Author’s Note: This is highly personal and vulnerable content. For those who would like to comment, I ask that you remember the sensitive nature of this post and use “old-fashioned” manners. Thank you!
My mother-in-law passed away last night.
We didn’t find out until this morning because my hubby was sleeping heavily. He is ill with the flu, with a high fever. He’s off work by doctor’s orders for five days.
I heard a text come in on his phone as I passed by it, this morning, while he was still in bed. It was from his brother. Something about it made me call him back right away. He told me to wake my hubby up RIGHT NOW.
So I did, and we heard the news together about his mother’s passing. The original call came in just after midnight, a few minutes after she passed, but as I said, hubby was sleeping and so was I (finally after getting him settled).
It came as a shock—to all of us, and probably twice to his brother who had to relay it all again to us.
It hasn’t been an easy road with Belle Mere, my French mother-in-law. I came to the family party a little later in life. She was not a perfect person—wife, mother, mother-in-law, grandmother. She was stubborn. Her mood could be tricky. Her relationship with her sons was often conflicted as is every parent-child relationship. She made her mistakes and lived with the consequences of them. She was very human in that way.
But she was ours and we loved her, imperfections and all. After all, where would any of us be without her? And, really, who IS perfect? Not me, not by a long shot.
I came into her life at the time when memory first began to be an issue for her. We had to bring her forward into the present and open it up for her nearly every time we visited. I tried to learn a new French word every time we went to see her, and it made her day to teach me proper French pronunciation. We often made her laugh—sometimes to the point where she needed the bathroom. And I loved the way she pronounced my name in her French accent, “Les-lee.”
She had grit, the kind you don’t see very often in a young adult in these times. She had picked up her life and put it down in a foreign country, a place where she had to learn the language from scratch, as an adult. She raised three boys as a single mom. Had a good career. She traveled the world.
And before she moved to America, she grew up in Nazi-occupied France. When she was around 7, Nazi officers took over her parent’s house and lived with their family for several years. Her mother became their cook, housekeeper, laundress. We don’t know much more about that time than that, but we always speculate on the details, none of which we will know for sure now.
We’ve been caught in a sandwich generation situation with my mother-in-law, my husband and I. Dealing with our parents’ issues and our adult children’s as well. Recently Belle Mere had to go stay with my brother-in-law, after one too many dementia-induced episodes and another bad fall. The doctor ordered her to stop living alone. So she went to convalesce with my brother-in-law.
Because no one can do it all, and my brother-in-law was caring for Belle Mere, it fell to my husband and me to take care of her house. By that I mean start cleaning out the garbage and hoarded belongings. So for the past ten weeks or so, every Saturday, we have made the 150-mile round trip into L.A. (with its world-class traffic) and sorted through piles and piles of what amounted to her life. We’ve filled up a commercially sized dumpster each weekend, dealt with rodent infestation, spiders, and a break-in by the local drug gang.
To be honest, the last couple of weeks, it’s become a drain. A hard slog. It has seemed like no matter how hard we worked there were still mountains to do in front of us, literally. It’s been exhausting frankly. The emotions we go through are a bit of a rollercoaster. Sometimes my husband finds photos or mementos of childhood and there is warm nostalgia. Sometimes there is horror at the things we find. Sometimes sadness at all the waste. Sometimes anger at having to do this work and the conditions in which she was living and frustration at why in the world wouldn’t she ask for help.
This weekly journey and the play of emotions has left us exhausted, as I stated before. It is also the reason I haven’t been writing and posting here. There has just been too much bread and not enough butter. Between my regular work, and this monumental task, then other family needs, there just has not been enough of me to go around.
We are still not done with the house. But now, the outcome of the cleaning will be different. Instead of hoping to get the house cleaned up and fixed so she might go back to live, with 24-hour in-home care, in the house she’s owned for almost 60 years, where her sons grew up, it will be something else entirely.
We will miss our dinner’s out with her at Mimi’s Cafe, which she loved for its French flair. And the picnics in the park, reminiscing about my husband’s childhood, and her childhood in France—you should have seen the glow of youth rekindle in her face when she recalled those days. And drives down the Pacific Coast Highway, just seeing the familiar sites, which usually involved a stop at the beach to watch the dolphins and the surfers. The truth is we will simply miss her.
We are just back from the morgue.
My husband peeled himself off the mattress so he could go see his mother one last time. It was an awful, but necessary, moment. When we arrived, the mortician was already there, but she waited to remove the body to the funeral home because we called ahead.
We were both crying as they pulled back the sheet and unzipped the bag. My husband looked into his mother’s face and said goodbye.
She didn’t look much different, just very still. I half expected her to open her eyes and watch her face light up when she saw my husband, calling out his name and telling him how good it was to see his face like she usually does.
But she did not.
She remained still. She was gone. My husband was crying harder. I was crying harder. He reached for my hand across the cold metal table, in that cold room that held his little mother’s body, and he prayed. For her. For us. For our family.
And I spoke these final words to Belle Mere, at least on this side of eternity—words she had spoken to me many times in the past as we left her house after a visit—“Bon Voyage, Belle Mere. Bon Voyage.”
In honor of Roselyne Nafus 1935-2018