Navigating the Path from Frustration Back to Love

How promising to care for my deceased husband's mother improved our relationship

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My husband, David, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2016, left me his mother to care for, despite the fact that during our marriage, she and I had a very competitive, contentious relationship. She had come to the US as a young woman from Australia, married a man from Chicago and they had a son, David Beynon Pena. His father left when David was young so she never had to share him and he was her whole world. We both wanted to be first in line for David’s love, attention and time. It took ten years before he put me first, took my word over hers. They had 37 years of being a pair together against the world, and then there was me, the interloper. Over our 25 years together, it was so painful for David to have the two women he loved most not enjoy spending time together that we learned to get along.

After he died, it got worse between us. She blamed me for his dying, not understanding that he was going to die of cancer and leave us both very soon. I didn’t see that her fear made it impossible for her to see the truth, even as my 6’3” husband went from 263 lbs to 146 lbs before our eyes. I assumed she knew, We were both grieving so hard that first year that we stayed away from each other. But I am her only family here. She still lives alone. I felt like I was betraying David’s trust and my promise to him by abandoning her. We reconnected and began anew. She was 93 when he died, able to visit friends and roam the city on her own with a cane or walker. His death broke her. She became depressed, without ways to express it so grief festered, and weaker than before. She kept asking me when she would get “back to normal”.

Aging is its own challenging transition, even without the death of her only child. She has slipped several times in her apartment, calling for help from the floor or tub for help for hours since she refuses to wear a medical alert. She fell in the street, when a cab she had just exited took off before she let go of the door handle, and she whacked her head on the sidewalk. Each time, I got a call, “I’ve just found Mrs. Pena and she’s on her way to the ER.” The medical alert is a sore spot since I felt guilty when she lay 18 hours on the floor, even though it was her fault. It’s been an ongoing argument between us, even before David died.

I’ve spent hours in the ER, standing by her gurney for lab tests to be done or up to 20 hours for a bed to come free. The doctors always talk to me about her until she snaps, “Why are you talking to her? Talk to me.” Nothing wrong with her brain. I fetched her blankets, clothes and the tiny pillow from her apartment. When she was terrified they would keep her against her will, looking like a tiny blinking owl with a halo of white hair, I promised I would never let that happen. She was an executive secretary in hospitals for decades and thinks she knows best how to get stuff done. She tells them everything they are doing wrong so I spend a lot of time explaining and smoothing ruffling feathers. She’s smart, scrappy and spirited. She thinks her age gives her the right to say anything, even if it’s mean. And she can be very kind.

As a strong, effective, sharp woman, the effects of aging and the heartbreak of David dying before her have shocked her. On some level, she thinks if she just eats better, exercises more or engages in more activities, she can get back the energy and vitality which she’s lost. But each time she came out of the hospital or out of rehab, she was weaker, with more pain, less able to do things on her own. It breaks my heart every time I have to tell her she can’t go back to who she was before. She’s not the same person. Neither am I.

She still lives on her own and I bring her groceries, visit and bring her over in her wheelchair to the garden for lunch. Last year, together, we pulled off a fancy birthday party with 30 people, Australian food and special carrot cake. This year, we were four guests in masks on a concrete patio while she, unmasked ate cake. She still regrets telling Dave she was scared of him when he got cancer, now he is no longer here to tell. I tell her he forgave her but she can’t let it go. There is no way to comfort a person who wants to turn back time or mortality. I have compassion for the longing though.

Our relationship is complicated because I am both daughter-in-law and caregiver. As caregiver, I do chores like taking out the trash and recyclables, helping her declutter her apartment and go to the hairdresser, nail salon or bank. I make endless calls about healthcare matters, tracking appointments, navigating insurance and clarifying questions with doctors. She has little patience or trust in technology. Practically, I place the online orders and she pays me back. If I do multiple hours of work, she pays me hourly minimum wage for my time.

As daughter-in-law, it’s all about connection and love, spending quality time together. I shout at her if she tries to boss me around, while assuring her I will never leave. We struggle to keep the balance between us. I mentioned at the beginning that our relationship was competitive and contentious. Nothing and everything has changed since David died. She told endless stories, one after another for hours, and still does. I used to get enraged, rolling my eyes at David as she went on and on. Now I am amused and fascinated. She is an interesting person and her delight in life is inspiring. I know that when I am heading out the door, she’ll say, “Just one more thing…” so I tell her when I arrive that it’s a quick visit, set the alarm on my phone 30 minutes before I really need to leave and just include it. Both of us are less invested in being ‘right’ when we argue about our opposing opinions on topics like politics or feminism. For example, she thinks women make bad bosses and I look forward to, someday, one day, having a woman as U.S. President. Today, she told me she is going to learn to play the harmonica and start playing her piano again.

She is now 97. Our relationship at this point is intricate and nuanced, not simple but essential. We see each other often, say “I love you,” each time we part. We both know life is short. Over the last few years, we have learned to treasure each other. Our relationship has shifted from obligatory liking to outright love. It was not an easy journey but it has turned into a joyful one.

I took this in July 2020. Her courage inspires me. We are grateful to have each other. Tell me, “What would you do if tomorrow was your last day to live?” Onward…

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