It was somewhere around late afternoon to early evening on Wednesday, 8th March 2017, that my mother-in-law found the eternal peace she had been seeking for some time. When queried, the doctor who had looked after her in life – and who would now be responsible for writing up his final report and paperwork in her death – had stated that she had probably passed on in her sleep peacefully; that she had not felt any pain. It was the best way for her to go.
Thinking back to the day, at the approximate time that she would have passed away, my husband and I were sitting down at our local recreation centre watching our son during his weekly swimming lessons. The day had started like any other – the morning chaos of getting Master Almost Four to kindy on time; making lunches; getting out of the house in a flurry of our usual haste. Then onto my usual schedule of running errands, grocery shopping and housework. My hubby had visited his mother after his lunchbreak and had spoken face-to-face with his mothers’ visiting sister. His Aunty had been seated bedside and chatting with his mother, keeping her company for a while. This allowed my hubby the time to ring his mother’s second sister located interstate, so that she too could also have a quick chat with his mother. It was just after the swimming lessons that my husband had received the phone call from the nursing home and received the sad news of his mothers’ passing.
In the aftermath of hearing of her death, my husband and I had sat in the lounge area of the nursing home where she had resided for the past two years. We had organised for my own mother to watch our son, so that we could rush to the nursing home. After visiting my mother-in-law for one last time, where we kissed her now cold cheeks and whispered our last goodbyes, we had sat there in the evening light of dusk, looking out to the street below from the top storey window. Hubby had been trying to reach his brother in order to alert him to the fact that their mother had now passed. But he couldn’t be reached. Although his brother’s phone was operational, it would keep ringing out and then going to voicemail. So we had sat there for a time, waiting for his brother to return the call.
During our silent reveries, I was suddenly overcome with more than just the emotions that grief can bring. I felt a sudden gratitude that my husband and I had managed to obtain some of my mother-in-law’s personal story before she died. Looking back on my earliest notes about her life, I noted the date was sometime around June or July 2016 when we had first started asking about her life story. It was only after I had checked with my husband, that we had broached the topic of her funeral and if she had wanted to make a contribution to her eulogy. Does such a request seem strange? Maybe. Are you reading this and thinking you cannot believe how organised we were? Or perhaps wondering how could we ask such a question of her? Such morbidity!?
It has now been a month since her death from terminal Myeloma, a form of Leaukemia, and life goes on as they say. And so it was that I found myself continuing with the mundanity that only everyday life can bring – I was lying down in the dentist chair for my six-monthly check up, scale and clean. Woohoo! I thought to myself excitedly (NOT!). I enjoy chatting to my dentist; not so much getting my teeth worked on.
In particular, I was catching up briefly with the hygienist before she started cleaning my teeth. She had asked after my husband. How was the mother going? I remember she was ill. So I filled her in on the fact that she was now no longer with us. When she expressed her condolences, she had spoken of the head dentist who owned the business and another staff member. How the two of them had also lost loved ones since the end of the previous year. One of those people had been a father of three very young children who were only aged 2 years, 4 years and 6 years respectively. (How my heart ached for the family and friends left behind to deal with the aftermath of continuing a life without their beloved in it. I cannot imagine how confusing it must be for the little ones left behind without a father).
When I mentioned my gratitude for having had the chance to ask my mother-in-law about her life story, my hygienist suddenly exclaimed out loud, “Wow! You guys are really organised to be discussing her eulogy with her too”. I had cringed inwardly at first. I suddenly felt that I had to justify myself and that’s when I realised that I knew why I had broached the eulogy with my husband and his mother almost a year ago – I had wanted to honour his mother the only way I knew how. I’d wanted to give her the chance of having the last say. After all, when my mother-in-law first moved into the nursing home, we had tried to get my mother-in-law interested in continuing her life within the confinement of her new surrounds, her new ‘home’. Her anxiety was worsening every day, so we offered different options like suggesting different reading books/magazines; listening to audio stories; watching her favourite television shows and/or listening to her favourite radio stations and music. Alas, we tried to get her to put her anxious mind to rest by taking an interest in activities and/or hobbies, but to no avail. Whenever we visited her, we encouraged her to talk to us and let us know if there was anything she wanted to talk about. Was there anything concerning her? Was there anything we could do for her?
I had been wracking my mind for some time about what we could do for her. This was in the time we had with her before she was diagnosed as terminal; before her cancer treatments stopped working. I really wanted to honour her memory and it was when my husband had asked me gently if I would be alright to take on the task of reading his mother’s eulogy at her funeral, whenever that time presented itself, that he didn’t think he would be emotionally up to it… I did not hesitate in answering in the positive. Of course, I would be more than happy to do this for him, and for his mother. That’s when I knew that drafting her eulogy would be the only way to really ‘help’ his mother in getting through the unnumbered days that she had left with us.
We were tentative in our approach when we asked her about taking notes throughout the next few months to draft up a eulogy that she could contribute to if she wanted. But there was nothing to be anxious about. She had accepted happily, without a second thought, and put our fears to rest. She had loved the idea and then asked me to make sure that I brought a notebook with me whenever we visited. That didn’t mean to say that the words flowed easily from her heart, mind and mouth though. She would start and stop at times. There were some visits where she didn’t feel like talking at all or was too tired to think about anything. But we eventually built up her story notes over a series of months leading up to her final terminal diagnosis. It was after this final issue on life that she had been given by her specialist where she would suddenly think up of things on a whim that she’d wanted us to include in her eulogy. l would often find myself fumbling around in my handbag, looking hurriedly for the notebook and then try to quickly write it all down before the moment was lost.
And so it was on the day of the funeral service that I read the eulogy and fulfilled my promise to my husband’s request and the request of his mother in passing on the messages she had me write down in earnest, so as not to be forgotten. In the final drafted version, there were several parts to it. Her two remaining sisters adding their contributions to her life story. I feel enriched for the experience; satisfied that I was able to finally honour her life, by honouring her story – both in her words and ours. Through the eulogy, my mother-in-law was able to impart her final messages of love and hope to those loved ones left behind. It was a touching service and it also felt right that we had honoured her memory in such a way that she too was able to take a part.
Never underestimate the simplicity of asking another about their life story. After all, once they are gone, we continue on with our lives holding onto the precious memories and remembering the stories about the life they lived. A eulogy is a form of storytelling.