Tribute to My Mother-in-Law

Tribute to my Mother-in-Law


My mother-in-law died two weeks ago today, and while it was not unexpected, death is never easy.

I don’t have a lot of classic “mother-in-law” stories. She and I had a wonderful relationship in the 15 ½ years I have been married to her son. I would like to attribute that to my sterling personality or her obvious good taste, but I think it’s more likely a case of my husband being the “golden child,” and therefore his mother loving anyone he loved. When my husband and I first got married, I told him if anything ever happened to us, I was keeping his mother.

Gertrude wasn’t the typical sweet little old lady. In fact, in the last days of her life, I told another family member, “Her last word is going to be ‘shit.’” She used that one frequently to indicate her disdain or disgust, typically in her last days to express her frustration with the nurses and other caregivers because they couldn’t or wouldn’t respond to her requests appropriately. I have nothing but positive things to say about them, however, and I’ll be addressing that topic in a separate post.

She was frail when I met her, but damn if she didn’t bounce back from things faster than anyone I have ever seen. She had osteoporosis, which meant she had broken numerous bones, some of them twice. Both hips, both shoulders (one twice), both wrists, a finger. She broke one of her shoulders when she reached back to turn on a lamp. Seriously.

In 2003 she had a terrible case of pneumonia, and we all thought that would be what did her in. Nope, she recovered nicely, resuming her normal activities including driving (!!) and living independently. Or at least as independently as one can live when the golden child lives within sight of her house.

As Gertrude’s physical abilities deteriorated, she gave in and began using a cane. Then a four-pronged cane, then a walker, and then her pride and joy, a motorized scooter for getting around her house. When she broke her shoulder in August of 2011, she could no longer use the walker, and she never drove again. She could manage getting from her reclining sofa (where she also slept, because she couldn’t navigate getting into/out of the bed anymore) to the scooter, to the toilet, back to the scooter, to the kitchen, back to the sofa, and she continued living alone.

Last summer she mentioned a spot in the roof of her mouth that wouldn’t allow her dentures to fit correctly, and her doctor sent her to an oral surgeon (3 visits there), who then sent her to a specialist at Emory in Atlanta (5 visits there), who recommended surgery upon discovering the small tumor was malignant. The surgery was performed at the end of August, and the doctor removed 40% of the roof of her mouth. I guess there are worse things to have 40% of removed, but I can’t think of any right now. (Apologies to any male readers who may stumble upon this post.)

We were referred to a prosthodontist (who even knew there WAS such a profession?), who created a prosthetic piece attached to her denture to cover the hole in the roof of her mouth. It allowed her to speak and eat in something approaching a normal manner, and she continued to live alone.

The surgeon recommended radiation, which was the only time I ever saw even a glint of sadness in Gertrude throughout the entire ordeal. She had watched her late husband go through radiation, and she knew that meant it was really bad. My husband and I (and his sister) preferred that she not go through with radiation, but you can’t tell that to a person who thinks it’s going to “fix” things.

This is becoming more of a medical treatise than a tribute, and for that I apologize.

She became weak and ill three days after her last radiation treatment, and the downhill slide accelerated. She went to the hospital, then to a nursing home, then to another nursing home, where she died in what I hope was a peaceful manner. We were with her on Thursday evening, and the day nurse called us at 7:05 AM on Friday to tell us he was unable to find a pulse when he reported to work that morning.

I’m not sure how I feel about heaven and where we go after we die, but for Gertrude I hope with every cell of my being that she is in a place where she can walk without assistance, talk without a prosthetic device in her mouth, use the bathroom by herself, and eat normal food. I hope whatever supreme being is in charge of where she is will forgive her when he tells Gertrude we are doing fine (so far) and she responds, “Shit.”

I still can’t walk to the end of the driveway without looking to see if her car is home. When I go out in the dark to get the newspaper, I look to her house to see if her lights are on, because that means she needs help getting to the bathroom.

We wrestle with the emotions of relief and guilt surrounding Gertrude’s death, much as I guess anyone deals with the death of an elderly loved one. Her death was an emotional relief to anyone who watched her deteriorate so rapidly, and I know it must have been a physical relief to her not to have to suffer anymore. But then there’s the associated guilt, because we aren’t supposed to feel relieved when someone dies.

I will miss her.


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