Friday, 5 May 2017

To the mother-in-law I never had.

I never knew you when your son and I were together but I knew of you. You knew of me too. He and I were only together for eight months before he died and somehow we just hadn't found the time for family introductions. We were too caught up in each other, enjoying our precious time together, knowing that we mustn't waste a moment of it, even though we couldn't see the sand streaming through the hourglass.

I knew where you lived though, having driven past your house with him on a few occasions. I knew of your illness too and of his fears for your health. He didn't think you had too long to live. (It never occurred to him that he might not outlive you.) I knew that he loved you too. I saw the way he cared for you: taking you shopping, bringing you flowers. You'd been restricted by your disabilities for years but he did his best to help you to live a full life. I heard about the trips that he'd taken you on and how he paid attention to the things that you made you happy. He was like that: thoughtful, considerate, kind. I now know that he took after his mum.

When I read through the blog of my grief I notice how often you feature. Since he died you've become an integral part of my story, an integral part of my life. You're another character who is gone too soon, who won't make it to the last page. Still, I'm so glad you were there, so glad I had a chance to know you. You were a life raft when I was floundering and an anchor in the storm.

I'll never forget the first time that we met. It was a surreal experience, bringing flowers to the mother of my boyfriend just a few days after his death. The last time you'd seen him had been Mother's Day. He'd come from my bed, bringing you flowers. You said you'd watched him arrange them for you in a vase and had a feeling, some mother's intuition, that something wasn't right. The last time I'd seen him was a few days later when I'd broken into his house to find his body. We were, all of us, in shock. You asked me to put the flowers in a vase and said you felt some comfort watching me in the kitchen where he'd been the week before.

I remember the moment, talking about the announcement for the newspaper, when you asked me how I wanted to refer to him and the feeling of being lost without him there to confer with, not even sure what my role was or how he would refer to me. Boyfriend and partner both sounded wrong. We didn't even live together, weren't even sure that we could ever live together and he was fifty-three and a giant of a man. And before I could censor myself, I'd blurted out, 'soulmate? Does that sound silly?' and you'd said, 'No, I don't think it sounds silly at all.' I knew at that moment that we would be friends.

Over the last year or so we have spent many hours together. Week after week we drank chamomile tea and talked about where we thought he'd gone, the manner in which he might have died, whether we could see his shape in clouds and rainbows, how much he was missed. At first you phoned me daily, always with those opening words: 'I won't ask you how you are. We don't say that do we, you and me?' It was such a relief to talk to someone who knew that I was not ok, that this was not ok. Together, we filled in the jigsaw pieces of his past. You told me of his childhood and his family; I told you of our adventures and our love, of the happiness we shared for those last eight months of his life. We went on our own adventure together too, in search of ducks on a pond in the Peak District and in search of locations for a memorial bench. We watched clouds scud across the sky and held each other's hands as we walked and as we talked. We drove together clutching his ashes in a green plastic jar to say our goodbyes. Sometimes we cried and sometimes, in the early days, desperate for connection with someone who loved him as much as I did, I would phone you sobbing and you were always so kind, never competitive in your grief as some people can be. You invited me into your family and into your home, once even asking if I would come and sleep on your sofa because you didn't like to think of me being alone. You were the loveliest mother-in-law I've ever known, even though I can't really claim you as my own.

My children like to claim you though. They remember you only with fondness too. You searched through your flat and gave them presents: Meccano sets and an old toy dragon for my boy, Flower Fairy books and pretty scarves for my girl. Once, we'd been to visit before we went on holiday to France and, forgetting to give them the money that you'd intended for them, you threw it down from your balcony into the park where we were playing. When you're eight years old, you don't forget a woman who throws money from a balcony. They saw you as another grandma to replace the one they'd lost, my mum, just the year before and you were like a mother to me too. The same age as my mum, you'd grown up round the corner from each other and told the same stories of May Day dresses and Sunday School. It was so comforting for me to be around you.

Later, I visited you in the hospice. I've been there a lot for my bereavement counselling and I would sit with you for an hour, before going to weep for your son's loss in the room down the corridor. On the anniversary of his death, it was with you that I wanted to be and we sat quietly holding hands as we watched a film of babbling brooks and crashing waves and thought of him. We didn't need words then.

You inspired me in those days. Incapacitated and on the brink of death, having lived such a hard life, as you had, you were still smiling, so grateful for the care you received, delighting in trying new dishes on the menu, revelling in the simple comforts of baths and hand massages, family and good friends. You helped me to see that, even in the darkest of times, there are still things to live for. This year, you helped me to stay alive.

You were by far the best mother-in-law I've ever had, even though your son wasn't there to see it. I want to thank you, Pat. I hope that you are with him now where both of us so longed to be. I hope you look down and see that, it is partly because of you that I can still smile and live on with your memories in my heart.

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