It was December and we were looking forward to a wonderful holiday. My daughter Catherine who was living in Chicago had delivered twins in October and we were excitedly anticipating her visit with the babies on Christmas Eve. It had been a glorious year during which my nephew had married a wonderful young woman and we had all celebrated at his wedding. Then without warning things began to unravel terribly.
I was at school when my principal called me into his office to deliver the grim news that my mother-in-law was at the hospital. She had apparently had a stroke. I only half listened to his attempts to support me. My mind was racing a million miles away. I vaguely recall laughing off his concerns and telling him that my mother-in-law was a tough women who would most assuredly be fine. I almost laughed when he asked if I needed to have someone drive me to the hospital. I was tough. I had weathered many family tragedies. It seemed silly to think that I would require some sort of assistance.
I called each of my daughters to tell them what had happened and talked with my husband who was on a business trip at the time. We all remained calm in the belief that our beloved “Granny” would survive her latest ordeal. We knew she was a very strong woman even though she stood only five feet tall. She was the rock of the family who wasn’t supposed to live past her teen years. Somehow she had persisted and proven one doctor after another wrong. We believed that she would ultimately be just fine.
I picked up my daughter who lived nearby and together we made the trip to the hospital where the news was more dire than we had expected. My mother-in-law had gone into a coma. The doctor told me to call my husband and urge him to get on the first plane home. He explained that there was nothing more the doctors might do. Suddenly I felt the full gravity of the situation and I began calling family members to tell them what had happened. It was a grim task.
We began a death watch, sitting in my mother-in-law’s hospital room seeing her breathe as though she was in a deep sleep. She looked so peaceful and beautiful that it was impossible to believe that she was nearing death. A ray of hope stayed alive in my soul because I knew that she had proven the medical community wrong so many times before. I could not imagine our family surviving without her. She was our glue, the person who brought us together and provided us with wisdom and strength.
I suppose that I was hoping for some incredible miracle without ever thinking of how her entire life had been a miracle. As the hours and then the days passed we rarely left the confines of the hospital as a parade of friends and family came to express their love. When we did allow ourselves to leave for brief moments it felt as though we were trapped in a never ending out of body experience. The lights and decorations of Christmas seemed somehow out of place. The smiling faces of people celebrating the holiday season seemed our of sync. I recall feeling quite alone in my grief, a sadly all too familiar state of mind that had visited me upon my father’s sudden death and during the many times when my mother’s bipolar disorder took her away from us.
My mother-in-law’s passing was peaceful but that feeling of being at odds with the entire universe followed me throughout the rest of the season. Somehow we stumbled through her funeral and found a way to gather together on Christmas day. I remember thinking that the whole world was rejoicing at the very moments when we were the most bereft. It was an incredibly lonely feeling. At the time it seemed as though we had suddenly lost our way as a family and that nothing would ever feel right again.
It’s been sixteen years since my mother-in-law left this earth and we did indeed survive. I still think of her often and miss her sage advice and calming presence. I sometimes wonder how she might advise me when I am faced with a difficult situation. Somehow I still hear her voice whispering to me and telling me what I need to know. Her presence is not nearly as far away as I had imagined it would be.
I have become more aware of those who are suffering around me. I see them even when my own life is bursting with joy. I realize that at any given moment in time there are others who are wondering how it is possible for everyone to be so happy when they are bearing great burdens. I try not to ignore them simply because I am busy. I realize how difficult it is to be living in the midst of tragedy when everyone else appears to be so happy.
After my mother-in-law died it was in the gestures of people who took the time to show that they cared that I found the strength to soldier forward. I realized that their acts of kindness meant the world to me. They had stopped their Christmas revelries just long enough to let me know that they understood my sorrow. I have never forgotten them.
Regardless of the time of year when tragedy knocks on our door we often feel alone in the hell of our circumstances. The people who rally to show their loving concern are our lifelines. Even the tiniest efforts are never forgotten. We find our way back when we realize that we are not alone. Look around. Someone needs you right now. Take the time to comfort them. Your efforts will mean more than you might ever know.