Death has perfected the art of keeping up appearances. Sometimes sweeping in unannounced. At other times imminent. Yet even when its arrival is expected, the knock on the door can still come as a bit of a shock.
My mother-in-law has been keeping death at arms length for a period of time now. At first the diagnosis of breast cancer and the treatments that came with it. Then, many years on after the breast cancer left her body, leukaemia weaved its way into her bones. During this personal battle with leukaemia she had no support to rally round her. No solace in the form of hugs or a listening ear or two. However, this was brought about by her choice of excommunicating with her immediate family – her two sons and daughter-in-laws. She had recently separated from my father-in-law as well. She chose solitude and decided to suffer without us knowing.
It was in our silent exile that we tried on various occasions to make contact with her. Wanting to make sure she was okay. Trying to stay in touch, despite her hurtful dislodgement of us from her life. To this day we do not know what made her choose to take such a path. We have tried to piece together a jigsaw puzzle of possible reasons, some of the answers we decided for ourselves included: the state of her mental wellbeing needed medical attention, with one son believing that there was an undiagnosed mental health condition and that it had been present for many years; she was always self-medicating and going from doctor to doctor if they did not provide her with the medications she felt she needed; the disarray of her early life growing up as a young woman at the tender age of 12, having to almost take on the ‘mother’ role of her four younger siblings; her pigheadedness and dismissiveness of anyone who told her otherwise. These various jigsaw pieces were not meant to belittle, disrespect or denigrate her, but simply to address the facts we knew as they were, including personal dealings with those around her.
After the birth of our son, we had sent her a card in the post. Hoping that by announcing the arrival of her first grandchild, she might pick up the phone and become involved in our lives once more. Perhaps even take up the role that now eagerly awaited her – becoming a grandparent. However she did not respond immediately. Another twelve months or so went by before a short message was left on our answer machine, heralding the arrival of a new relationship with her. Her acceptance of her new role. Our exile had been broken by her, on her terms, in her good time; she being seemingly unaware of the impact and consequences of her silent treatment of us.
Our son is almost three and a half years old. My brother-in-law and his wife have been trying to conceive for some years now. As they ride the wave of IVF, and the hope of a new life being created, we are trying our best as first-time parents to shape our son and the beginning of his life. And in all of this, she has been through her own upheavals – moving out of her independent living unit into a hospital bed for almost six months, upon finding out that the leukaemia had returned after a much-welcomed absence; finding a nursing home to move into and call ‘home’; working through a couple of new cancer drug treatments. This time she has had support. She recognises that without her family she would not have been able to do it alone.
My husband and I are grateful for small blessings. There are so many that come to mind. The obvious one being his mother reconnecting with us and becoming a part of our lives once more. She has happily fulfilled her role as a doting grandparent, although very limited by her health. We see the silver linings here. The main one being how we hoped our son would get to know his grandmother.
Earlier this week she sat down with my husband in front of a specialist, whose eyes had filled momentarily with tears at having to give such grave news, and was advised that her cancer count was higher than it had ever been. There was nothing more that could be done for her. Sadly, death had been waiting in the wings.
There were no tears. It seemed, at first, almost no show of emotion. But knowing how her anxiety had worsened over the years, no doubt her mind was mulling over things. As I had not been present in the specialist rooms when she was given her final prognosis, she enlightened me in the hospital foyer. She was seated in her wheelchair. I looked down at her slightly shaking hands, her very thin frame. This was not the mother-in-law I remembered. The deterioration of her health was very much physically present.
We were waiting for my husband and son to walk back to our car, parked a short distance from the hospital entrance, then drive into the pick up bay out the front. I asked her if she perhaps wanted a cup of tea and to be seated somewhere to gather her thoughts. Maybe even watch her grandson run around and play. But she had refused. Her only thought on getting back to the nursing home on time to ring the bell for the nurse to bring her a nausea tablet.
Upon settling her back into the safety of her bed in the nursing home, the nurse having administered the nausea tablet shortly after her return from the hospital, we were saying our goodbyes. Our toddler was overtired and hunger would be settling in shortly. Dinner and toddler bath and bedtime was on our minds. After our hugs and kisses, I half-closed the door to her room, according to her wishes. Her parting words to me ringing in my ears well after we had walked away down the corridor and into the lift, driving back home: “Don’t forget about me…”.