Out of mental self-preservation we spend every day pretending that what we love in life is permanent. Then we’re reminded in the ugliest of ways that it is not.
Last year my mother-in-law was traveling and vivacious. Three weeks ago, she was sitting having Christmas Eve dinner, slowed by illness but still laughing at the table at old family stories and giving out hugs. Now we are talking about the time she has left in terms of a few weeks.
This past fall, after suffering fevers and tiredness for a few weeks, she was diagnosed with cancer. At the time of the diagnosis it was already at stage IV and inoperable.
Terminal illness makes you realize that hating people for say, their political views is ridiculous. There are bigger things to hate. Like cancer. And I do. I want to scream at it and kick it off the edge of a cliff like some avenging heroine in an action movie.
I want to do a lot of entirely unproductive things that my mother-in-law has not done, because she has faced this illness with a preternatural calm. She is smiling still, even in a darkening hour. Because that’s how Susie is.
As a young woman, she had the looks and sparkle of a Texas debutante but went on to live a life of substance and intellectual curiosity that proved she was more than an exceedingly pretty face. If you wanted to know the best way to spend an afternoon in London or Dublin, she was the one who would point you to the eclectic, off-the-beaten-path museum that would become your favorite memory of the trip. She’d demonstrate the most effective way to iron a shirt while also describing a Puccini opera. She could teach more about spirituality by patiently coaxing the sound from a Tibetan singing bowl than a priest could in an hour-long sermon.
I will have to tell my daughter all of this. She will not experience it herself. Grandma Susie will live in stories told around the table and in 8mm footage in which the beautiful, smiling blond with the perfect gams outshines all every time she’s in frame.
Grappling with the full weight of this in recent weeks has made me realize that the term heartbreaking is not always hyperbole. You can feel your heart actually aching at the thought of a little girl’s grandmother being stolen from her. Likewise, of a grandmother being robbed of time with her pack of four wriggling, giggling grandchildren who adore her.
Praying for a miracle now is feckless, so I pray for continued calm and painlessness for my mother-in-law. I thank God that my daughter inherited her blond hair and features so similar that it’s sometimes uncanny. And I pray, against the odds, that her first memory will be of Grandma Susie singing her “Bah, Bah Black Sheep” while she rocks her to sleep.