Published in The Ferndale Record, February 8, 2012
This weekend, some of the people I love most are gathered in another state at a memorial service celebrating the life of my former mother-in-law, and I’m in front of a keyboard trying to make sense of my thoughts.
When someone dies, it’s common for family and friends to practically bestow sainthood upon the deceased, often choosing to conveniently, and respectfully forget the uncomfortable, or dicey times shared with that person. We do it because we feel bad for not always liking or agreeing with them, and in the absence of unvarnished honesty it’s our way of making nice, feeling better about our own dark feelings.
She was a person who stirred my emotions. Ironically, in the few weeks before her unexpected death, I came to a quiet resolution about the role she’d played in my life.
Dorothy could be difficult and moody, relentless and rigid. I know this because these are the exact qualities I recognize in myself sometimes. She could also be exceedingly thoughtful and generous, loyal and wise. I was a recipient of her wisdom, but usually didn’t appreciate it in the moment.
When our firstborn was six weeks old, she and my adored father-in-law came to visit. In my stellar first month of mothering, I’d figured out a schedule for the baby. We put him to bed at night, he cried for exactly one hour, and then snoozed for eight hours. I don’t know why, he just did. And for a sleep-deprived new parent, those eight hours were platinum.
I told our guests before bed how this would happen—the baby would cry for an hour and sleep for eight. But no sooner had he commenced his nightly sobbing, than my mother-in-law crept out of her room, picked him up, and began rocking him.
I was furious. I knew what would happen. She’d put him back to bed in awhile, and he’d cry for an hour and then sleep for eight. She was prolonging the inevitable, and I was in charge of the baby, not her. I laid in bed and seethed.
I was right. Things played out exactly as I suspected they would. What I couldn’t see through my blinding rage, and only realized years later is, she was the one who was right. It was a triumph of her hard won experience over my confident youth. Babies should be held and rocked, even if it takes all night to soothe them—and it often does.
Each of us, although it may be unintentional, will cause hurt and pain to another human being. At the time, we might rationalize, justify, and maybe even feel a little smug about our stand. The trick is for others (including ourselves, when it’s our turn to be burned) to get over it.
We can’t ever really know why someone says or does something. But we don’t have to let it harsh what could be our peaceful existence.
So, thank you Dorothy, for those soft, green walls in your home you dubbed “Yummy.” Thank you for teaching me how to take fun road trips with young children, for letting me sleep in the blue room when I came to visit, for showing me how to make piecrust, and raising a boy that would become a kind father to my children.
I harbor no darkness, no awkwardness, only gratitude for what I learned from her—and that includes all of it.
And with that healing thought, I choose to remember the good things, and lay all others to rest.