Today, September 12, would have been my mother-in-law’s 67th birthday.
Tayta, as our children call her, passed away six months ago. She fought courageously through two bouts of cancer, and the first time she triumphed. The second time, she succumbed. We remember her well, but the relationship will never be the same.
Complicating things completely is that we live in Egypt, an ocean away, where she visited us consistently. Jayson, my husband, got word she wasn’t doing well, and should come home immediately, just in case.
One day later, Tayta breathed her last. She was surrounded by her children and husband, and died peacefully.
But the children and I were not there. Immediate preparations are difficult for a large family, and we had the idea that we would follow Jayson a bit later. There was no guarantee she would die.
With only a few hours before Jayson had to travel, we tried to gently explain to the kids that Tayta was not doing well and it was important for Daddy to go be with her. And as she might die soon, all of us will go to see her as soon as we can.
The kids were saddened by this news, yet not totally surprised. Through Skype a few days earlier they saw that Tayta was not feeling well, even though she still had her same spirit and sense of humor.
But with Jayson in the air, the message came that Tayta entered hospice care. My prayer was that the boys would make it in time to see their mom, but it also hit me that we likely would not. And almost as bad, I had to tell the kids.
Funny the things you don’t think about, and living abroad perhaps it should have been obvious. But I never expected I’d lose a loved one and not be there, nor that my husband and I would not be together.
Years ago, Jayson and I were privileged to receive training in how to handle grief. One of the principles is to communicate clearly with your kids about what is happening, without trying to be strong for them. To let them see how this loss affects you, and learn appropriately.
Another principle is the importance of saying good-bye and communicating important statements, if possible, while the person is still alive.
I wasn’t sure how much time we had, so before school I recorded each of them saying, “I love you, Tayta,” recalling different memories and things they appreciated. It was somewhat easy for them, as they didn’t know the full reality, and now was not the time to tell them.
But privately, I blubbered through my whole recording, knowing that I wasn’t going to see her alive again.
After school, it was time to talk honestly. It was a hard conversation. They loved her very much, and it was a shock to hear she would die before they saw her. We cried together a long time.
Meanwhile, Jayson was grieving in New Jersey. He had spent most of his day with his father and brothers by his mom’s bedside, holding her hand, sometimes talking to her, and not seeing much response.
It was hard to grieve with him and for him from so far away.
Skyping later, we gave the kids the option of seeing a very sickly Tayta on screen as we played their videos in front of her near-comatose body. They chose not to, at first. I did, and it was hard to look. She was no longer who I remembered, and she didn’t respond as I talked.
But perhaps she heard; hospice workers say that it is often the last sense to go.
Afterwards the kids came back into the room one by one, and bravely looked at Tayta and said their good-byes. They cried with Sidu, as we call my father-in-law.
Our oldest daughter recited Psalm 23, and we also laughed and smiled at some good memories. It was a hard time, but a good time.
Tayta died later that evening, and the kids stayed home from school. We had a full day to cry when we wanted to, laugh when we could, and do some things that Tayta would do with them … like Play-doh and bubbles. It was a hard day, but a good day.
We Skyped with Jayson a few hours later, and I saw the empty living room where we had so many memories, but also where her hospice bed had held her. Just like that it was gone, as was Tayta.
It hit me: The loss of a special mother-in-law. The loss of a grandmother to my kids. The loss of a mother to my husband. The loss of a wife to my father-in-law, who now has his whole life turned upside down. And the loss of a friend, as her many close relationships reached out through Facebook and email.
If I was there, I could have more easily shared in this grief, at least some of it. But as we made plans to travel back for the memorial service, I grieved also that we must continue to grieve apart, and from afar.
The tears still come sometimes. They did as I wrote this and remembered the pain of saying good-bye. They will flow again when we return to the states for a visit, and she isn’t there to read books to the kids or laugh at her sons’ playful arguments at the game table.
But sadness isn’t the only emotion that fills me when I think of Tayta. There are good memories every time we discuss her with the kids. They have her dolls; we have her pictures. Today we made apple pie, her favorite dessert.
We miss her a lot, but we said good-bye well. It was hard, but it was good.