Last night my wife’s mother died.
This was not really a surprise. Margaret had been in bad health for a long time. She had Lewy Body dementia, which produces symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s. We had to watch her rapid decline into confusion and senility, and then continue to watch as her body broke down.
Last night her son Curt, my wife’s brother, had been with her for about four hours. He was noticing that she was having trouble breathing, but there was little the doctors could do. He finally left for the night…only to get a phone call almost as soon as he got home telling him that his mother had died.
Margaret didn’t like me very much at first. Indeed, I didn’t meet her until after I asked Jamie to marry me.
I met Jamie when we were both working at Arby’s at Barton Creek Square Mall. We were both attracted to each other because we were both horrible at the “game of love”. We were both way too honest and forthright to keep potential mates who were used to being told how wonderful they were, and flirting? ForGET it.
Now, back then, both Jamie and her mom were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and one of the things about Jehovah’s Witnesses is that they really, really want their kids to marry other Jehovah’s Witnesses. I could relate because my parents had been Seventh-Day Adventists, who like to follow the same rule. Only substituting “Seventh-Day Adventists” for “Jehovah’s Witnesses”.
The only problem was, I wasn’t a Witness and had no desire to become one.
So our love was forbidden – so romantic! Indeed, at one point, due to pressure from her family and the elders of her congregation, Jamie broke it off with me.
But she looked at her congregation…there were so few people her age that the marriages may as well have been arranged. And the young couples didn’t seem to be doing any better than non-Witness couples – there was adultery and fighting and divorcing just like everywhere else.
She went out with a few of the guys, but they all treated her badly, mostly because there were more women than men in the congregation and they had their pick of the flock.
And she finally realized…oh, Lord, this is going to sound so egotistical, but she finally realized that despite not being a Witness, I would make a much better husband and father than any of the guys she’d been dating “in the church”.
So Jamie and I made up. I had been hoping she’d come back to me so I hadn’t really been pursuing any other women (that and the whole “shy as a rabbit” thing). I was very happy, and so was she.
And one thing led to another, and that thing led to a strip of pink on a stick. And so I asked her to marry me, and she said yes.
Now, in my defense, I’d already decided that I was going to marry her, I just hadn’t gotten around to proposing yet. Her getting pregnant merely accelerated a process already in motion.
But now I had no choice – I had to meet her mother.
So one Sunday afternoon we both went over to her mother’s house. I was surprised at Margaret’s age. Jamie told me that Margaret had had her when she was almost forty, so when I met Margaret that day she was in her mid-sixties. She looked like she could have been Jamie’s grandmother, not her mother.
She let us in; I introduced myself and was as polite as I could possibly be. We sat down in the living room and made some small talk. But then we dropped the bomb. Jamie said, “Momma, I’m pregnant, and Anthony and I are going to get married.”
Without a word, Margaret stood up, walked into her bedroom and shut the door.
We sat there for ten agonizing minutes before Jamie finally went into the bedroom to discover Margaret crying. She was absolutely inconsolable for a while. I sat there dying inside until finally Jamie coaxed Margaret out of the bedroom. At which point I pledged my undying devotion to her daughter and our unborn child.
Finally Margaret settled down. “Well, at least he’s not a Mexican,” she said.
Margaret’s life was scarred by tragedy, just like almost anyone’s who lived through the two World Wars. Her first husband, Curt’s father, left her. Her second husband, Jamie’s father, ran a liquor store. With free access to liquor, Margaret quickly became an alcoholic. And when she began to suspect (correctly) that he was cheating on her she threw gigantic booze-fueled fits, throwing liquor bottles and crockery at him.
Eventually they divorced. And then, it seemed, Margaret’s life began. She kicked her alcoholism. Her son Curt had a beautiful boy named Brett – plus Margaret still had Jamie, her own child, to love. She got a government secretarial job and worked at it for twenty years, finally retiring with a pension. Joining the Jehovah’s Witnesses gave her a spiritual peace. Austin grew in the direction of her house so she was able to sell about half of her backyard to a local developer for a substantial sum.
And then…tragedy again. It turned out that Brett had cystic fibrosis. The odds of him living to adulthood were very low.
I only met Brett a couple of times…he lived in Austin for about the first half of his life. As he grew up he became a big fan of computer games, and when Origin Systems heard about him they actually donated $3000 worth of computer equipment and games, making him the envy of the block. From a computer-related standpoint, at least.
When I met Brett I was working at Origin, which made me super-cool despite the fact that I was just doing tech support. He was an extraordinarily likeable kid.
But then Curt and his mother divorced, and she took him away to live in Missouri.
As a parent I now understand – grandchildren are your reward for successfully parenting your children. And not only was Margaret’s only grandchild sick, now he was hundreds of miles away.
And then, a near-miracle happened: Brett’s health started to improve. For almost a year he lived a near-normal life. During that year he came to visit Margaret, and this picture was taken.
That year was a gift, but it couldn’t last. Soon after they returned to Missouri, Brett worsened and then quickly died.
At the funeral, Brett’s mother told me that Brett had always looked up to me, and had wanted to make video games when he grew up.
But as the years passed Margaret began to like me more and more, and I began to have a much better relationship with her than with a lot of my own family.
Of course, there were downsides. When Jamie and I got into financial trouble we lived with her in her house for a year. This was annoying for everyone involved; Margaret had become incredibly fastidious in her old age and Jamie and I kept forgetting to do various things.
On the other hand, I remember once while we lived there that I was playing Jet Set Radio on my Dreamcast late one night. I had the sound down low so it wouldn’t wake Margaret, but I glanced behind me and there she was. She was staring at the screen as if in a trance, captivated by the game’s visuals. Once she noticed I was looking at her, she made a quick comment about how interesting the game looked and moved on. Obviously, the power of Jet Set Radio transcends generations.
But the real upside was that Margaret now had daily access to Megan, the apple of her eye.
And Jamie was pregnant with our second child, David.
Only David wasn’t as easygoing a baby as Megan had been. Indeed, he cried unless he was constantly held (an early sign of his autism). He drove Margaret crazy and it was only a few months after he was born that moving out became the best thing for everyone involved. Fortunately at this point I’d just made programmer at Multimedia Games (my first programming job) and we could now just barely afford our own place again.
But still, I continued to, you know, not cheat on her daughter and not divorce her daughter and not take her only remaining family away to live in some other part of the country. And then Jewel came along, cute, sassy Jewel, to really seal the deal. Margaret finally told Jamie that she was glad Jamie had married me.
And then I started cooking turkey dinners for everyone at Thanksgiving, taking that weight off her shoulders. She loved my cooking.
But her health had been getting worse for about the last sixth months. Curt, who had been taking care of her, finally had to put her in a home because he wasn’t capable of providing the round-the-clock medical care necessary to keep her alive.
During this time, it became clear to us that the only thing that still mattered in this world to her were her grandchildren. Our visits with her were the only time she conversed, became animated. But it was obvious her health was seriously worsening.
The last time I visited her was about a month ago. I hadn’t seen her in a while so I wasn’t prepared for how much she’d declined. She could barely see and hear, called me “David” and couldn’t even prop her own head up, much less move under her own power.
It was then that I realized that I probably wasn’t going to get to make her another turkey dinner.
And then last night she left us. I’m sure she didn’t want to, but her body gave her no choice.
Goodbye, Margaret. I love you.