The turkey was in the oven, needing only broth and herbs added in 20 minutes, while Chef and I and our friend along with the beasts headed out for a quick 1 mile walk in the local edition of the turkey trot. I left explicit instructions for the woman who has cooked her whole life, I left the broth measured in a cup, the herbs in a bowl. I left knowing there was a good chance I would come back home to disaster. Upon returning I found she had turned the oven off, the broth from the noodles was in the roasting pan, almost overflowing, the herbs still sat on the counter.
My mother-in-law has alzheimer’s. It is still early in the disease, an ugly limbo where we aren’t sure how much intervention to take, how far to step in, how much to take away from her. Chef still wants to ask her, wants her to be his mother who tells him rather than be the one to parent her. It is an ugly transition, one I can’t say we are doing well. She has 3 boys, all who have benefitted from her active involvement in their lives. They are resisting the change. No one wants to step up, I understand their resistance and yet push, push my Chef. I pepper him with questions: “Did you check her medicine? Do you know when her next appointment is? Did you set up a meeting with all the brothers?” This is not helpful, my powerless matches his, we all are coping with the loss of all that is her differently. Thus, I was determined this Thanksgiving was going to be special, centered around her even if she wasn’t aware.
It began on Wednesday when I turned on Pandora to play while we were all tasking, I chose a 50’s classic station. Chef winked at me as she said over and over how each song was her favorite, asked how I found that song to play. She thrilled in the music, I delighted in her happiness. I snuck upstairs to let the tears flow, to thank God for the opportunity to bring joy to her. She followed me around, asking questions that I had answered only moments before. When is Plum’s birthday? (Last month, she made the cake.) Do you have just one cat? (remember, the other one is out on couch.) Where is Chef? (he just went into the garage, he will be right back) Where is Plum? (He will be back tomorrow) Do you need to get Plum off the bus? (He is with Mama, he will be back tomorrow) Is it time for Plum to come yet? (sigh).
I found tasks for her, simple things that ended up not so simple. Heart-breaking questions regarding which how to place the silverware next to the plates, complete inability to follow the pattern around the table. Dishes to wash, cats to feed. Still, I rejoiced that she was with us for this time. She asked what pies I was making, wondered about a butterscotch one. I have never made that, ever. Never considered it. I made it this year, a quick edition to the menu. She makes the cream pies, that has always been her thing. She asked, I found a way to deliver, scared I would ruin it, frightened it wouldn’t taste right. I forgot that it didn’t have to be perfect, it just had to be. I let her lick the spatula, she loved the pie.
She forgot to bring a necklace to match her outfit, she has hundreds at home. I found one to share with her. She forgot a sweater, I gave her one of mine. Each act of nurturing allowed me to say thanks for the years of her generosity, the years she showed up for every surgery, every party, every school event. I kept track of her drink, her phone, her book. I kept track of her. I ached when she came down for the meal on Thursday and her hair was a mess, she is a hairdresser by trade. Her collar was tucked under, she was a bit of a mess. I gently straightened her up as I passed by, tasking, running to complete the pre-meal prep. “Lisa, what do you need me to do?” She never used to ask, she just knew. I asked her to set the table. I laid out placemats, plates, gave her the exact number of silverware. She asked how it was supposed to go, repeatedly. She just couldn’t remember. Fork next to knife, some places had 2 spoons, some not at all. We sorted it out as my heart ached.
During the meal, several times throughout the days, I found myself snapping at Chef. “Hey, stop teasing her.” “Don’t talk to her like that.” “Stop pestering her.” His mother who has always felt comfortable as the butt of any joke as long as it brought laughs, the woman who laughed with us all, I felt so overly protective I was battling with her son. Warning glances from him unheeded, I just couldn’t back off. Our views of her are no longer the same, maybe never really were. He has history, the childhood that carries both the joys and the hurts. I have mostly just deep appreciation for who she has been to me, the mom I didn’t have. Our early years were not so easy, I battled for my place next to Chef, thought I needed to claim my territory. I really just needed to open up more space. She wanted me too, not just him. I am one of the lucky wives who can tell mother-in-law stories that are both hilarious and tongue-in-cheek, no rancor or anger or hurt to be found. I was fighting with Chef over his mother, probably millions of wives were doing the in kitchens across the country. Ours was an uncommon battle maybe. I was claiming her, mine, back off.
I soaked up this holiday, one in which I knew it could be a last. We don’t always get that knowledge, that gift to really absorb and be present. I will rest easy knowing I won’t be consumed by “what-if’s” and “if only’s.” I realize we are moving into a time where she is child-like, fortunately I love children. I have unlimited patience for them, for answering questions and teaching how complete tasks. I may be facing unbearable heartache, but for this holiday, I gave her my attention, my all. Just as she has given to me. Thank God for the chance, one more time.