In December of 2014, Jack walked into the kitchen and caught me while I was washing dishes. “I remember a few things about the day Grandma died.”
“Dad? Can we light my candle?” Jack asked me yesterday morning.
I looked to the clear mason jar on the hutch in the living room. It was magnificent. The lid was dotted with toy gems, while the innards of the jar were filled with colored granules in a red/white/blue flowing pattern. Jack’s handiwork had been sitting there long enough for the candle to be invisible to my eyes over time. “Sure,” I said, despite it being the middle of Summer with the temperature hanging around 80. “How come?”
“We were never able to use it after I made it, because of Grandma’s oxygen machine.”
“I dreamed about my Mom last night,” the stunning Mrs. Clark said this morning. “I remember you mentioning that people have been visited by family and friends like that after they die.”
She was right.
I was truly encouraged by this news. People told me to expect a “visit” from Jan Lillywhite in dreams. I believed them immediately; that type of visit had already happened to me in the past. In 1994 I lost a coworker to AIDS; about a year later I dreamed about him – a far-more healthy him than I knew. He was upbeat and smiling. We had a great conversation for what seemed in dream time like hours. I got a chance to once again see his huge glimmering smile, and hear the signature laugh that I can still hear in my ears today. “Gavin I miss you,” I told him. “I miss you too,” he replied. “But don’t worry; it’s not bad on the other side. It’s actually kind of cool.” I never dreamed of him again, which led me to believe his “visit” was a sort of closure to his passing.
“Did she talk to you?” I asked Sherry about her Mom.
“I don’t remember,” she said. “It’s all a bit blurry. But she was the Mom I remember in her 30s.”
This didn’t surprise me. That time in Jan’s life would have been the most active and motherly. She was pretty, smart, had two awesome kids, and drove a really sweet Lincoln Mark III. If there was an era of Jan that would be the best to “visit” her daughter in a dream, the 1971 Jan would have been one in the top five to help bring closure.
I hope they can strike up a conversation the next time Jan stops by.
I shared a house with my mother-in-law for 22 years.
In that amount of time a person can become accustomed to the habits and routines of everyone in the home. But while I knew and understood those things about Jan Lillywhite, I’ve concluded that I only knew a little about her mind.
Jan was private, at least around me. She was a bit of an anomaly, and her responses sometimes carried unexpected wisdom or humor. I was rarely prepared for her comments, because they often seemed to be steeped in something she had learned in the past – a bit of knowledge she felt important to share in the future. I don’t know what drove that. I never will. But in this uncertainty there are some things about Jan Lillywhite I know:
She missed her Mom > One mother’s day about 20 years ago, Jan, the stunning Mrs. Clark and I were out for breakfast at a greasy spoon on Aurora. When Sherry asked Jan a question about her own mother, Jan broke down and covered her face. Her sentimentality was something she kept very close, so this was unexpected – but very welcome. It was the only time that I saw her cry in public. And while she rarely spoke of Margaret Swart, it was clear when she did that her own mother was held in very high regard.
She loved her children and grandchildren > As I compiled photos for today’s slideshow, I noticed something important. In each picture that had a child of any generation, she had a certain look on her face. For Jan that was neither a smile nor a frown. It isn’t described in words, other than to say it was possibly the most contented expression I had ever seen on her face. Her love for Sherry, Eric, and the grandchildren could be seen there – in the relaxed eyes and slight upward turn of the lips, and more implied than demonstrative.
Her life was an intricate web of detail > Every corner of Jan’s life touched another corner. And there were 8500 corners. In her world, every move, every item, and every word had a connection to each other. At the doctor, she was “Four Foot Eleven and A Half” and not just “Five Feet.” Coffee took Six Creamers – no more, no less. A trip from one end of the house to the other included plans to do at least five different things along the way – instead of just walking. It saved energy. Her dishwasher load jobs were NOT just a bunch of dirty stuff piled on the pullout shelves; they were magnificent puzzles of efficiency that used every potential centimeter of space inside. I was never able to match this skill or satisfy the need to have it “done right.” Living this way was complicated; to this day I have NEVER figured out how she managed to organize books or load the dishwasher; those things will live with her in legend, as I stack my books wantonly and clank bowls and plates in my pursuit of keeping a clean kitchen.
She was the Master of Remote Controls > Jan had two cable lines to her room, feeding two TVs, a DVD, and a DVR. Through some marvel of planning, Jan was able to watch, record, and plan like she was the director of a Media Command Center. I was the one who set up the equipment so many years ago, but I have no clue now how it works. That, like the dishwasher, has become family legend.
She loved her plants > Books, TV, and crafts brought Jan much joy. But more than these she loved gardening. When she was physically able, Jan kept nice annuals, perennials, and other greenery which now dots our yard. This will never be the same, due to my acute ability to kill anything green. But for those plants which survive my ten brown thumbs, they will remain at our home as part of Jan’s gardening legacy.
The relationship I had with my mother-in-law is probably what you would expect: Not Easy. But it was the right thing to do, having her close and making sure she had a comfortable retirement. During my care for her in the final days I can safely say – as the rest of her body grew weaker – that her hugs grew stronger. Her thankfulness in those days, like the warm smile she had around children, was implied. It was just something we knew, even if we didn’t see it all that much. This came from connecting with her on a level which took 22 years to cultivate.
While I only knew her a little, what I knew meant a lot.
My house is filled with reminders of a heart which beats no more.
As we careen through a week – and counting – after my Mother-in-law Janice passed away, Sherry and I have seen our lives get mostly back to normal. Yes, we still have moments of emotion. We have both been going into work, taking The Clark Boys on outings, and going to the things we attended prior to Jan’s illness. Hospice care is done. The machines of life have been picked up, and the remaining medicine has been dispatched for safe disposal. The Death Certificate arrived today on a big brown truck. No longer do we hear the sounds of Care. In a sense we have regained much of our lives and increasing amounts of composure.
Until I look down and I see a pair of shoes.
Jan’s blue slip-on shoes sit behind her favorite chair, put there during her last visit to the living room over two weeks ago. I noticed them a few days back. I don’t want to move them, even though I know I should. In a way, those shoes say she is still here, reading her mystery novels and checking her blood sugar. They point to a time when she could walk. They would have been on her feet while ordering fish & chips at Red Robin (with cocktail sauce instead of tartar). Those shoes would have seen Jan water a thousand plants in the yard – ones that I have managed to kill through an acute inability to care for anything green. Those shoes are her now. One of the last things she asked me to do for her was to put shoes on her feet.
They aren’t the only reminders we have.
In the kitchen sits the small hand-sized cutting board she used for onions. Her crafting supplies take up every spare nook in the laundry room. Upstairs the mundane things of life – an overworked DVR, more shoes, 1980s business suits, toothpaste, a special mouthwash, and towels in a design only Jan would buy – keep her memory alive in the house. We can’t keep it all; looking around our cluttered house we get that point clearly. Sherry and her Mom lived here from 1970 on, which means there is plenty of stuff that can move on (ours and hers). It will be a chore figuring out what items should be kept to remember Jan, what items will be shared with family, and what can be donated to help someone else live better.
43 years of reminders – tucked, here, there and everywhere.
One of the hardest things I did this week was to compile photos of Jan for her memorial service slideshow. More reminders of her life, in full view, and marking the years of good and bad. I didn’t use all the ones I found. Some carried the kinds of sad memories that simply need to go on a back shelf, like the last picture I took three hours before she passed. The rest make me cry, and I have done so each time I have viewed the file in preparation for the service; even today, watching it large on the sanctuary wall, brought the tears.
Sometimes it’s hard being a visual learner.
Reminders aren’t a bad thing. Being sentimental is tough, but worth it. If looking at shoes makes me sad, I’m pretty sure this indicates I have a soul. It’s safe to say, even though Jan and I had a difficult relationship, that I have some good reminders mixed in with the not so good. In a way those shoes in the living room are the kinds of things that will help me remember the good times, instead of her gruff commentary or constant cough. I need more of that. Twenty-two years in the same house with a mother-in-law was not easy, but the right thing to do. I need every positive bit I can find. Eventually those slip-on shoes will go to Goodwill.
And I will become the guardian of the spirit they represented.
The house is oddly silent.
For a last couple months our noisy friend in the living room has pumped oxygen through a tube, up the stairs, and through a cannula to help my mother-in-law breath. After she died our noisy friend was given a vacation. He had worked well – tirelessly, without complaint – and provided the most basic requirement for a women who needed comfort in her final days. A quiet now hangs in the air with our noisy friend shut down; his hum/hiss no longer fills every corner of the home.
It’s symbolic of Jan’s passing – plain and simple.
His departure is not the only reason our house is quiet this morning. Jan had a constant cough the entire time I knew her. We lived in the same house for 22 years, and her rattle had become a part of the ambiance in every way our noisy friend in the living room had in the last two months. A person would walk in the door and expect to hear the cough. However unpleasant to the ear, it meant she was there.
That too is gone.
But this means she is now comfortable, never needing to clear her throat or struggle to say anything. Ever. No longer will she be frightened. or frustrated by a body which doesn’t doe what she wants it to do. She is at peace, and the memories of her life – like her cough – have now transitioned to part of family lore.
The cough went l silent, but not her legend.
Sherry and I have been inspired, comforted, and literally bowled over by the outpouring of emotion, love and kindness from our friends and family during Jan’s last days. Words do help in circumstances like these. It was an sad and amazing journey – one I tried to share with you in my own way. Nobody would choose to repeat it. Nevertheless I am now prepared to take it on again. Of course, NOTHING prepares a person for the emotion of losing a loved one.
All you can do is hang on and let the tears roll.
Even now as I sit in the quiet of the downstairs, the GOOD parts of my relationship with Jan run through my head. I want to keep those alive, and tuck away the difficult encounters we had over the years. She wasn’t easy. Her head was complicated. She had a sharp tongue. I pushed all of this aside in the final weeks because there was no reason to let it interfere with giving her what she needed. Her comfort in the end was worth enduring every hard word, every passive comment, and the years of rattling coughs.
The silence of our house is now filled with her soul.