Within a year of the stroke, we saw the passing of 7 people who were fairly significant to either my life or Strokeman’s. The trend started with my uncle, who was close enough in age to be more like a cousin. He was a gentle, kind man who loved his family and showed kindness to everyone he met. It was a great disappointment to miss his funeral and a few months later his youngest daughter’s wedding, but the distance was too far to travel at that time in our rehab. After that, we said goodbye to uncles, family friends, cousins, and my grandmother. Finally, just shy of one year after the stroke, we received word that my mother-in-law was in kidney failure and had opted to not go on dialysis. We packed up the car and headed to Memphis to say our goodbyes.
I had the good fortune to have a wonderful mother-in-law. Nanny, as we called her, was devoted to her sons and her grandchildren, and she was a dear friend to me. She had a generous spirit that was reflected in every part of her life. If her grandson asked her for a peanut butter sandwich, she would fix it, cut up an apple, pile on some chips, and add two cookies. She would buy clothes for my children at the beginning of each season. When we came to visit she would pay for our gas and hotel room. She would keep the children while we went out to eat at her expense. And she always snuck me a $100 bill sometime during our visit. “Bless you, Deanna,” are words I heard from her frequently. She appreciated me and wanted me to know it.
Early on in our marriage, Nanny and her husband moved into a retirement community that included every kind of care they might need for the rest of their lives. At the time we tried to convince them that they could just come to live with us, but Nanny said, “No, I would drive you crazy and you would drive me crazy!” It turned out to be a good decision for them to be there, as my father in law began to get lost under a cloud of Alzheimer’s. He was moved to the Alzheimer’s unit within the facility, and Nanny could go see him without ever going outside. Then once he died Nanny was able to move over to the assisted living area where she lived out the last few years of her life, being taken care of by a wonderful staff.
Because I loved my mother-in-law so much, and was always on the receiving end of things with her, I wanted more than anything to be able to serve her at the end of her days. I wanted to be with her and let her know how much I loved her and appreciated her. I wanted to sing to her and pray with her and comfort her. As is often the case, it didn’t turn out the way I imagined. When my sister-in-law called to tell us the plan for her to return from the hospital to her room at the retirement community with the aid of hospice, she said the doctors had predicted it might be weeks before she actually died. However, by the time we got there three days later, she had deteriorated significantly. Her breathing had become quite labored and she appeared agitated and uncomfortable almost constantly. She recognized us, but was confused at her son being in a wheelchair. The fact that she was practically deaf complicated things quite a bit, especially since her son is quite soft spoken. He tried to talk to her, and share scripture with her, but she was unable to put in the effort it would take to listen. Strokeman couldn’t stand to be in the room watching her suffer, so I ended up splitting my time between her room and the room he and I were sharing in the guest quarters in another part of the complex. I felt torn.
Thankfully, my sister-in-law, who is also a kind and giving person was able to be there with Nanny, as well as a sitter who had been caring for her for over a year. I just went back and forth doing what I could. As the days went on, the more agitated and uncomfortable she seemed to be, as her one kidney stopped doing its job and she became more and more oxygen depleted. The hospice people kept telling us that she wasn’t really as uncomfortable as she looked, but I don’t really think they knew whether she was suffering or not. I know it was heart-wrenching to watch her struggle for air. The comfort measures that were taken just seemed to take the edge off.
The night before she died I tucked Strokeman into bed, and went to sit with her. I don’t know if she even knew I was there. She was consumed with her struggle to breathe. None the less, I sang to her, and prayed for her and did what I could to bring comfort to her. Her older son was coming the next day, so there was hope that she would hold on until then, but watching her that night, I began to wish that God would go ahead and take her home. She seemed to be so uncomfortable! The hospice nurse came and gave her what relief was possible, and she did make it through the night.
The next day, I left her room to go get Strokeman so that I could take him to the dining room for lunch. As we sat down to eat, my sister-in-law called me from Nanny’s room to let us know that she had passed.
There were many circumstances surrounding Nanny’s last few days that were difficult and frustrating for me. I never had the sense that she even knew I was there, or that I was able to communicate to her any of the things I wanted her to know. I wasn’t able to contribute to her care in any significant way. I can only hope that I was able over the 20 years we shared to communicate to her how much I loved her and how much I respected her. I can only hope she saw that I did what I could to be a good wife to her son and a loving mother to her grandchildren. I was reminded that we don’t need to wait to say the things that need to be said. We don’t know what tomorrow holds, and we are not guaranteed another chance to show love.
What I can do to honor her is to continue to care for her son:To be generous and affirming to her grandchildren: To be the encouragement to my children-in-law the way she was to me: To have a generous, loving spirit. These things I aspire to do. And I pray that God will give me the presence of mind to say the things that need to be said today.