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Reflections August 2016

Leslie Goes Boom

In Case Tissues

By Leslie Handler

The fight had been the week before. I accompanied her to the cosmetic surgeon's office so she could discuss her impending facelift. She wanted to prove to me he was qualified and hoped I would agree with her assessment. I did not.

She came for me. She pulled into the parking lot that day in her forest green Lincoln Town car. It was huge almost as big as her life has been. I remember riding in it; the front bench seat always had a box of tissues resting in the middle just "in case."

At 87, she barely even used her cane. It seemed like more of a security blanket than anything. Maybe it made her feel that she looked the part of stoic matriarch. She didn't need it. She walked into the room in her matter-of-fact manner. Her skirt covered her knees but not her calves. She always had nice legs, and she knew it. She had on her signature scarf, tied around her neck to hide the wrinkles that had taunted her for decades. Those were the wrinkles we fought about – the only time I ever remember disagreeing with her in all of our years together.

The fight had been the week before. I accompanied her to the cosmetic surgeon's office so she could discuss her impending facelift. She wanted to prove to me he was qualified and hoped I would agree with her assessment. I did not. Always a strong-willed woman, she booked the surgery anyway. I was so upset with her that I wouldn't even join her for lunch after the appointment – a decision I've regretted for almost five years now. That day, she stopped taking her daily aspirin in preparation.

But on this day, she came to see me in my hospital bed. I could see the love she had for me reflecting back through her thick, round glasses. The reflection was like a Vermeer painting: her, big as life itself, and me, the tiny reflection staring back in minute detail. Her compassion radiated from the light in her eyes, through those thick frames, as it lit up the walls of that dreary room. The ambient light surrounded her as she sat to converse with me until she bowed her head and someone switched off her light. I called out to her but there was no response. I screamed into the call button speaker that I needed help immediately. "It's not me," I said. "It's my mother-in-law. She's having a stroke!"

They sent in a nurse as Mom's head lifted. It was like watching a slow-motion movie rewind. First her head eased its way back to the erect position. Then her light switched back on, and the ambient glow reappeared. The nurse said Mom was fine. I screamed at her and told her that she was not fine and insisted on seeing a doctor at once.

In a moment, the half-dozen doctors making their rounds entered my room. Mom insisted she was fine. These feckless doctors insisted she was fine. I insisted she was not fine. They had her stand and walk across the room, tell them her name and the day's date. She performed all with precision. They said they would stop back by in 20 minutes or so when they completed their rounds. The word "no" came out of my mouth from somewhere deep in my gut. They turned to leave anyway.

"Look at her now! Ask her your questions now," I screamed. One of them reluctantly turned back toward her only to see her head once again bowing down. They asked her to stand. When she tried, she collapsed in their arms.

Within hours, the whole family was there to support her in every way she had always supported us. Although she lost a lot that day, she didn't lose her position as stoic matriarch. Her body may have failed her, but her mind was still intact.

During the next three years, she lived to see the birth of her first three great-grandchildren, the marriage of two of her grandchildren, and the engagement of another. She struggled with her religious faith for the first time in her life, she was in and out of the hospital for various ailments, and she often forgot if she last saw you yesterday or last week. We celebrated her 90th birthday with two huge parties. She always kept her sense of humor about her. When we would ask why she was always so tired, she would tell us we would be too if we had breathed in and out for 90 years.

I called her Mom from the start. When she held my babies in her arms, they were her babies too. When my father-in-law passed away, I held those arms – wrapping mine around them as she had wrapped hers around my babies. When the cancer came, she watched over me. When Hurricane Sandy came, and she lost power, I drove an hour and a half to retrieve her and drive her back to my house. I made her stay in the warmth of our home. It got warmer before she left. One day she fell and broke her hip. The results this time were not so good. When she turned 91 we didn't have a party.

Where did my mother-in-law go? Where was the woman who raised my husband; the one who taught him integrity and compassion by setting her own example? I wanted to take her out to lunch, the one I declined. I wanted to take her for her facelift, the one I was too stubborn to agree with. What I didn't want, was to use the "in case" tissues from the front seat of her Lincoln Town car.


"I’ve fallen and I CAN get up are the words I live by because when I fall and go BOOM, I always get back up."

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