My mother-in-law told me today she was not afraid of being alone. “I miss the person who used to fill the space in that big chair, but I’m not afraid of being by myself.” Friends call or stop by, we share meals, and spend much time in silence, in conversation, chuckling at her intent and efforts at becoming independent at 82 which, to her, seem to be taking a long time. With each affirmation of her abilities, she smiles and nods her head, and has taken initiative to make changes or reinforce the familiar. Today, she gifted me a beautiful old dictionary and then proceeded to declutter the bookcase that housed anything a very interesting and well-traveled man shy of 90 years might want within reach of his recliner. Shared were pictures of younger, more vital days from times in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Seattle area, Alaska, and youthful years in this Idaho valley. I’m reminded not to discount she was me at one point, and there will come a time when I will be her. I hope the person who listens to me then will understand what life meant to me when I was a younger woman. Respect is such a thing.
We turn in near 6 p.m., though the past few days Mom’s been watching the clock tick to 5:00. Not that she wants to sleep the day away, but the dog and two cats know when mealtime comes around and 5 p.m is the magic hour. And so is 5 a.m. And 10 a.m. And noon, and 2 and 3 p.m. The animals want to eat all the time. We sit at the table and beagle and wobble-kitty plant themselves to be able to see both plates, the floor beneath, every hand movement and each grind of a molar, lip smack, and spoonful of cottage cheese, roast chicken, Jell-O, whatever. The cat is so old it literally cannot walk straight but the body clock is right-on and the yowl mechanism would put the noon siren to shame. Dog simply looks. Begs. Pleads with brown beagle eyes and pigeon-pawed patience. There is not one thing in life to dissuade these two from their shameful mission, to acquire people food. We’re cruel enough to say no and mean it. Life at the in-laws’ house is hard – per petspeak.
The days are filled with papers, checkbooks, phone calls, Kleenex, hearty meals and early shut-eye. Mornings begin with coffee – black, milk’d, sugared, and refilled. Pitted dark cherries, cheesy scrambled cackleberries, sourdough toast, sausage. Gravy or bacon or french toast or butterhorns push any cold cereal aside, and there are 12 lbs of success to show for the past two weeks table fare. My mission was to add to the frail 70-lb frame, make headway toward the previous one-hundred twenty-odd tics on the scale. Cheeks are fattened, color has returned, and laughter is true again where despair had carved its niche. At the grocer’s, I feel giddy at the bear claws, Pepperidge Farms “ladies’ cookies, cheeses and sausages that slide into my bag. An endeavor proven simple with love and attention, with no regret. “I guess you’d better fatten me up,” says she, and I have.
Still, there are moments when she sits on the sofa, a tiny thing in a long space, and looks at nothing. She’ll lift her eyes to mine and I know there is grief. Gently, I share the silence, until she takes a breath and resumes her task. Check the temperature, the time, the animals, the sun in the sky. How much longer until she can sleep…