I knew my mother-in-law for twenty-eight years before she died this October of respiratory failure at 95 years old, presumably as a complication of the colon cancer surgery she’d undergone two days before. The procedure had taken twice as long as anticipated due to numerous unforeseen complexities. A tumor the size of a plum required an additional incision to excise. It had woven its way into part of the spleen and needed to be disentangled. Scar tissue from previous surgeries meant that the doctors were forced to remove more of the colon than they would have liked.

But it was done, and she seemed well, or as well as the doctors expected her to be. And though my husband and I had discussed the possibility that she would survive the surgery but not have the strength for recovery, shock and disorientation still accompanied the dreaded 6 a.m. ringing of the phone that roused us from our sleep with the worst of news. 

It was eerily like my father’s passing. The early morning call – in this case from my husband’s sister rather than the hospital. The sudden respiratory distress in the middle of the night. With my raging, raving father the doctor withheld what would have been invasive diagnostics in accordance with his POLST. For my mother-in-law the decline happened too fast for action, though the hospital staff tried to intervene.

* * *

The first time I saw her, in my husband’s childhood home when we were not yet married, she was in her mid sixties and reminded me of nothing so much as a smooth, unfaceted gemstone cradled in a box with a royal purple velvet lining. She wore long-sleeved floral shirts with crisp, pointed collars, brightly colored slacks with precisely ironed pleats, tasteful gold jewelry. Her makeup was lightly applied, as was her perfume, and her head was crowned with the fluffy white perm common to Women of a Certain Age and Status. 

Her home was immaculate. No grime darkened the windows, no dust the tabletops (one of her daughters pointed out with a sardonic laugh that even the lightbulbs had been wiped down). The carpets in the formal living and dining rooms – and yes, space had been set aside for these – had been vacuumed in such meticulously straight, overlapping lines that I would have known not to walk across them without an invitation even if my husband hadn’t already warned me against it. The guest bathroom was so immaculate, its towels so elaborately embroidered and its wastebasket so clean – and empty – that I was afraid to wash my hands and over the years grew adept at smuggling used tampons into the kitchen trash.

When we met we performed the dance of a mother and her son’s live-in-out-of-wedlock girlfriend. I admired her home and she quizzed me about marriage. I asked anodyne questions about her family and she led me to boxes of hand-knitted baby clothes. Although social distancing was decades from being A Thing I practiced its equivalent with my not-yet-husband, giving his mother space to feel unthreatened by my presence. 

And yet I liked her. And sometimes felt a little sorry for her. In a family full of bigger personalities she often went unnoticed. In Jungian terms she struck me as the lone Feeler – with the possible exception of one of her daughters – in a family of Thinkers. I’m not sure I ever heard her tell a joke, although once she did usher me into the master bedroom to show me a sweater she had just finished knitting for her husband that had the word “bullshit” cunningly worked into it, accompanied by the most raucous laughter I ever heard emerge from her.

She Did more than she Talked. Almost all of my memories – until the last few years when her health began to seriously fail – were of her bustling about a home worthy of Sunset Magazine, pulling china dishes from the dining room sideboard, muscling turkeys into and out of the oven, setting down cut crystal appetizer plates on coffee and end tables in a position “just so,” and then passing by to shift them back when people eating inevitably nudged them out of true. In the early days it was easier to imagine myself as a prop in a holiday play of her imagination than as a flesh and blood being.

I assumed we would grow closer over time, but that never really happened. She Did more than she Talked, but that didn’t mean she didn’t want things – recognition, affection, love – and in a family where she often went unnoticed the unmet needs that she didn’t seem to know how to express would suddenly burst out in a storm of indiscriminate resentment and recrimination, and woe betide anyone in the path of the tempest. It was unproductive, I thought at the time – generally achieving the opposite of her desires – but it was who she was, and so I tried to accommodate her. To give more than I accepted – of time, of attention, of understanding and sympathy. If that meant she never really learned who I was, because knowing was leverage, that was okay. My primary goal in any case was to keep my and my husband’s relationship with her on as even a keel as I could.

* * *

It was only much later that I began to ponder the question, “Do I know who she is?” She almost never spoke about her past but I heard bits and pieces from my husband and other in-laws. Born in Germany in 1927, she grew up in the shadow of Hitler’s rising power. Presumably she was inducted into the compulsory League of German Girls, the female wing of Hitler Youth. World War II broke out when she was twelve years old, and she was unfortunate enough to live in Bremen, where over five years Allied forces carried out 173 air raids, killed more than 4000 civilians and left over 50,000 people homeless.

Her family was able to relocate to the country, but food was scarce and luxuries non-existent. And when it was over she was faced with enduring all of the devastation, dislocation, and deprivation of violent conflict with none of the world’s sympathy. She had been, after all, in the wrong country at the wrong time.

She married and had two daughters, but the relationship with her husband soured to such a degree that she divorced, during a time when that was not an acceptable course of action for a woman. She married again, and she and her new husband emigrated to Canada, during a time when Germans were unwelcome in Allied nations. A few years later they emigrated again, to the United States, where sentiment toward their former enemy had grown no more fond.

They persevered through the hardship and discrimination. She took a job cleaning houses and learned English from watching television, amassing an impressive vocabulary and the barest hint of an accent. Over time her husband leveraged his technical skills into a solid career, eventually becoming CEO of a manufacturing company. She had two sons. Eventually they could afford a pleasant house in a nice neighborhood. Volunteer at charities. Go on cruises and dance the night away.

But tragedy wasn’t finished with her yet, and her oldest son – a confident, skillful, daring young man – was involved in a motorcycle accident and died. He was seventeen years old.

All of which is to say that I have never in my life personally known anyone who suffered as much, as persistently, as she did. Certainly, even growing up with parents possessed of the emotional stability of feral cats, I have not. And what would it mean, to carry that much suffering inside you? What would it do to your thoughts and emotions? 

She perplexed her family because she was possessed of an impressive intelligence – her mathematical acumen was the stuff of minor legend – and a charm that enabled her to embark on a promising career of her own after she obtained her real estate license. And yet she gave it up because she needed to keep the house clean, needed to get the meals on the table, needed to do the laundry.

It could have been partly generational – my mother was the same age as my mother-in-law and possessed some of the same compulsions – but it felt like something…more. My mother cooked and cleaned resentfully, indifferently, because it was expected of her. My mother-in-law, I sometimes felt, did housework as if her life depended on it. Or viewed through the prism of years – if not her life, perhaps her sanity.

I can construct a narrative that weds her behavior moving through the world to an emotional core forged by the hardships she endured. An obsession with cleanliness and order to keep memories of the dust of bombed rubble at bay. A remoteness born of so much loss that she refused to risk intimacy, preferring to live on the surface of life, which manifested to people who knew her as a certain lack of warmth. 

But she was a very private person, and I’ll never know the truth. And she might not have known herself.

* * *

Life delivered one last blow when she had to abandon the home she loved and had fashioned to her exacting taste for an independent living apartment which while it was, as she liked to point out, the largest in the complex, also sported prefab shower stalls and knock-off cabinetry. And in truth, the first time my husband and I visited and she took me on a tour of her disappointment, I did have sympathy for her. It was yet another loss, and a physical manifestation of the larger loss looming inevitably over her – her own life.

She and her husband moved, after all, because they were unable to manage on their own. To be closer to their daughter, to have ready access to a nurse’s advice. I have seen from my own parents’ trajectories that there is a time in life when there is no “getting better” – only a more or less steep decline. And as a society we tend not to grapple with this reality.

Perhaps because my husband and I had been through and given a lot of thought to that decline as my parents failed and died, we found ourselves having gentler, more pleasant times with his mother these last few years than before when all of us were younger, when she felt a need to assert herself and we felt a need to stake out our independence. Rather than visit with the larger family, fourteen strong if everyone assembled and where both of my husband’s parents increasingly seemed disengaged and lost, we came to see them on our own. We brought comfort foods – tea sandwiches and scones, tomato soup and turkey paninis – and cleaned up when the meal was done over increasingly feeble protests that it wasn’t necessary. 

We practiced the DARE strategy I had learned when my father had Alzheimer’s – Don’t Ask, Don’t Reason, Don’t Explain, going out of our way even more than before to avoid conflict. We let the afternoons flow like a river – listen to reminiscences, talk sparingly about our far more active lives, move a chair here or help with a computer problem there, sit in silence for a while and watch our sleeping dog.

Sometimes as I observed my mother-in-law in those last years, I pondered the river of life. There is a resort called Ripplewood, seventeen cabins along the Big Sur River, that my husband and I love to visit when we can. It is soothing, watching the river flow by, hearing the chatter of the water over the rocks.

For the most part that’s been a metaphor for our lives so far. We were blessed with a great deal of control over our fates. On the political scale we lived in a stable country whose conflicts were – with the glaring exception of the World Trade Center – engaged in far from home. Our parents had the resources to provide us with the advantages of a good education, and we sailed out of college into favorable labor markets. When we met each other we soon realized that together we could carve a good path through the years – keep each other honest, keep each other strong, keep each other safe. We’ve been largely able to perch on the bank as the river ran by, observing it at a distance.

It might be a different story as a rock thrown into the midst of the rushing waters, enduring years of tumble and torrent. The river then isn’t a pleasant diversion but a force that is wearing you down, remaking you rivulet by rivulet, grinding you into the streambed and other stones until you’re polished to a nearly featureless sheen. Individuality, contentment, ambition – those are for the bank dwellers, not for you.

This then is my elegy for a heart worn smooth by the river – impression, not absolute truth, but what I wondered about and what I observed in my twenty-eight years of knowing my mother-in-law.