It's no surprise to me that Halloween is edging up as an important holiday with Christmas and Easter. After all, aren't the latter two full of spirits and ghosts? Tell yourself this is fiction if you need to.
I'm being haunted.
When my mother-in-law went under the care of hospice in her home, I didn't believe she was dying and neither did she. She didn't seem "bad" enough. We justified a lot. She stopped walking and barely ate, but I was sure it would pass and this great, majestic woman would gain back her biceps and start rearranging my furniture any day. We couldn't be a family without her. It just wasn't possible that she could leave us forever. It just wasn't.
In case it really was the end like they said, I sat on her couch with her went over scenarios for when her advice would be needed or the strong arm of her matriarchy would be warranted to settle some dispute. (What color shall we paint the bathroom? What if we can't decide where to have Thanksgiving?) I didn't get any straight answers, but when I asked her what would happen in the case of big scenarios - family upheaval? - she promised to rattle things around if she had to. That's right, my dying mother-in-law promised to haunt me. I laughed at the time. Of course the barrier of death wasn't going to prevent someone like Maria from ruling her roost.
As the weeks passed, the inevitable occurred. Maria died. We were talking to her as it happened. I saw the force of life evaporate from her face. It was over. I drove the long 90 minutes back home to tell my kids their Oma was gone.
Two nights later, the family came over for a big dinner. There were some hiccups about how to settle her estate. We were leaderless and didn't know how to deal. Words flew, booze flowed, there were tears wiped from exhausted, sun-ripened faces of early August. It was one of those times when you need Maria around to sound-off so everyone can get a plan. No one would have disagreed with her. She wouldn't have hurt any feelings. She would have yelled at us and we would have done it.
The next morning, I opened my silverware drawer and a knife she had given me was suddenly rusted over. It looked like it had been at the bottom of a well for 20 years.
The knife was marked STAINLESS like all my butter knives and had been in the rotation for about two years. There was nothing different or special about it its composition. The design on the handle had an extra swirl, but otherwise it was unremarkable. I always liked it and never paid any attention to it.
. . . until it completely turned to rust the morning after that family dinner, two nights after her death. Someone in the kitchen with me when I discovered it said, "Maria's mad".
Fine. Maybe stainless steel knives randomly rust overnight for no reason. I believe in logic and science. Maybe there was some weird new chemical in the air? No way was that some kind of "sign" from the undead just because it happened to be Maria's knife. She gives me lots of things. The coo coo clock didn't explode. The pants she bought me didn't suddenly animate. Sometimes grieving people can read more into things than are there.
The next day I took a walk. Sometimes when I'm walking, I clear my thoughts and get into a "zone". I daydream. As I was walking the mile to the park district to drop my daughter off at camp, I remembered something odd. In passing, before we knew the cancer had moved from her bones into her liver, my mother-in-law asked me what happened to a piece of costume jewelry she had given me years before. Well, of course it was lost. I lose everything. I'm busy and overwhelmed with three kids. Like I said, she was always bringing something in the house. By asking me that, she was just doing that mom thing where they follow-up about every little detail.
Still, the flash of memory bugged me. It was more than a memory, it was like . . . almost like completely re-experiencing her asking me about the ring. I might be crazy, but it came at me so vividly in my thoughts, the sound so real, the memory so clear, it was like her voice was actually talking to me. I feel stupid saying that and I felt even stupider that I called my husband right then and told him that the rusted butter knife had come with a message. Find the ring. Now, why in the world am I going to look for a steal ring that I lost forever ago?
Grieving people sometimes don't make sense. I guess I was one of those people. I tore the house apart. I'm pretty sure I left it on the sink of a public restroom or donated the ring in a swift declaration against my own clutter. I do that. I'm messy and impulsive and not at all accountable for 1,000 little pieces of plastic in my house.
What was really embarrassing about this goose chase for the ring was that I was, in fact, a little upset about being left out of a family process wherein Maria had given each woman in the family a piece of her actual jewelry collection. It wasn't about the value of a real gem as much as it was that on her death bed, when she knew it was the end, I wasn't a "real" daughter. I married in. I'm an outsider. I get it, but it still hurt. Everything is different when someone is dying.
No, I'm not great with keeping track of things and yes, I complained when she brought so much "junk" in the house when she was well (you have no idea how many napkins and table cloths this woman has brought me, I could run a restaurant), but when people are dying, you want all that stuff. You want to hang on. Suddenly none of it was junk and I wanted to keep every piece of everything.
All of these things I'm telling you right now, I told my husband a few nights later. I was hurt. No heirloom jewelry for me. It was ok. I hadn't been responsible with even the costume piece.
CRAZY THING AHEAD
As I was crying, a toy piano book sitting between us on the coffee table started playing. By itself. Go on, call me a liar. The keys were lighting up and it was playing random notes as if a child were banging on it. That happened to be the only toy my kids took from my mother-in-law's estate after she died. They only took the piano book and it wound up in the living room, playing by itself, 30 minutes into an emotional conversation about this ring business. No one was touching it. It was just playing by itself with zero explanation.
I started freaking out. I made him take the book into the kitchen. It had been sitting there a week, no one had touched it in days, and it was suddenly playing during a conversation about my dead mother-in-law. Was this her promise? Was this the rattling around she was talking about? There exists a video on my cell phone of me yelling at the book to play again, but much like getting a cat to do a trick on command, the book fell silent. Of course.
By this point, you probably think I'm crazy. Just wait. You're about to have me committed.
As I was putting away groceries a few days later, I noticed a plastic box about the size of a lime in my bag of produce. Aw, crap, one of the kids much have found a quarter and worked one of those prize machines while I was in the check-out, or maybe they stole something from the store. I guess we were in for one of those awkward life lessons about retail loss prevention and economics.
I reached into the bag. The plastic grocery bag from Jewel. That contained celery.
The long-lost costume jewelry ring Maria had given me two years before was inside, tucked inside a plastic box, inside my groceries.
I took another look. Wait. It wasn't costume.
I noticed, for the first time, the "costume" ring she gave me two years ago when she was the only one to know her cancer was back, was real gold. It was real quartz. It wasn't a fork or Ikea curtains or any other random thing she saw on sale at Ross. This had meaning. It was part of her long-time jewelry collection and she did think of me as a daughter. She did love me. I was included. In fact, she thought of me when she first realized she was dying and her jewelry needed to be re-homed.
You know, my husband and I were married in a lip-service Catholic ceremony. We are not-so-secret agnostics. Our Gods are usually Neil Degrasse Tyson and empirical evidence. I've seen it now, though, with my own eyes. There's no changing my mind or arguing it out of me. We are something beyond our life here.
The politics of modern Christianity might be complete horse shit, but I will never dismiss Christians again on the basis that no one comes back from the dead. That a man could rise out of a grave and have chats and go on field trips has been my hang up with the Christian premise my whole life. You may not realize agnostics have great envy of the faithful.
I get it now. It can happen. If my mother-in-law can set me straight about a ring two weeks after her death, who's to say someone else can't visit some apostles?
(I'm keeping my anti-Matt Walsh card though.)
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Filed under: Grief