The call came yesterday. Not the call, but a call. Lori’s mom, Elaine, is being moved to Hospice. Elaine has been not well for several years. A decade ago she beat cancer. But that was just the start of a long and steady decline. Last year Lori’s dad and Elaine were moved to assisted living. Elaine hasn’t been well this winter and fought pneumonia and various other ailments.
I only got to know Lori’s mom after she was sick and frail. I wish I had gotten to know her when she was younger and more energetic but even when confined to a bed in a nursing home, it was easy to see the remnants of someone full of piss and vinegar.
I first met Elaine the spring of 2011. Lori and I had met a few months earlier and quickly fell in love. Meeting the parents is an obvious next step in a relationship but it's different in your 40s and when you're widowed. I already had a full compliment of in-laws. When I started to stretch my legs and date again I considered the theory of finding another mate. But the consideration or theory of a new set of in-laws, strangely, never crossed my mind. So when we drove from DC to Lancaster, PA to “meet the parents” it had a peculiar tonality. I had been through this before, hadn’t I?
“But I have to do it again? Really? Well, okay, then” I said to whatever or whomever listens when I talk to myself, “If that’s what needs to happen.”
We met, we went out to lunch and it was all lovely. Her parents are wonderful, salt of the earth people. They grew up in Western Pennsylvania and are the result of generations of strong men and proud women. Her dad was quiet with bright eyes. Her mom? Chatty but sarcastic, with an endearing self-depreciating quality. I don’t remember exactly what we talked about, but I remember it was pleasant, and basically what we all talk about the first time we meet each other:
“What’s my job? How about my kids? Oh, my parents? They met in grad school. I was born in Illinois but we moved to New Jersey when I was five.” Stuff like that.
And I tried to learn more about them. He was retired so I asked about his career. And, what was Lori like as a child? How has Lancaster changed? It was not so much the words but rather the time we shared. And now, looking back, that was one of only two times the four of us: Lori and I, and her parents, spent together that was not in a hospital or in the assisted living facility.
Our lunch ended and it was time to move on. We left the restaurant and that is when I noticed, truly, that age was not just creeping, but had crept up on them. Her dad, thin and wiry, needed a bit of assistance to get Elaine out of her wheelchair and into the minivan. I helped as best I could without getting in the way. Her mom seemed fatigued from the adventure. This was all new territory for me. I was happy to lend an arm, but was never exactly sure how or when. We drove back to the family home, I got a mini-tour, chatted briefly, then Lori and I said goodbye and returned to DC. Less than a year later they were both in assisted living.
Earlier today, during a conversation on the phone, through tears, Lori told me she wished I had gotten to know her mom before she was sick. I said, “I know. I do too, but I did get a sense of who she was.” And I said that in part having gotten to know her mom, briefly, but more because of what I know of Lori: Strong, proud, not afraid to speak her mind, yet sensitive, loving and not afraid to be afraid. These are qualities I love about Lori and qualities I imagine I would have admired in her mom.
It’s sad to see Lori’s mom’s decline. And it’s sadder to see Lori’s sadness knowing there is not much I can do to make it better. It just has to play itself out, as it will. Lori lost a best friend to breast cancer a few years ago before we met. Her friend was young; in her late 30’s leaving a husband and 3 kids. She is still very close to them. Her friend was moved to Hospice and died within the week. I know death from a different perspective. My wife died suddenly and tragically. There was no anticipation and preparation nor Hospice. But we both have been through this before in our own ways. Maybe it helps prepare us. Maybe it just makes us aware that more sadness will come.
In some of the “widow circles” I now travel, there is a macabre debate, of sorts, about whether it's better to lose someone quickly and unexpectedly, like a car crash, or not, like from cancer. I used to speculate on an answer, but now think it’s moot. To say one way has plusses and the other minuses is to suggest that one has plusses at all. And there are no plusses.
When a loved one dies, regardless, it hurts. Badly. It hurts in a way that I believe we have yet to create adequate words to describe in the English language. Though it seems pointless to even try, here are some: It’s dizzying, confusing, confounding. It makes no sense. At one moment this person, this life force and energy exists. Then it's gone. The whole world seems to list to one side and for a while it feels like you are walking sideways on a slope and just might slide off the edge. But the best explanation is: it's inexplicable.
What is true for us, though, is the profound mystery of our short lives is again manifest in our home. The membrane that separates the present and living from the past and those who have died, is visible again. The expected pain from our anticipated loss is so real we can nearly touch it. It reminds us of our own short lives which will end soon enough. We've snapped out of the day-to-day banality and wonder what is it all for? Is there a reason? Or is it just some cruel hoax or folly?
We turn those questions around and around for no good reason for there is no good answer.
But I cling to one hope. One hope that I hope is truth: That the pain we feel is the reflection of the love we create. And the more acute our pain is the evidence of that love we created. In the end, that is what is left.
And Elaine was, and is, clearly well-loved.