Marie the Elder

I turned the corner of the hospital corridor and looked at the patient in the room where I was expecting to see my former mother-in-law. The white-haired woman who lay swaddled in bedding, surrounded by IV bags and equipment looked too old and emaciated to be Marie. I asked at the nurse’s station where I could find Room 2012. She pointed to the frail lady across the hall.

It had been seven years since I’d last visited Marie and Carl in Coronado. Work and a lack of funds, had initially, kept me away. Then in the past four years, she’d lost Carl, a son, and a daughter-in-law. She’d had a stroke, cancer, and a series of other ailments that made her disinclined to receive visitors, especially during Covid. When her son called to say that Marie was in the hospital and it was okay for me to visit, I was thrilled. He forewarned me that her dementia was getting worse. She might not live much longer. Yet, the frail Marie I found possessed a memory much sharper than I expected.

“Hi, Marie,” I said, walking cautiously into the room. Sick people, especially in hospitals, make me nervous and queasy. “It’s Marie.” She used to joke that she was Marie the Elder, and I was Marie the Younger. Standing next to her bed, I recognized her beautiful blue eyes. Her mischievous, warm smile came into focus. She pretended to recognize me as well, but I think it took a few minutes for her memory to catch up. I’d gained weight. My hair was completely blondish-grey now.

“Marie,” she finally said. “I’m so pleased to see you.”

She reached over with her left hand (the right side of her body was still paralyzed after the stroke) and brought my hand to her lips. I supposed in lieu of a hug and a kiss, this was her new greeting.

She asked about my sons. We scrolled through my phone looking at recent pictures from my nephew’s wedding. She asked if I’d remarried, and I said no. I told her I’d gotten a kitten. She said cats were often easier than husbands.

“What are you doing for fun,” she asked. I told her I mainly just work a lot. Still diving. She recalled coming to one of my practices and said she was always so proud of my courage. I mentioned my writing. She said, “Remember when you wrote about walking around a parking lot naked?” Nothing came to mind. Who could she possibly be confusing me with? Then I knew what she was referring to.

In 2009, I was in San Diego to speak at a writer’s conference. Marie and Carl had offered to babysit my sons. After an early dinner, she shooed the boys off to the adjacent room to watch television with grandpa. Seated knee to knee on the sofa, she said that she’d read my recently published memoir, twice, and that much of what I’d shared had shocked and saddened her. Specifically, the rape incident on the gravel parking lot of my college football stadium—or as she later described, me walking around a parking lot naked. We all have had these types of experiences, she said, but it was best not to air them publicly. I knew she meant well. Her mores were from a bygone generation. She recalled other subjects from the memoir that she deemed inappropriate. I felt attacked and rejected. Humiliated. Horrified that in an hour I’d be giving a keynote speech and they too might judge me harshly. I started crying and excused myself to go to the bathroom.

Marie had always been supportive of my writing and my life choices. She’d come with me to a memoir class in San Francisco and applauded after I’d read a very personal essay. She loved to share stories of her former marriages and lovers and her childhood, especially memories of her mother whom she adored. When I divorced her stepson, she assured me that she would always be my mother-in-law. What we had was special and she wasn’t willing to give it up. To receive her disapproval now was unexpected and hurtful. We didn’t talk for months after this visit, but I finally returned one of her calls after she pleaded not to let what she had said ruin our friendship.

The nurse entered the room, tested her glucose level, and noted that Marie hadn’t touched her dinner. I offered to feed Marie the yogurt and she accepted a few spoonfuls. Then she began talking about her regrets, her biggest being staying in an unhappy marriage. I knew she and Carl had struggled. They were so different—him a Baptist and she a Presbyterian, him a teetotaler and she not. I had invited her to live with me and my sons once when she had called to say she needed to leave him but didn’t know where she would go.

The conversation moved on to her son who had died. She began crying and reached for my hand. I had never seen her cry. I wondered if she lay in her hospital bed, her mind a swirl of memories and regrets. We held hands for a while, quietly, and then she released me and laughed at herself. Before I left, she reached for my hand again and kissed it.

“I love you,” she said. “I love you,” I said. “You will always be my favorite mother-in-law,” I teased to prompt a smile.

Marie passed away a few months after this visit. The loss feels surreal. I keep expecting her to call to invite my sons and me to visit her. In my mind, I see us sitting on their front porch, holding hands, and laughing about life—its constant twists and turns.

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