Role Model

Well, November is here, and as usual it has brought out my melancholy side.  I miss my mom with sharper focus in November, the month of both her birth and her death. But this November in particular, I've been thinking a lot about my fabulous mother-in-law, whose birthday was also in November. I wish you could have known her as well as I did.

She was an excellent grandmother, a breast cancer survivor, a fiercely independent widowed single woman, a terrific friend, the best mother-in-law, and an adventurous soul who was up for anything.

She tap danced. She swam. She shepherded tourists around the Smithsonian as a docent at the National Postal Museum. She read The Washington Post from front to back every single day. She hated to drive, but had the Washington, D.C. bus and subway schedules memorized; she used them as she attended theater productions and baseball games and art exhibits throughout the city. She looked forward to and excelled at the competitive sport of bargain-hunting.

More than this, after her retirement from the U.S. Foreign Service and a career during which she and her husband raised three children -- while stationed in places like Cambodia, Libya, Bangladesh -- she traveled the world all over again. She took cruises throughout Europe, Northern Africa, and Canada. She rode a zip line over the Costa Rican rain forest. She went on a safari in Tanzania -- sleeping in the most glamorous tents I've ever seen. 

And then she was diagnosed with a brain tumor, almost two years ago. She was told she had a "glioblastoma multiforme." Your Google search will give you all the bad news about this kind of tumor. And you've probably been hearing about this particularly shitty brand of cancer in the news recently. 

I want to say so many things. But mostly:

First -- my religion (which was my mother-in-law's  religion too) teaches me that God's ways are not our ways. This is sometimes (but not always) comforting when I consider the ways cancer attacks us. I watched it take control of my own mother, and then of my dear mother-in-law. And to tell you the truth, both times it took control of my life, too. 

But second, this sucky disease gave me a great and good gift, too. My beloved mother-in-law's illness allowed me to take care of her. It allowed me to be with her at her most vulnerable, and it let me take the most intimate care of her. Ultimately, this brave woman let me and her other children be with her as she approached that ultimate journey -- her greatest adventure yet! It's funny -- nineteen years ago, when my own mother went through a similar ordeal with similar grace, my friend Susan said to me, "her suffering is a gift." Which totally pissed me off. Who would want this kind of present?! It certainly has never been on my Christmas wish list. But she was right (as she usually is). I am grateful that I was able to love them in this particular way, in addition to all the other kinds of love I had and have for both of them.

This is a thing I've come to embrace partly because of my religious beliefs -- but I think that my non-religious friends might have experienced a similar gift. I consider myself devout, but I don't think this thankfulness really has to do entirely with faith. It also has to do with our deepest connections to those we love. And, while I have the deepest sympathy for those who think that this is not a death they should have to experience, I look to both of my cherished mothers as my examples and role models. There are many ways to die with dignity.

Finally, as is often my way, I would recommend a book -- for anyone whose family has gone through something like this, or is in the middle of it right now. Shrinkage, by Bryan Bishop, is a wonderful memoir of his (so far) successful battle against an inoperable brain tumor. I first learned of his story through his fiercely wonderful wife's blog, and have cheered him on ever since. He writes with honesty, grit, and humor, and anyone fighting cancer will find inspiration and hope in his story.