Remembering Joanne

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Mother-in-laws tend to get a bad rap. The overbearing “other mothers” whose seemingly endless strings of unsolicited advice and merciless criticism are fodder for Hollywood script writers. The movie Monster-in-Law, in which Jane Fonda plays the world’s worst mother-in-law, comes to mind. But the truth is I wouldn’t know. I never really got the chance to know my mother-in-law, not the way I should have.

Joanne was already sick when my husband (then my boyfriend) brought me home to meet his family for the first time. I remember it well. She had just been released from the hospital after receiving a high dose of intravenous steroids, and she was feeling well. We sat in the kitchen together rolling out sheets of dough as she taught me how to prepare her famous Stromboli. The conversation flowed smoothly and we laughed easily as she shared stories from my husband’s childhood to embarrass him in a way that only a mother could. This is one of the best memories I have of Joanne.

Her disease progressed rapidly and by the time my husband and I married two years later, she had lost the use of her arms and legs, and her cognitive function was severely impaired. A decade earlier she had made a recording of herself singing a cover of Bette Midler’s “The Rose.” She had a beautiful voice, and the words to the song are haunting. When it was time for the mother-son dance at our wedding, Joanne was wheeled out onto the dance floor, and my husband and I danced for her as her recording of “The Rose” filled the room. There was not a dry eye in the house.

Over the next five years, Joanne continued to fight for her life. But it was a losing battle. There is no cure for multiple sclerosis (MS), a devastating disease that attacks the central nervous system. My father-in-law cared for her at home for as long as he could, but ultimately her needs became overwhelming. I know it broke his heart to admit, but she required 24-hour nursing care, and he simply could not do it alone. He made arrangements for her at a facility that would provide her with the nursing care she needed, and that became her new home. The MS had left multiple lesions on her brain, and while she still recognized her family, she was not aware that she was no longer in her own home.

Even with round-the-clock nursing care, Joanne was in and out of the hospital often, and my husband and I frequently made the two-hour drive to visit with her. We had two children by this time, and her face would always light up at the sight of them. It makes me sad sometimes to think that my children never really got the chance to know this amazing woman who was their grandmother, and equally sad that she never really got the chance to know them.

The last visit we had with Joanne was on a Saturday afternoon in early January of 2008. My husband and I brought the kids to see her, and we sat at her bedside and talked just as we always did. We told her about what was going on with our jobs and shared funny stories about the kids. But Joanne did not look well, and driving home later that evening, I was hit with the sinking feeling that we had just had our last visit. Though I did not share this thought with my husband, I think he felt it as well. He was preparing to fly across the country for a two-week military training exercise, and was hesitant to go.

My husband had been gone for only two days when the phone rang in the middle of the night. And when the phone rings in the middle of the night, it is never good news. I peeled myself out of bed, moving carefully as not to disturb my children, who were tucked in beside me. I knew before I even answered that Joanne was gone.
Moments later when I telephoned my husband I said only, “Your mom.” It came out a whisper. He replied only, “I know.”

The next 12 hours were a whirlwind of chaos and confusion. Because my husband was on military assignment, getting him home was not going to be easy. It required an emergency injunction from the Red Cross, dozens of telephone calls and a slew of faxes. But eventually we managed to break through all of the red tape, and he was released from duty and back home within 24 hours.

Because it was the most fitting tribute we could imagine, the recording of Joanne singing “The Rose” was played at the conclusion of her funeral service. It was hauntingly beautiful, as was she.

I asked my husband the other day if he thought that his mom and I would have gotten along if she had not been sick, if she was still here, or if he thought she would have been my “Monster-in-Law.” He laughed and said, “I think you two would have been just fine. She liked you very much.” And that made me remember one last thing. Early in our relationship, before my husband and I were even engaged, Joanne wrote me a letter that I have kept all this time. It was no small feat for her. She could barely use her hands at the time, but she was determined. The shaky lines spelled out, “Becky, You don’t need a ring to show you are engaged yet. Between me and you, I know you’re the one.” That was nearly fifteen years ago, which makes me think my husband said it best. We would have been just fine.

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