On a warm September night in 1994, my life changed in ways I never imagined. My husband, Jerry, and I were both on the phone talking to a friend when “call-waiting” interrupted. Jerry’s brother Bob urgently reported that he had just been notified that their eighty-year-old widowed mother had been hit by a car while walking across a familiar street in her childhood neighborhood. She had traveled there a few days earlier in order to attend a high school reunion.
Bob, Jerry and I immediately jumped into Bob’s car and started our eight-hour drive to Amarillo, Texas, where MeMaw had been care-lifted by helicopter. As we drove through the night, we were in touch with the Amarillo hospital and other family members who were waiting at the hospital during MeMaw’s emergency surgery. Her legs were broken in multiple places, as well as her pelvis, but miraculously, she had no internal injuries. The doctors were primarily concerned about her surviving the trauma of the surgery and the death of her older sister who had been walking with her at the time of the accident.
As the brothers reminisced about their mother and dealt with the possibility of their becoming adult orphans, my mind raced ahead to what my mother-in-law’s recovery might look like. Surely she would not be able to live by herself, at least for a long, long time. We lived in the same town and her care would likely be our responsibility. This was going to be a major interruption in our plans.
Our house was then on the market to sell. With our youngest away at college, we had plans to move from our home of sixteen years. We hoped to enjoy our empty nest years in a new house of our own design, more suited to our anticipated new lifestyle. (I was threatening to put a planter where the oven would normally have gone.)
My journal entries immediately prior to MeMaw’s accident indicated my feelings of unease and uselessness, not knowing exactly what best to do with my time now that high school events, carpooling, and mother-daughter talks would not be a part of my daily routine. I had, in affect, been laid off from my job and it didn’t appear that anyone really needed me.
Then suddenly, my brother-in-law Bob was hospitalized with a rare disease that left him paralyzed from the waist down. He went into a rehabilitation facility the same week MeMaw came out. Three weeks later, our daughter-in-law’s fourteen-year-old brother was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. He had surgery the first week in January. The next week Jerry lost his job. Just when we thought we couldn’t handle another thing, the newest minister at our church confessed to Jerry, who was chairman of the deacons at the time, that he had embezzled money from his previous church and that it had just been discovered. Dealing with that situation became Jerry’s new full-time job.
Our house sold at the end of the month, which was a good thing, but the buyers wanted possession within thirty days. We were certainly needed at MeMaw’s, and we had a roof over our heads, but I felt homeless and unemployed, nevertheless. I realized that we had become the beneficiaries of MeMaw’s charity, instead of the other way around as I had been telling myself. We were as dependent upon her as she was on us—a very humbling experience.
Praying for answers, dealing with doctors, adjusting to a husband at home, cleaning, and cooking in someone else’s house became my life. My nest was no longer empty, and in fact, the nest was no longer mine! I tried to hold onto God, but I despaired because MeMaw was not improving. It became more and more apparent that she would never be able to live alone. I wanted to do the right thing, with a cheerful heart, but could I?
I noticed a similar reaction from women when I mentioned that I would be living permanently with my mother-in-law. I would explain that she was in the process of selling her house and that we were going to combine the proceeds from the sale of both of our houses to build one house compatible with all our needs and nicer than I had originally expected. Still, most of the married women would tear-up, offer condolesences, or explain how they could never live with their mother-in-law.
When we three moved into our beautiful new home, MeMaw was so proud of her three rooms, “her house” — her own front porch, and her handicap-accessible shower. Her friends often visited, and they would play games, gossip, and laugh. Fried meats smothered in gravy became our five o’clock fare—a fifties flashback. “Get the canned fruit covered in heavy syrup,” MeMaw called after me as I headed for the grocery store.”
Sometimes MeMaw would watch TV with a friend—over the phone. They would both be watching the same program simultaneously in their own homes and commenting about the show to each other while staying on the line for hours. (MeMaw had her own telephone line so I learned to laugh along with them without concern that they were tying up our line.) Then MeMaw got a computer, and when she was not on the phone, she was emailing everyone, even our daughter living overseas.
I was grateful that MeMaw and I had had a good relationship. We had always settled our disagreements and misunderstandings quickly as they had inevitably come up over the decades of being related. There was no baggage of unresolved issues, resentments, or harsh words to sabotage our relationship, but we both struggled with the adjustment of sharing a kitchen (no oven planter) and managing holidays.
I had envisioned freedom from a demanding schedule dictated by others. Certainly, I wanted to be useful, but on my own terms, when and where I chose. I felt like I was under surveillance in my own home. I knew MeMaw only wanted to be a part of my activities. I had to ask God to help me learn to share my life, from the laundry to the living room, with my “mother-in-love.”
Corrective surgeries, rehab, heart problems, and medical setbacks continued. I wanted my independence, but God wanted me dependent on Him. I learned to rely on God’s grace in the everydayness of life, just as much as I depended on Him in a crisis.
MeMaw lived with us in our new house for three years before she departed for heaven, not nearly enough time to impart ALL of her wisdom and fun-loving ways to her daughter-in-law. However, “her house” is seldom empty, even now. God has sent us a constant flow of houseguests, grandchildren and international friends. I continue to pray for the welfare of those who reside with me, no matter how long or short their stay, and I’m learning to anticipate and appreciate God’s interruptions.