My mother-in-law (MIL) celebrated her 91st birthday today.
She’s a widow who for six years has lived in a semi-independent senior-living complex near us. (Her husband of almost 66 years died in 2008.) She’s the mother of four sons, ten grandchildren and thirteen great-grandchildren, to date.
Earlier this year, she was diagnosed with dementia. It’s a condition for which members of her family haven’t needed the affirmative nod from doctor or hospital. The symptoms were already obvious.
When I married her son in 1969, I’d heard all the notorious mother-in-law jokes. I made a commitment from my heart to dismiss the jokes and work at being a “perfect” daughter-in-law (DIL), always kind, helpful and cooperative. Knowing my MIL had never given birth to daughters with whom to share her life, I could be the next best thing! Thinking she might have felt isolated in a house full of men, I empathized. Besides, we already shared common ground — a deep love for the son she’d borne, the man I’d married!
My relationship with my mother has always been delightful, so I was prepared to like (and eventually love) my MIL, to embrace her with good will and anticipation for a blossoming friendship. (For some of my mother’s story, see other posts on this blog.)
Unfortunately, even when we lived in close proximity with my in-laws for a three-month period (in the third year of my marriage), the friendship I’d hoped for failed to take root. It didn’t prevent me from striving, respecting her as my husband’s mother, believing she contributed to the man he became and being grateful for her contribution.
Some twenty years into my marriage, I finally took the hint. (Yeah, my optimism occasionally interferes with clear-headed judgment.) I didn’t give in to belligerence though it might have been justified; I simply admitted DIL “perfection” was doomed to fail. Even a lessor level of harmony appeared illusive. I was disappointed, to be sure, but as years passed, the six-hour drive that separated us became a welcome distance.
After her husband’s death, my husband and I agreed moving her closer would be the right thing to do. (Never in our home, but close by.) There was considerable trepidation, but we’ve always been committed to honoring (and taking care of) our elders. Long distance was no longer an acceptable option.
In the time she’s lived nearby, we think she’s mellowed — probably due in part to her dementia. Certainly, that’s enhanced our times together. Once or twice, I’ve even felt a rare warmth extended toward me. But the emotions have become less important since I’ve made the conscious choice to love her unconditionally. Whatever the previous relational barrier was (before her dementia set in), it’s inconsequential. What matters is she bears in her humanness the image of the Creator. Since He loves me (and her) unconditionally, how can I do otherwise?
Earlier this year, she burst into a sudden fury such as I’d experienced from her in the distant past. Stunned, I was momentarily overcome by a dizzying flashback of emotions long forgotten. Her rage vanished just as suddenly as it had come, but such an unpleasant reminder. How thankful I am God’s grace is ever abundant!
The bright side of this tale of woe? Three of my offspring are married. I’ve made doubly sure to embrace and establish good rapport with each of the spouses. I’m hardly a “perfect” MIL, but I can say with confidence we enjoy positive (and growing) friendships.
As for my MIL? I honor her on this, her 91st birthday. The dynamics that have marked our relationship are part of a larger tapestry that connects us and beyond that, two words must suffice: it’s complicated.