Sometime in 1978, my mother-in-law (whom I called Mom), a pack-a-day smoker for more than 40 years, discovered she had lung cancer. Whenever we asked her about her prognosis, she said, “I have to see the doctor again in two weeks.”
When Carly was born in April, 1979, my mother- and father-in-law came to the hospital to see her. We got together a few weeks later, and they both were able to hold her.
Then, in June, Greg’s dad had a heart attack.
Greg’s mom called to tell us. Greg immediately wanted to drive over to visit him in the hospital (a one-hour trip each way), but Mom said, “The doctor said don’t come; there’s nothing you can do for him.” Greg told her we’d come to see them on Sunday, Father’s Day.
A few days later, Mom called again to say, “You might want to come to see your dad.” Greg said, “We’ll be over Sunday.” He assumed that would be soon enough.
Greg’s dad died the next day.
Greg’s biggest regret is that he didn’t follow his first impulse and go to the hospital when he first learned about the heart attack, despite what the doctor said.
Over the next months, we visited Greg’s mom every weekend. Sometimes I’d hear her say to herself, “Wil (Greg’s father), how could you do this to me?” Greg mowed the lawn, we had dinner together, I washed the dishes, and we did whatever we could to help. Mom was still driving to the supermarket on her own, although she limited her purchases to one bagful, which was as much as she had the strength to carry.
Whenever we asked about her health, she said, “I have to see the doctor again next week.”
Because she was seeing the doctor on a regular basis, I assumed she was getting treatment. I also assumed she’d get better.
Meanwhile, Carly grew. She took her first steps on Grandma’s screened-in front porch, where we often sat while we visited.
It turned out Mom refused treatment. The cancer was going to kill her. But I didn’t really understand or believe it. I knew she was weaker, but she didn’t seem like she was dying.
Then, one day, Greg came to me with a proposition. Mom had asked if we’d move in with her. She wanted me to be her caretaker.
I was a stay-at-home mom. I wanted to give my full attention to taking care of Carly. I didn’t want to spend her childhood pulled in two directions. Greg said it was totally my decision. I said no.
So my mother-in-law went to a care center next to the hospital. I went to visit her once a week. Mom said, “Don’t bring the baby. I don’t want her to see me with all these tubes stuck in me.”
I brought Carly anyway. Carly didn’t notice the tubes; all she saw was her Grandma. In fact, it was in the care center that Carly called her “Grandma” for the first time.
Greg spent time with his mom whenever he could. He was there with her four weeks later when she passed away.
Four weeks. That’s all.
I didn’t really process this experience until more than twenty years later, when my brother was caring for our ailing parents. He put his life on hold for them–for fourteen years.
I was 27 when I made my decision not to care for my mother-in-law. I really didn’t have a model for elder caretaking. I didn’t observe my parents doing it for their own parents. I was young and stupid.
I was also somewhat in denial about what Mom was going through. I wish someone had sat down with me and told me that the end was near. I still thought she could get better. I thought she had years before she would die. I was so blind. If someone had told me my services would be needed for a few weeks, I could easily have done that, even with a toddler.
It is my life’s biggest regret, and it haunts me every day.