Breathing Lessons


I have very sad news.

Ray’s mom Pat — my mother in law, the girls’ beloved grandmother — passed away Sunday. She had lung cancer, and it had spread to her brain. So while this was not entirely unexpected, it was very sudden. She was only 64.

(I feel almost guilty waiting till now to tell you; the illness has to some extent set the tone in our family since June, and it was something I couldn’t share on the blog — there were some people Pat didn’t want told.)

Too sudden for Ray to be by her bed. Too sudden for me to write her the letter I vowed to write last week when she started having trouble breathing to tell her all the things I wanted to make sure she knew about what a wonderful person she was. (Like all of us, she was complicated. But as I said to Ray as we were falling asleep, the night it happened, “Your mother meant well. And you can’t say that about everyone.”)

Too sudden to warn the girls, and let them say their goodbyes.

That will haunt me for the rest of my life, and my fear is that it will haunt the girls — particularly Annabelle — as well.

I always got the feeling that with Annabelle, Pat was starting over, creating the perfect relationship after a lifetime of relationships that hadn’t been so swell.  Hey, we’d all like to have that chance, wouldn’t we?

And I’ve gotta say, if she made any missteps with Annabelle, I didn’t see them. From the moment she was born, Pat gave Annabelle her undivided attention; bought her things but didn’t spoil her; fostered mutual loves (of sewing, in particular, and even vegetables) and let her know above all that Grandma loved her.

At times, I’ll admit, it was too precious for me. I wasn’t crazy about it when, at 3 or 4, Annabelle came home announcing that Grandma had told her she was her best friend. But I’ll also admit that maybe I was jealous. (With Sophie it was more complicated, and that’s all I’ll say for now.)

We never told Annabelle that Grandma was very sick. She knew she was taking medicine that made her lose some hair. She had to know from looking at her that Grandma had changed from the steroids that puffed her up, the radiation that burned her chest. But Pat was careful to hide her weakness from Annabelle, to parse playdates to manageable bits and reserve her strength for the occasional overnight.

Annabelle never asked a question, but in that way that old souls know, I think she knew, although the look on her face when we told her yesterday is something I will never forget — and never wish to remember.

When I heard Sunday that Pat had been moved home to hospice, I knew we had to tell the girls, and take them to say their goodbyes. Although no one said it — I don’t think anyone knew — there wasn’t time. She passed away within hours.

Just Friday, two days before, she was joking and laughing in her hospital bed, planning for a radiation treatment scheduled several days away as my father in law dug into the Thin Mints I brought.

“Give me a hug,” she said as I was leaving. Even a hug was too much effort, setting off the buzzers on the oxygen monitors. “You smell so good,” she said over the beeping, “I could hug you forever.”

And that was it.

I’ll serve the girls chocolate pudding (Pat’s favorite) from the parfait dishes she gave me for a wedding shower gift, and we’ll plant her favorite vegetables and even a tree, and add to the shrine we started yesterday on the mantle. I even promised to learn how to sew.

But nothing will bring Grandma back.

The last day the girls saw Pat, we got dressed up and took her to afternoon tea at the Ritz Carlton, as a late Christmas present. The girls sipped lemonade from blue and white porcelain and everyone ate too much chocolate. Sophie and I looked for fairies in the lines in the marble in the Ladies Room and at the end, the girls danced to the music from the grand piano in the lobby. Even Pat twirled around a few times.

It was a perfect afternoon. Even if it’s not true, I’m going to tell myself that that’s how Pat would have wanted to say goodbye to the girls, if she’d been able to choose.

And maybe someday Annabelle will decide that was a pretty good way to say goodbye, too, if you have to say goodbye. I’m going to have to tell myself that, as well.

Last night when I tucked her in, Sophie pulled her thumb out of her mouth and whispered, “Grandma died. I think about her.”

It’s going to take us all a long time to process this.



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12 responses to “Breathing Lessons

  1. elewinnek

    Oh my goodness, you’ve got me all choked up. I am going to choose to believe that your mother-in-law knew all this, even if you didn’t write that letter. And Annabelle will know it too.

  2. Leah

    that was lovely.

  3. My father -in-law, and my own father passed away recently. My father-in -law was on the verge of death for half a year. Ny husband went to see him, but he was not concious.
    My Dad had cancer, but we hoped he would survive it, as he had twice previously. But two years ago I said that I want to visit him when he is well enough to enjoy the visit. And I did. In the end, he died so suddenly that there was no way I could visit.
    Moral of the story as I see it:
    1. If you live far from your folks, go visit occaisionally. And make up any fights, as you never know what the future holds
    2. I don’t think that the “last time is so important. If your mother in law knew you loved her, that is enough.

    May you be comforted.
    Please tell us something nice about her.

  4. karen

    I am sorry for your loss Amy. Nothing I say will make a difference in how you feel, but know you are not alone. A lot of us have traveled the very road you are now on. Sometimes we have company, whether we want it or not, and other times we are by ourselves, whether we want it or not. All relationships are complicated if we really think about it. How nice that you did have the time for the girls to know their Grandma. In the end that is usually all we have, memories and the love. I know you have both. hugs.

  5. I’m so sorry, for all of you. Please give Ray our best too, ok?

  6. Robert Polk

    Thank you for expressing these kind and honest thoughts.

    I am sorry for your loss.

    You have endeared your family to us here; I think about you.

  7. Mary Ellen

    I’m so sorry. I love it that she is holding the monkey’s hand. Definitely a grandma.

  8. As a tear streams down my face, at work no less, I cannot help but think of my Grams. I’m 25 years old and while she’s the only grandparent I’ve ever known, I’ve been blessed to still have her around. My grams was my best friend as a child, and is my biggest cheerleader as an adult. Annabelle is a lucky girl to have been her Grandma’s favorite (I am the only granddaughter, therefore the default favorite), and I cannot get over how adorable it is that she’s holding the monkey’s hand.

    I am so sorry for your loss and wish you all the best during a time that I cannot even begin to understand.

  9. So sorry for your loss. You gave your girls a wonderful gift in that last outing with Grandma. They will remember her the way she seemed to wish to be remembered, as a doting and wonderful friend. And for you, it seems obvious that she already knew the things you would have written. She could have hugged you forever.

  10. I’m so very sorry.
    You’ve given her a lovely tribute here.
    Like someone else pointed out, I love that she is holding the monkey’s hand in the photo.
    Please don’t beat yourself up about how things could have been done/what you should have done. It sounds like your girls had a wonderful last day with grandma and that is the most anyone can hope for, whether they knew what the future held, or not.
    Cancer can be particularly cruel and fast and that’s all I have to say about that.
    I am thinking of you and your family.

  11. Kathy

    How many people never hear the words uttered to them, in their entire life, “I could hug you forever”? Especially from their mother in law?

    Tears in my eyes… you all.

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