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Things I Learned from My Mother-in-Law

Things I Learned from My Mother in Law

As many of you know, I did not have the most ideal relationship with my mother-in-law.  Some might argue that we had no relationship and that we didn’t get along. I am sure there are many daughters-in-law out there that can relate. If you asked me a few months ago, I would have said the same thing.   Things change, people change.  She was diagnosed with cancer in November.  It wasn’t the good kind of cancer either, if there even is a good kind, like the kind, when detected early, changes the way you take care of yourself, the kind that gives you a new lease on life and to fully appreciate everything under the sun, that kind.  Unfortunately, the type of cancer she was dealt with was the worst kind possible, the kind that ravages your body so quickly you don’t have time to react.  You might think or say, ‘she was a committed smoker for 25 years, I’m surprised she didn’t get cancer sooner.’   No one deserves that type of cancer.

Our relationship changed with that diagnosis.

It’s true, I didn’t get along with her on many levels.  Most of my friends and family know the trials and tribulations I experienced over the past 20 years.  She was complicated, our relationship was complicated.  It wasn’t until the confirmed diagnosis of terminal cancer did I change MY way of thinking.  I was no longer the victim, she was – the victim of this dreaded disease.   My mother-in-law needed to enter into her last phase of life with a clear conscience, and so did I.   Never did I want to say to myself “I should have, could have or would have” as it related to Bernice.   I called her, something, I never did regularly until D day, her diagnosis.   She finally blurted out “I never thought you liked me”.  Funny, that is what I thought and said the same thing to her.   Once our cards were on the table, our protective walls, built up over the span of 20 years, began to lose their shape and importance.  She began to open up, share her wishes, and our relationship changed.  I offered her support, an ear when she needed to talk, or the random piece of advice when requested.

When we received the news of her few numbered days, reality set in that she would no longer be the force of nature in our lives, I felt a tremendous sadness.  Those who knew her, know Bernice was a force not to be reckoned with!   I started to think about Bernice as a person, as a woman and, who she was to me.   My mother-in-law was not an easy person to get along with, yet, when I look at her friends and how she had different relationships with others, I realize, she was loved, admired and cared for.   Late in her life, she became a hospital chaplain, and from there, she found a calmness, spirituality and purpose.   While she was receiving care in the hospital, and in her final days at home, many of her colleagues said prayers for her with their daily visits and I am sure she received a tremendous amount of comfort.   I was deeply touched by those who knew and loved her and shared their stories with us.

Now that she is no longer with us, I do have time to reflect about Bernice.   Throughout her process of dying, I have learned many things about her that I can hold onto moving forward.  With the list below, and through this experience with Bernice, I hope to honor her memory:

  1. Take responsibility of your own actions. As I mentioned earlier, I played the part of the victim with her for so many years and know that I am not innocent in the stalled relationship between the two of us. Each story has three versions, her version, my version and the real version.   Now, I know I could have tried harder to be a better person with her and didn’t, not until the last months of her life.  For that, I will always have regret.    I was hurt because I felt she didn’t accept me for who I am.  There was deep seeded resentment, anger, frustration and general non-understanding of her.   I grapple with the realization that I never had the closeness of a mother from my mother-in-law.   This realization occurred while we were away for a cousin’s wedding.  The bride so eloquently said “I hit the jackpot with in-laws” referring to my husband’s cousins, the groom’s parents.    I hadn’t felt that I had the winning ticket, and I’m sure my mother-in-law felt the same way, wishing she had the same closeness from me and I am partly responsible.

  2. Feelings a person has are real and should not be discounted. In retrospect, I could have delved a little deeper into understanding what motivated my mother in law.  Bernice, needed to be validated.  She needed to be heard.  She needed to be wanted.   Her tactics were unorthodox to garner attention, but knowing now, what motivated her, makes all the more sense now.  She had one of the toughest exteriors I have ever come across, yet deep down, she was as soft as the next person, if not softer.  Unfortunately, she didn’t allow for many to get past her exterior.   All she ever wanted was to be relevant in people’s lives.  Knowing this now, may have made my job as a daughter-in-law, a little less stressful and much more enjoyable.  She always wanted that recognition when it came to life cycle events, like Mother’s Day, her birthday, her anniversary.   Understanding what motivates a person, makes the job of a son, daughter, or friend that much easier.   Even a little thank you note to her, for a remembered birthday, always went the distance with Bernice.

  3. You are number one. For as long as I can remember, Bernice put herself first.  This is not a criticism, by any means.  This is who she was.  As a parent myself, I constantly put my son’s needs ahead of my own.  I put my husband’s, ahead of my own.   Rarely do I think about my needs first, and maybe I should take a lesson or two from Bernice.  As Bernice got older, her needs were her priority, and she made no bones about it.  I think it is healthy to put yourself first sometimes, as so many of us don’t.  She once told me a story about making a meal for guests, and how she took the best piece of meat on the plate, before everyone else “I cooked it, I should get it”.    On the same hand, I learned by watching her, that not all the times is this rationale appropriate, or warranted.  I learned to take each situation and treat it uniquely.

  4. Treat people with respect. Bernice was wildly opinionated with her family, and having been on the receiving end of her opinions, I felt bruised, bewildered and left feeling off center.  It made me angry.    I could have said “I hear you, and respect your opinion, however, I see it this way” or something along those lines.  Instead, bottled up feelings were left to fester and become destructive.   While I might not have felt the respect that I thought I deserved from her, I later learned it was there, hidden beneath many layers of her complicated psyche.     Unfortunately, I acquired this knowledge very late in the game, when there was little time left and she told me she loved me.  It took 20 years but I heard those words loud and clear.  I love you too, Bernice.

  5. Tell it like it is. Bernice didn’t mince words.  Ever.   Beating around the bush was never a suit Bernice wore.   Sometimes it is better to tell a person straight on instead of a round-about way of communicating.    When you lay your cards on the table, very little is left for interpretation or grounds for a misunderstanding.   It may be painful to be on the receiving end of someone being truthful and matter of fact, yet, in the long run, I learned to accept the upfront nature of her approach.  While my approach is more candy-coating, I can now appreciate the direct approach.  I may not like it but can appreciate it.

Lastly, and most importantly,

  1. Live life to the fullest. After Bernice’s diagnosis, she said to me “Had I known this was how I was going to die, I would have lived my life differently”.  She uttered those words with a note of defeat in her breath.   This was one of the last things she said to me coherently.   She was conservative in her approach to life and all decisions she made.   I believe she meant, she would have taken more risks, embraced life, gone on to see the world, and taken a different path had she had the time and confidence to do so.   I try to take those words she uttered just a few weeks ago to heart and not take life so seriously, to take more chances, to not worry so much, and to live my life with grace, dignity and in certainty, without regrets. I’ll keep you posted on how well I do on this one Bernice.  If you are listening, or reading this, I’m still learning from you, keep those lessons coming.

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