouble understanding why he would rather fabricate an alternative narrative. That’s what narcissists do. And my mother-in-law, like the President, was a narcissist through and through.
Obviously, my mother-in-law did not have the power or influence to cause damage on the scale that Trump is. But given the narrow ambit of her everyday life, she still managed to wreak remarkable havoc. Her older son died of a heroin overdose in his twenties. Her younger son and daughter both spent much of their lives struggling to ward off the lure of drugs and alcohol. And her second husband, the father-in-law I came to love unconditionally, despite the fear he had once inspired in his stepchildren, probably would have lived a lot longer if she had treated him decently.
When he came home from a lengthy rehabilitation stay in a skilled nursing facility, she harangued him relentlessly, frustrated that he could no longer be as independent as she needed him to be. Then, when it became clear that he would have to move into one of the small private facilities that care for disabled senior citizens like him – in large measure because she was both unwilling and unable to do the work necessary to keep him at home – she coldly informed him that she wasn’t willing to pay what was required to move him into a place nearby, even though most of the funds would have come from his pension anyway. The best she could do, she told him, was to move him into a home all the way across town, in the poorest part of the city. One day he was hopeful, excited at the prospect of recovering further in a location where we could visit him easily and the next – the only day she visited him during his stint in this transitional facility – he had decided it was no longer worth fighting. “I don’t want to go anywhere else,” he sadly told me. “It’s just not worth it.” He was dead within the week.
I witnessed firsthand how horrible she could be during that dark time. And I saw her engage in lots of other troubling behavior over the years. To be sure, it often seemed humorous in retrospect. Just last year, she decided to get my daughter, already in her second year of a BFA program in Studio Art, a set of children’s coloring books for her birthday. That’s not even the punchline. Because, on the very same shopping trip when she purchased those coloring books, she also bought herself a set of nice oil paints, quality brushes, canvases, a wide range of how-to books for artists, and a new easel, telling me that she was “inspired to try her hand at painting again herself.” Maybe this was a way of performing what they call “self-care”. But you would think that she could have expressed this lingering sense of having been denied her due as a creative spirit without making her granddaughter feel infantilized in the process.
As hard as my mother-in-law tried to convert potentially painful memories into something she could express without discomfort, the past still kept throwing its weight against that door in her mind. And what a past it was, full of enough agony to explain most of her misdeeds. Sometimes she would recall her family history and the Italian heritage in which it was hopelessly tangled with pride. But it was more common for her to foreground those parts of her personality that were free of its taint, like when she became obsessed with the Outlander series and bought copies of the books for her children because of the little bit of Scottish in her, or when she loudly proclaimed that she was descended from Mormons and Huguenots, though nobody could figure out whether there was evidence of this ancestry. The more I learned about her past, though, the more I understood why.
Although she would frequently describe the places in her body where that pain seemed to be coming from – her neck, her lower back, her feet – this map of suffering was resolutely ahistorical. Only because I paid close attention on those rare occasions when she discussed her childhood or other members of her family mentioned things she had told them in a rare unguarded moment did I eventually piece together the only story she did not repeat over and over.
Growing up in an Italian-American neighborhood on Goat Hill in the Bernal Heights region of San Francisco, she was in many ways a classic product of the Great Depression. Everyone in he neighborhood would set up nets to catch the birds that flew past on the stiff winds, because that was the easiest way to secure protein for dinner. Even by the standards of that fearful time, she was poor. And her skin was dark enough that cruel children regularly targeted her with the same epithets reserved for African-Americans.
While her parents were inconsistent and sometimes neglectful caregivers, they also had a zesty approach to life that came through loud and clear on the few occasions when I met them. Her mother grew up in the small Northern California company town of Scotia, owned and operated by Pacific Lumber. Not herself of Italian descent, she struggled to fit into her husband’s closely knit family and was given to bouts of what we would now probably consider mental illness. She was legendary for leaving food on the stove too long.
The man my mother-in-law had once described as a “tyrant” worked on such iconic Depression-Era projects as the San Francisco Bay Bridge. His passions were playing the accordion and organ and producing intricate metalwork. Although the brass model trains he made were worth a lot, he never seemed to hold onto money for very long. He could be incredibly charming and brutally violent. The abuse he inflicted on his two daughters scarred them forever. The older one, my mother-in-law, somehow persevered. The younger went after him with a large knife one day and ended up getting shipped off to the mental hospital in Napa, where they performed a lobotomy on her.
Although the pain my mother-in-law experienced became increasingly bound up with her dependence on painkillers during the nearly three decades I knew her, the main reason for the physical discomfort she experienced was the violence her father had inflicted on her whenever she defied him. One time she described to me how he through her down a flight of stairs. Another time she mentioned being pushed into a bathtub. Most of the time, however, she refused to talk about this horrible legacy and instead explained that a car accident she had suffered in her twenties was to blame.
She had to get out of her parents’ house. Nevertheless, she refused numerous suitors in spite of her situation. At one point, her father was keen on marrying her off to a scion of the notorious Bonanno crime family – whose long-time boss eventually retired to Tucson, ironically enough – yet found her intractable, driving him into a rage. Unfortunately, when she finally did wed, she picked a vice cop with a sadistic streak and mafia ties of his own. She found him thrilling, she told me during a disturbing conversation we had on one of those occasions when that door in her head had creaked slightly ajar. But he was a bad husband and a worse father to her three children. One time, he tried shoving a spoon down his eldest son’s throat to see how far it would go. She once again needed to find a way out.
This time she selected her husband’s high-school friend, a massive ironworker who was much nicer to her, all things considered, and willing to raise another man’s offspring. He was a stable provider, if a little boring for her taste, and an excellent counterweight to her impulsiveness, when neither of them was drinking. He drank every day after work, though, and much of the weekend as well throughout the 1960s and 1970s. And on Fridays they either made the children wait in the car while they got plastered at a strip-mall saloon or left them to their own devices back home.
By the time I got to know them, they had been sober for years. It was hard to imagine my future father-in-law even contemplating the acts of physical aggression his stepchildren fearfully recounted. But my mother-in-law still exhibited enough random cruelty and thoughtlessness that I could definitely picture her provoking him. Over and over again, I’d see her gradually turn from being a vivacious conversationalist into someone distant and mean. Only after many years, though, did it become clear to me that this transformation was determined by where she was in her painkillers’ dosing cycle. As soon as there was less than an hour to go until she could take her next pill, she seemed to lose the capacity to treat other people with kindness.
In retrospect, I can see how the “Bad Nana” that would emerge during that stage was closely related to the one who would briefly stray from script and tell me things she would otherwise avoid acknowledging. That brutally honest woman wasn’t much fun to be around either. It was clear that something inside her was working very hard to shut the door on those sides of herself. And I don’t think it was just the physiological compulsion of her addiction, either. She always thought of the opioids she took, not as an end in themselves, but as a means of temporarily ending her connection with memories she did not wish to confront.
Maybe that’s why, though she was always worried about running out of her prescriptions, she invariably held some pills in reserve. She knew that door might start to open at any time and had to be ready to close it as quickly as possible. That could explain why she refused to acknowledge that she had been addicted to opioids since before I was born. In her mind, so long as she was deciding when to take them and how much she needed, they didn’t have control over her.
Her history of falls suggests otherwise. But even in that case the problem was as much her stubbornness as the drugs themselves. She didn’t like to eat until she was feeling better, and consistently put off preparing her meals until after her painkillers had started to take effect. Unfortunately, she was also diabetic and would frequently take her next dose when her blood sugar was dangerously low. Or she would take too long in the kitchen and try to carry her tray of food back into the bedroom when her dose was peaking, making her unsteady on her feet. No matter how many times we told her to take a different approach in the interest of safety, however, she insisted that there was no reason to change.
The longer I work on this piece, the more I’m beginning to think that it’s this refusal to take direction that she would most want to be remembered by. Even her compulsive need to construct alternative histories can be regarded as a form of resistance, however frustrating to the people close to her. She had grown up in a time and place when the opportunities for impoverished girls to realize their dreams were slim. Everyone was always telling her who to be, yet she wanted to be someone else.
One time in the 1990s, on a rare outing to her native San Francisco that did not culminate in mother-daughter conflict, she spent an hour discussing the ideas in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble with her daughter and me, demonstrating an intuitive grasp of their pertinence to the everyday lives of ordinary men and women that many academics were and remain incapable of mustering. While that was at least partially a function of her having been so aggressively interpellated by her family and teachers to be a good Catholic girl growing up, her comprehension far exceeded the scope of her personal experience. Remembering the excitement in her voice that night makes me sad that she didn’t have more opportunities to put her intellectual gifts to good use.
She was also deeply competitive, which could be a good or bad thing, depending on the situation. Playing any kind of game with her was bound to be fun, as long as you didn’t mind her doing everything possible to win. Starting in the 1980s, after they had largely stopped drinking, she and her second husband would spend a lot of their free time playing computer games by themselves. Even if they didn’t talk to each other that much, they seemed to enjoy pursuing this solitary pleasure in close proximity to each other. The first thing she did after getting out of the skilled nursing facility where she had been undergoing physical rehabilitation this summer was send me up to Best Buy to get her Windows laptop fixed so that she could play solitaire on it.
I suppose that’s as a good a metaphor as any for how she managed to live her life without succumbing to the demons that tormented other members of her family. She would play with you and always play to win. Yet she was perfectly happy to play by herself and knew lots of ways of doing so. Watching her closely over the years that I lived next door to her, I started to wonder whether at least part of her suffering derived from the fact that she could not live completely inside the routines she had devised to distract herself from its burden.
I have no doubt that her spine hurt her terribly, especially over the last few years. She wasn’t making her pain up. At the same time, her condition never prevented her from doing what she really wanted to do. Every time she ended up in the skilled nursing facility, she made faster progress in her physical rehabilitation than patients with much more minor issues. Even this summer, after having broken her leg in four places, she managed to make it back home before the thirty days covered by her insurance had run out. And she never missed a doctor’s appointment, regardless of how bad she was feeling.
It was impossible not to notice that there was a significant discrepancy between the stories she told about her pain and the way it in which it shaped her daily existence. When it was supposedly at its most extreme, such as when she had to get in and out of a car, she usually bore it a lot better than she did when she didn’t have anywhere to be. It sometimes seemed as if she could consciously postpone the impact of pain until those in-between times when she could lie in bed for a few days. More likely, as her daughter frequently suggested, there was no longer a clear correspondence between her pain and the strategy she used to cope with it. Her body’s need for opioids was independent of the sensations they had been prescribed to dull. Indeed, I’m not even sure whether they did any good for her spine, despite her protestations to the contrary, since the kind of nerve pain she experienced responds better to anti-seizure medicines, like the Gabapentin she was taking in large quantities, than it does to drugs like Oxycontin.
The longer I knew my mother-in-law, the more convinced I became that the only way to make sense of her pain was to recognize that the same word designated three distinct phenomena for her: the pain she could manage, even though it was partially manufactured by the same medications prescribed to treat it; the pain she couldn’t manage effectively, but had no trouble talking about; and the pain that went both untreated and unmentioned, except for those rare occasions when that door in her mind would crack open for a short while. The result was a twofold displacement. The pain she could talk about but not manage effectively distracted her from that last kind. And the pain that she could manage with painkillers distracted her from the other two.
As a means of coping with suffering that would otherwise be intolerable, this nesting of different types of pain makes a lot of sense. Although the psychoanalysis developed by Sigmund Freud and his collaborators will always be compromised by the sexism, classism, and racism that taints many of its influential case studies, the more abstract principles it asserts remain useful as a way of understanding behavior that would otherwise seem irrational or perverse. Like so many people who have endured significant psychological damage in their lives, particularly in childhood, my mother-in-law was adept at the sort of inner bait-and-switch techniques that make it possible to acknowledge and proactively address suffering without having to confront its existential underpinnings.
What differentiated her from many people who demonstrate such coping strategies is the degree to which she seemed to be aware that she was using them. Although she doggedly refused to admit this fact – again, except for those moments when that door in her mind would briefly go ajar – those of us who knew her best had ample evidence of her double consciousness. Earlier this year, for example, she temporarily abandoned decades of stonewalling her daughter to admit that she had indeed removed every single picture of her first husband, the abusive vice cop, from the family albums, but understood why her children might want to see what their biological father had actually looked like. She implied that there might still be a photo of him to share, despite her scorched-earth editing, and indicated that she would look for it.
We never found out whether this photo still existed. But I have a strong suspicion that it did, because another one of the things my mother-in-law had revealed in tiny bits and pieces over the years was that she still held a flame for her first husband, in spite of all the terrible things he had done. Her younger brother, a deranged but compelling alcoholic who played competitive ultimate frisbee and took a lot of hallucinogenic mushrooms when he wasn’t extracting protection money from his clients, told us that the vice cop’s sadistic brutality turned her on. Family legend held that his second wife did not actually commit suicide with his police revolver, but instead was the victim of a Russian roulette game that he had also made my mother-in-law play.
As an outsider to this family, with a far different upbringing, I was initially inclined to regard this story – and many others – as tall tales, communicating psychological truth even as they exaggerated and distorted the facts. But the more time I spent with them, the less certain I was of this conclusion. One time in the 1990s, we took my mother-in-law to see the remake of Cape Fear with Robert De Niro. As the film progressed, I found it less and less plausible, foregoing the restraint of the original for an excess that turned it into black comedy, as if it were striving for parody. She was clearly enthralled, though. At one point, she turned to me, during De Niro’s most over-the-top scene, and huskily whispered, “Isn’t he sexy?”
It was a strange thing to say to one’s future son-in-law. But not as strange as calling to warn me about her daughter, right before she and I were going to be married. The longer she talked — the conversation ended up lasting more than two hours — the angrier I became, seriously wondering whether we should disinvite her from our wedding. What sort of mother would badmouth her own child in that way? I was incredulous, even as I made a mental note that every story that her daughter had told me about her mother, no matter how improbable or extreme, was probably true.
Then, just as I was about to tell her off, she pivoted. “Wait,” she began, “you are a Catholic, right?” When I explained that I wasn’t, she stopped denigrating her daughter and instead became her outraged defender. “I don’t think she should marry someone who isn’t Catholic. Our family heritage matters. What if you have children?” Taken aback, I promised that any progeny could be baptized in the church, even though I knew that no one in the family had been to Mass in years, that her own parents had converted to Protestantism in their latter years, and that she had consistently voiced strong reservations about the Vatican’s rightward drift. It was the fastest way to end what, all things considered, had been the most unsettling conversation of my life.
A week later, despite having spent the better part of the previous year in a wheelchair, she took extra doses of painkillers and danced the night away at the wedding with a huge smile on her face. Everyone who didn’t know her commented on how happy and vivacious she seemed; everyone who did looked on with the slack-jawed mixture of horror and admiration that she inspired when she was fully devoted to a performance. Her brother ended up leaving early, in part because he found it impossible to see her act that way without the hard liquor we had decided, given their family’s propensity for behaving badly under the influence, not to supply. And our long-time landlord, who had witnessed how much suffering she had inflicted upon her daughter over the years, turned to me, after watching my mother-in-law whirl gleefully around the room with his partner, and said, “I will never forgive that woman for what she has done.”
That was a commonly voiced sentiment among those who knew her best – a small number of people, as I have noted, because of her preference for the company of strangers – even in situations, such as our wedding, when most people would regard it as radically misplaced. Indeed, it was one of the first things her daughter said to me after I had found her mother on the floor. Because I am inclined to see the silver lining in every cloud, I always resisted such judgments, even as I acknowledged why they felt necessary to the people making them. That’s why, despite my own superstitious inclinations, I knew it was better not to contest the statement. There would be time to reconsider later.
And I suppose that’s what I’ve been doing here, now that the borax has been vacuumed out of her bedroom carpet. She was never the sort of person that you could simply remember with fondness. But she was someone you felt compelled to remember, stories about her surging up inside you to counteract the ones that she told. She was a woman who insisted on sharing her pain, as if, by transmuting it into words, she could make someone else bear part of the burden. While I’m not sure whether that strategy truly diminished her own suffering, it certainly increased that of her family.
One of the things her daughter and I found most infuriating about my mother-in-law was her insistence in talking to her grandchildren about death, regardless of whether they were ready or willing to listen. Over and over she would repeat the same sentimental story about a tree which, as its life ebbed away, provided nourishment for future generations. As I deal with the impact of her actual death on her daughter and granddaughter, though, I’m forced to ask what kind of sustenance pain provides. Because that is the legacy she has left behind, a suffering that will outlive her body and continue to fuel her descendants.
That sounds too negative. Still, I’m not sure how else to put it. She was a complex person. And rarely capable of extending the form of caring that we look to mothers and grandmothers to provide. No matter how much she tried to express love for her family, the emotion always seemed to be contaminated with something else. Maybe it was the opioids, which she had been taking every day for over half a century. But I think it makes more sense to regard them as a secondary consequence of suffering that both preceded and exceeded them.
They did not really kill the pain. Or, rather, the pain they killed was not the pain that most needed killing. But they helped to manage it long enough that her family will remember what she was like instead of what it was like to grow up without a mother or a grandmother. Although that’s a troubling trade-off, it was the best she could do. And the example she set, as someone who learned to put herself first, gives us something to work with, even if we go out of our way not to follow it. She survived for decades with the sort of suffering that other members of her family, like her sister, firstborn son, and first sister-in-law, simply couldn’t cope with. That has to count for something.
I want to remember the woman I saw at my wedding, not the center of attention, but as close to it as she could get. Who knows? If she’d had the opportunity to go to college and pursue a career instead of becoming a wife before she was ready — largely because her life at home was intolerable — she might have become the sort of person she dreamed of being, instead of spending so much time consumed by frustration and resentment. She deserved the chance to try, to pursue her love of art when she was young instead of trying to recapture it when she was too achy and arthritic to hold a paintbrush.
I want to remember the woman who had the presence of mind to know that, when that door creaked open in her mind, she didn’t always have to shut it immediately, who every now and then found a way to tell a different story than the sort she usually told. Driving back home in my car last night, as I was trying to figure out how to conclude this most-difficult-to-write piece, one of my favorite songs came on. Although I have had the stream-of-consciousness lyrics memorized for twenty-five years, one line resonated for me in a new way: “And these stories you hear, you know they never add up.” Because my mother-in-law worked for many years as a bookkeeper, she was very good at reconciling figures. But the words she left behind stubbornly resist any effort to produce a neat-and-tidy ledger.
That’s why, rather than try and fail to reach a proper conclusion, I will instead leave you with another story. I have spent either Thanksgiving or Christmas with her every year since 1990, usually both. Every single time, she insisted on putting out a bowl of sliced black olives, the canned supermarket kind that cookbooks invariably tell you never to use. Nobody but her asked for them. And she barely touched them herself. Nevertheless, she needed to see them on the table or the occasion didn’t feel special. Sometimes, particularly in the years since her second husband passed away, I would force myself to eat a few in her honor. Although they were initially bland, I could eventually perceive a bitterness that became more intense as it lingered on my tongue. I can taste it right now.
Photographs courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.