So here is a subject I am reticent to write about:
My intention with this blog to help me as a writer. I can write about anything I choose. I can reveal or not reveal. It's up to me. Except...
... I do find I have this little voice in my head that nags me to include posts dealing with a few of the hard things in my life and not just the mildly entertaining. So I think I should write about my mother-in-law. But here is where it gets tricky. Some people who kindly read this blog have no idea who I am, but some of you do know who I am, and therefore know who my mom-in-law is. And it's not altogether fair for me to write about her, and to risk a compromise to her dignity or her privacy. But she is a huge factor in my life right now, and not writing about her seems oddly dishonest. So let's see how fairly I can do this.
About a year and a half ago J. and I were on the road when we got a panicked call from his mom. She had recently been through a horrid break-up, and the ugliness had just gone to a new level of horrible. She was hysterical. We were on our way to an important conference, so we told her to stay calm and when we were done with our obligations she and her little dog should come stay with us for a while. "For a while" has now turned into a little over a year and a half.
To say that MiL and I are very different people is the under-est of understatements. Where I am private and guarded she is as boundary-less as a human can get. I loathe a messy house, she is an awesome pack rat. I can't stand people in my business, she thinks going into my private papers and re-organizing and categorizing them will make me happy. I think dogs should poo outside. I'm not even going to finish that one.
Very long story made very short: once she had come to stay with us we quickly realized that this woman - this amazing woman who had pulled herself up by the bootstraps from a high school drop out to a celebrated university professor, this woman who refused to crumble under the weight of tragedy after tragedy in her life, this woman who could once move mountains with the sheer force of her can-do attitude - was now a very old for her age lady embarking on one of life's most unfair rides - the journey into (albeit mild) early on-set dementia.
J. and I could see that the first years of our twins' lives, the beautiful, awe-filled childhood phase, would also be spent as elder-carers. We are the Sandwich Generation, as pop-culture has cutely named us. We are raising small children at the same time as we are caring for a failing parent.
Raising toddlers and caring for elderly relatives have some interesting, if ultimately sad, similarities. Those parenting moments of which I am not proud, when I lose patience and swear or yell or both ... well those moments happen with my MiL as well. I take my MiL to a seniors meeting and try to gently nudge her to join in, just as I do with my toddlers at playgroup. When my MiL goes off on a walk I worry that she will get lost or hurt, just as I will when my kids are old enough to venture out on their own. I feel furious when my MIL makes a horrid mess, just like I do when the kids make a mess, and I know that none of them quite have the ability to stop themselves.
There is a huge difference, of course, in dealing with my MIL and dealing with my own children. My kids are a part of me, they have my DNA, I am emotionally and spiritually tied to them in a way that is primal and all consuming. My MiL is more like a stranger who has wandered into my realm - semi-helpless, confused, and in need of some guidance. I care for her, but unlike my husband, her son, I have no cherished memories of her when she was magnificent. I have a fat folder of newspaper clipping of her glory days as a massive contributor to her field, but by the time our paths crossed she was already starting to demonstrate eccentric behavior.
I get short with MiL much more often than I care to, and feel horrible afterward. But, it seems that she only takes me seriously if I am very, very clear that I am unhappy with something. Her apartment, which is downstairs in our house, is a constant mess, yet when I ask her to straighten it up she looks around, holds her arms up in dismay and says: "What on earth are you talking about? What mess!?" This is as we stand in a space that would make the average person gasp.
Friends see our situation and say: "You are so good to do this." I suppose we are good to some extent, but the fact is, this is my husband's mother. This is the woman who raised J. into the stellar human being that I married. She is our responsibility, and if living with her (and to some degree, caring for her) seems like an obligation much of the time I try to remember that one day this will be me. One day I will be in need of care. And when that day comes I am sure I will not manage the kind of optimism MiL seems to be able to muster in between her heart breaking moments of: "how did my life come to this?" And when I am a mean old lady yelling out the window at kids in my yard, I hope someone can be patient with me. Much more patient that I often am with MiL.
This sandwich time in our lives is as challenging a time as we've known in our 10 year marriage, but J. and I lean into one another and when one of us starts to fall the other braces and supports. There will come a day in the not so distant future when we will have to face the next grown-up hurdle - we will have to decide what comes next for MiL when we can no longer handle all her needs. And when that day comes I will try to be better than myself. I will try to help MiL and J. through that brutal if loving transition with some grace and an eye to the dignity of a woman who has lived a life that anyone would be proud to have lived.