By KIM POINDEXTER
On Monday, Feb. 11, the pope announced his resignation – the first Roman Catholic pontiff to step down in 600 years. Around 4 a.m. that same day in La Habra, Calif., my mother-in-law quietly departed this earth. Her passing didn’t make headlines, but it did etch a permanent mark on the hearts of those who loved her.
We were stunned and numb. Though Mom had been sick, we didn’t expect it this soon. We’d just been to their home over the Christmas holidays, and our first and simultaneous thought acknowledged how glad we were that she had seen us, and her grandson, one last time.
Pop called me at work with the news, so I talked to him before my husband did. Pop didn’t want us to take off work; he assured me he was fine, and he was busy. He was having Mom cremated, and when he joined her in the afterlife, only then would there be a funeral Mass for both of them. I tried to get him to fly to Oklahoma to stay with us, but he repeated he had a lot to do. I told him I loved him; he said he loved me, too.
Mom was 78; Pop is 83. Though he’s had hip replacement surgery, he’s no different from when I first met him 30 years ago: a thoughtful, discerning and hard-working Italian man from New Jersey who graduated from the school of hard knocks, stoic but with a wry sense of humor and a penchant for teasing his loved ones.
Mom had changed: She suffered from dementia, which she inherited from her mother.
Many local folks remember her parents, Lonzo and Halley Grant, who had retired here. Shortly after Grandpa Lonzo died in 1981, Grandma Halley moved to California to live with Mom and Pop, but they eventually put her in a nursing home because both of whom still worked at that time, and they found it impossible to care for her.
Mom was candid about her own mother’s condition, and she often expressed the fear that she, too, would have dementia. A few years ago when we were visiting, she took Chris and me with her to the grocery store. While Chris was in another aisle, Mom confided how much she dreaded the inevitable: “Sometimes I go to the store, and I forget why I’m here, or for a second, I forget where I am. And it scares me to death.”
She wasn’t exaggerating. She was a registered nurse, so she knew better than anyone what she was up against. The latter part of her career she worked as a diabetes educator and saleswoman for Johnson & Johnson. Mom was smart, educated, fun-loving and gregarious, and engaged in her community and the world around her, so her symptoms couldn’t be hidden for long. The awareness of the looming loss of her dignity must have been agonizing, but the paradox of dementia is that once a victim has fallen into its clutches, she no longer realizes how acute her condition has become.
The last time Mom and Pop came to Oklahoma was in May 2007 for my son’s high school graduation, but up to that point, they had visited for two weeks every year. They showed up after my son’s birth – a godsend for a new mother who had a demanding career. Mom took care of everything – cleaning the house, cooking, and offering counsel on caring for a newborn.
Mom had advice to give on just about every topic. Some might see that a mark of a stereotypical mother-in-law, except Mom didn’t see herself that way. As far as she was concerned, I was her daughter just as surely as Chris was her son; the fact that she hadn’t given birth to me didn’t enter into the equation. The same was true for Andy, the husband of Chris’ sister, Cathy.
It’s because of Mom and Pop that I converted to Catholicism and became a “practicing” adult Christian, though I’m a poor specimen indeed. I was raised from infancy in a staunch Southern Baptist home, and got “saved” and baptized at 8. But over time, like many others of my generation, I found I could no longer square church tenets with the reality of my own life.
On the surface, Pop was the more devout of the two; he attended Mass daily, and Mom once joked he was “on his knees in church, or on his *ss in front of the TV.” But both were imbued with the “social justice” gospel the Catholic Church brought to the fore with Vatican II, and eschewed the hypocrisy I had seen in so many self-proclaimed Christians who pay lip service to the gospels, but rarely translate them into action.
I spent a lot of quality time with Mom during their treks to Oklahoma. In the evenings, Pop, Chris and Cole would watch TV – always those idyllic old series reruns, because Pop scorned “all that swearing and nudity.” Mom would sit in the kitchen with me while I cooked dinner, and we’d talk about every subject imaginable, but often we’d focus on religious tenets.
Mom understood the challenges of faith in the modern world, and she had nuanced and pragmatic views on topics like abortion, women’s rights, gay issues, the death penalty, euthanasia and ecumenicism. She understood the role “conscience” plays in Catholic doctrine. Once when we were at a reception after Mass at St. Brigid in Tahlequah, several people were discussing “limbo,” the Catholic church’s one-time teaching that an infant who dies before being baptized can’t be “saved.” When asked where she believed an unbaptized baby would end up, Mom pointedly said, “I think heaven gets another little angel.” Her tone suggested no one should argue with her, and no one did.
Mom might level gentle censure at her family members, but she wouldn’t tolerate it from others. To outsiders, she staunchly defended what we did and thought, and she would brook no criticism of her two grandchildren. She did want my son to get in shape. When Cole talked to his grandfather the other day, Pop said, “Your grandmother will haunt you until you lose weight.” I’m pretty sure Pop believes that, too, but he was speaking of the woman she once was.
In recent years, my husband often insisted, “That’s not my mom.” I’ve heard others say the same about their parents. People with dementia forget what they once knew, and people they once loved. Their religious and political beliefs become rigid and fundamentalist, and they get judgmental and paranoid. They think their spouses are having affairs, or their kids are after their money, even if they have little money to take. They talk about people from their past their offspring have never met, repeat themselves, invent incredible scenarios, boast incessantly, and often say hurtful things their loved ones must strive mightily to forgive.
Before the dementia began to take hold of Mom, Chris and I used to suggest that she and Pop retire to Oklahoma, like her parents before her. But she wanted to be within a stone’s throw of the best medical care in the world, which she considered to be in Southern California. That may be true, but it wasn’t good enough to help Mom. Her doctors could not stop the slow decline of her mind, the theft of a woman who was generous, nurturing, wise, confident, and assertive. Medical technology may replace our hips, give us new kidneys, restore failing eyesight and even cure cancer. But it cannot restore the essence of who we are in the depths of our souls. And for people like Mom – and me, too – that’s the worst fate of all.
We’ll miss Mom, but we take comfort knowing she’s whole now. I’m sure she’s taking notes on advice to give me when we meet again.
Kim Poindexter is managing editor of the Tahlequah Daily Press.