It’s early Tuesday morning and I’m sitting at my mother-in-laws bedside at the local community hospital. It seems as though this is the hundredth time I’ve found myself in this situation since moving her and my father-in-law back to Chicago because of failing health. My Father-in-law, or Poppi as he was endearingly referred to by all, has since passed away. He left behind his wife of over 65 years with a void in her heart as wide as the universe. Their love was deep and strong and centered around their faith. It was a strong union. Among the strongest I’ve ever witnessed.
My hubs and I drove to the hospital in separate cars because, well, life is busy and our hectic schedules would pull us in different directions after our visit. For us, even in the midst of emergency and tragedy, life doesn’t slow down. But, for my sweet mother-in-law, June, life had come to a screeching halt. Looking down at her in the narrow, uncomfortable looking hospital bed, I saw the shell of the woman that she once was. She lay there frail; shallowly breathing. I grabbed her hand and whispered to her that we were there. She struggled to slowly open her eyes. She fought to say something to us but her mouth and throat were too dry and her voice was whisper soft. We leaned in closer and were finally able to hear that she wanted to know what happened.
There’s something very humbling about visiting the elderly in the hospital. Especially when they are at the end of their life. If they’re able to communicate still, they tend to treat you to the stories of their lives. And, through those stories you realize that the things that have made the biggest impact on their lives and the treasures that they’ve carried with them to the end have very little to do materialism.
They remember experiences and people. They remember driving across the country in their car to visit a married daughter and her family. They remember growing up in simpler times, before technology. Beach days and sunsets. They remember overcoming hardships and being thankful for what they had rather than wishing they had more. All of their stories have a common theme. The topic always centers on people, love, experiences and faith.
I thought about all of this as I sat next to this wonderful woman who had, so far, lived through 9 decades and had seen so many changes in her lifetime. Both June and Poppi had treated me to hundreds of stories in the years since I had joined their family through marriage. Stories that painted a picture of who they were and what was important to them. Stories that I would forever treasure and that I had heard so often that I could retell them in perfect detail, myself.
When I first came to know this sweet couple, my first thoughts were, “what a striking couple.” They seemed to have the best of everything. My mother-in-law was always impeccably dressed in coordinating outfits, would never leave the house without perfectly styled hair (and her lipstick on) and lived in a beautifully decorated, large home that most people would love to live in. My father-in-law was handsome, jovial and at his happiest when on the golf course or tennis courts. He loved good food, travel and the nicer things in life. He was one of the most generous men I have ever met. He was unique and outspoken and everyone loved him.
It did not take long after my marriage to Clark to get to know his parents deeply. Likewise, it didn’t take long for me to realize that the fancy material things that they were blessed to be surrounded by were not what mattered most to them in life. It was their love of God, family and friendships. They showed me this preference of theirs through their actions time and time again. I’ve always considered that lesson a gift and one I want to pass on to my children. Love and people matter most in life.
Back in her hospital room, June and I sat in silence, as we had so many times before, and memories of her life swirled through my thoughts. As I sat there, somewhere in the background was the loud whirring sound of some kind of machine she was hooked up to. Her legs were wrapped in special socks to keep her circulation pumping as she lay there. I could hear different doctors being paged over the intercom system in the hallway. There was the faint smell of Lysol and ammonia and some kind of disinfectant in the air.
Even as all of this commotion went on around us, it felt oddly serene and quiet sitting there holding her hand. I looked down at my now sleeping Mom. She was laying there naked faced, no lipstick, her thinning hair completely flattened and messy, and wrapped in a flimsy, faded hospital gown. And, I thought she had never looked more beautiful in her entire life. Her life had gone from fancy to humble in the period of a few years. Because she had never put too much weight or value into the material goods of life, she seemed at peace to me. She knew she had a family that thought the world of her. She had her faith. She knew that one day she would be reunited with her husband again.
I can never thank this sweet couple enough for the deep lessons they’ve taught me in life through their actions. When I’m at the end of my life, I pray that I will have made some kind of an impact on someone else’s life, too. I hope that someone will look down at me in my hospital bed with gratitude for lessons I’ve passed on to them. Lessons of faith and love.