As we drove up the winding mountain road, the vibrant fall colors seemed blinding. The kids were quiet, each absorbed in whatever they were watching on their phones. An earbud in one ear, I half listened to an old Art Bell Coast to Coast episode. My other ear caught the sound of my minivan’s tires gliding across the blacktop. My eyes watched the road, but my brain wasn’t focused on anything except the events of the past week.
She’s been gone for a week. Betty was the epitome of grace. When I married her son twenty-five years ago, I instinctively knew I’d have a lot to live up to. But, I also knew I’d have quite a bit of time to prepare for that future role. Betty’s mother is well into her 90s, Charley’s mother lived into her 90s and his grandmother had the same longevity. I figured I’d be a senior citizen myself before wishing them a final good-bye in their extreme golden years and all would be well.
Life has a super funny way of making things not well.
When Charley was diagnosed with cancer last year, Betty’s nursing instincts and training from decades ago kicked in. She banned all of us from the house out of fear that Charley’s chemo-weakened immune system wouldn’t be able to handle even the most common of colds. We knew that Charley would have surgery around January and then? We could get back to life as normal.
But that wasn’t to be. January stretched to February thanks to ineffective chemo and February slipped toward March as he battle pneumonia. And then? COVID-19 hit the country and none of the hospitals were performing surgeries. When he was finally able to enter an operating room in August, it was too late. His cancer had spread everywhere. And still, Betty battled for her husband of 56 years.
Several days before Betty had her stroke, Charley called hospice. I know, deep down, that the stroke was due to stress. It was all Betty this last year. She drove Charley to all his chemo and doctor appointments. She fixed his meals, shopped for groceries, ran errands, paid bills, did absolutely anything and everything, all while keeping their environment COVID-19 free. She did it all, 24/7/365, with no break, no rest, no respite.
I’ve expressed a lot of anger as of late with people flouting common sense rules when it comes to social distancing, wearing masks, and getting vaccinated when the time comes. And some people couldn’t understand why. And this is why. Because my mother-in-law shouldn’t have done this alone. Was COVID-19 the cause of Betty’s death? In a round-about way? Yes. I think so.
But, I digress. Let’s consider those last four paragraphs the Tom Clancy portion of this blog post. You know, when you crack open a copy of Red Storm Rising or The Hunt for Red October and sandwiched between all the action and suspense is Tom’s chapter on the political philosophy of whatever it is he’s writing about. That up there is some of what I’m stewing on as of late.
What we’re facing, right now, as a family, is the loss of both of our parents and our children’s grandparents and great-grandparents. And that shouldn’t have happened. And in the midst of this absolute, all-encompassing grief and anger and frustration and fatigue, I’m trying to remember the little things about Betty.
When Betty and Charley first gutted their mountain home and began rebuilding it to match their dream, they envisioned a huge kitchen with a play area for the grandchildren directly above. And one of the first things Betty did was tie a pail to the railing so that the kids could lower down the bucket and she could send up snacks. This pail was used for years just for that purpose and when I looked up from the kitchen and saw it sitting there, it was like a punch in the stomach. The pail was last used was over a year ago, when we visited for the annual fall festival, when the voices and laughter of three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren echoed through the house, the pail being passed down for food and toys.
When we got to the house, one of the first things I did was ask Tyler for his mom’s car keys. He looked at me quizzically and I replied, “I have to fix her clock.” Betty never did learn how to change the time on her car’s clock and twice a year, I would do it for her. When I turned the key in the ignition, the clock blinked. Clearly, she had tried changing it herself, but was never able to finish it. I did it for her. It was something I needed to do. Even though she wasn’t here to ask me.
Betty had perfected her chocolate chip cookie recipe. And any time she made cookies for us, Tyler and I fought the kids for them. She started labeling them “Hugs” once COVID-19 hit and we could no longer visit. Tyler would make the trek to their home periodically to talk to his dad about the family business and Betty would pass along bags of cookies, her hugs for her grandchildren. I found the last dozen in the freezer on Sunday. I’m never throwing this bag away.
We all have our bedrooms where we sleep at their home. Tyler and I always crashed out in the bedroom directly under the kitchen. Each and every morning, I would wake up to hear Betty’s quick footsteps through the kitchen, turning on the ovens, checking the coffee pot, followed by Charley’s heavy boots to help. I would lay there, light pouring through the windows, my blurry eyes focusing on the bronze sculpture across the room, willing myself to get up and help make breakfast or wash dishes. I would run my hands over the back of that sculpture as I looked out the windows, gauging the weather, thinking how smooth the artist had made the model’s skin. But now, for me, when I see it, it personifies my grief.
The rocking chairs by the kitchen fireplace were where we would all gather. Betty and whoever else she co-opted to fix the upcoming meal would be moving around the island while the rest of us would sit on the hearth, in the rocking chairs, or pull in chairs from the dining room. And we would talk politics, religion, current events, anything and everything. Clutching coffee mugs or wine glasses, depending on the time of day, many great conversations were had, usually with Charley front and center and Betty trying to pull him away to help with food.
“Charley,” she would tentatively begin, “could you check on the roast?”
“Bet,” he would gently fuss in response, pushing himself up from the chair, “I just checked it ten minutes ago. It’s fine.”
She would look over her glasses at him and he would sigh and do whatever she wanted, returning to the conversation several minutes later. At which time she would encourage him to check on something else. At which time he would grumble and do whatever she asked. Rinse. Repeat.
Charley is the family artist. And summer, 2019, he drew like crazy. He took Amelia and her cousin, Hannah, to the side, and the three of them would spend nearly each morning drawing. Charcoal, pastels, pencils, beach scenes, waterfalls, whatever. Didn’t matter. One afternoon, Heath worked hard to fly a kite, wearing his signature orange. My memory of that day is being on the beach, laughing at his antics. Betty, though, was too focused on her other grandchildren and great-nieces and great-nephews playing in the water, worrying about sharks, jellyfish, riptides, and too much sun. Meanwhile, Charley was up on the condo balcony, capturing the pure joy of that moment on paper.
There are so many other little things that Betty and Charley did, too numerous to name, that I know will come at me in waves. There will be the small waves, like the annual family Christmas puzzle, that will merely wet my ankles. And there will be the larger waves, crashing around my waist, taking my breath away, like remembering the first two weeks of our children’s lives, at home, when Betty spent each night watching them sleep and waking me up to feed them. She would arrive at dinner, leave at breakfast, and help us ease into our new normal. She was exhausted, but she insisted. All the waves, all of the memories, in varying sizes and shapes, will come at me throughout the ensuing years. And I will do my best not to stumble when they hit, to instead allow them to wash over me like cool, ocean saltwater on a hot summer day.
Betty was, without a doubt, the most incredible woman I have ever known. She will never be replaced and I will never be able to be half the woman she was. But, that’s OK. Because even though I was her batshit crazy purple haired hillbilly daughter-in-law, she loved me. Unconditionally. And never asked me to be anything other than what I already was. I will miss her so much.