My beloved mother-in-law made her departure from this world last week. Despite all of my writing about aging and illness, I couldn't write about her when it was happening. At 74 and vivacious to the end, she seemed far too young for something this final. Even today, a week later, pressing the send button on this will require every ounce of courage I can muster.
I absolutely loved her. Not loved her like she was helpful with my kids and she took us out for good meals and remembered my birthday. I loved her the way you love someone who's completely enmeshed in your heart and soul, who is there for you and your family and your friends at all times, who welcomes everyone into her home because she sincerely enjoys their company, and who invests the time and energy it takes to be deeply involved in your life.
No one could possibly describe her as easygoing. She was demanding and exacting and inserted herself into the lives of others, often overstepping her bounds. But her magic was that every overstep was steeped in selfless love, a firm belief that we were capable of excellence and a clear commitment to support us without question at all times. From the first time I walked up the steps of her house, she had my back, and she never let me down in 24 years.
A week before Christmas, the ovarian cancer she'd been fighting for over a year created an inoperable intestinal blockage. The doctors told her that she was at the end.
We were determined to let her die at home. In fact, there was no real discussion about whether or not we would -- only a discussion on the logistics of "how." She got rolled into her living room at noon on Christmas Eve. At 9 pm that night, the 22 members of her immediate family and nine "family equivalents" filed in quietly to do the traditional candle-lit reading of the final stave of Dicken's Christmas Carol, followed by the 15 children reading The Night Before Christmas one stanza at a time, all of us in the living room that had welcomed us and supported us and entertained us for as long as we could remember.
And there she stayed for three more months, in the living room she built, originally to house the books about art that she cherished and to accommodate some beautiful furniture her father had given her, and, later, to provide a little more room for her growing family.
She built it with large glass doors and a floating glass alcove overlooking the garden that existed only in her imagination at the time. It came to fruition as she lovingly hand-picked each plant and eradicated the bamboo jungle that existed in the ravine outside. Over 40 years, she transformed the large yard into one of the most celebrated shade gardens on the East Coast, a lush patchwork of leaf textures and tones surrounding a glorious swimming pool.
It was there that she hosted hundreds of friends, neighbors, fellow parents and children's friends for everything from the prom after-after party to little league pool parties for her grandchildren, to philosophical gatherings later written about by famous columnists from The New Yorker.
It was there that she bellowed "NO BALLS ON THE FIRST FLOOR!" at the top of her lungs, first to her sons, then to her children's friends and then to her grandchildren.
It was there that she started the spirited charades tradition with her children and her children's friends -- hours of pantomimes enveloped in hysterical laughter, the best of the bunch being the evening when the men challenged the women to a match. We accepted, and rewarded the challenge by assigning them Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. Needless to say, the women prevailed.
It was there that she fell down the stairs and sustained a back injury so severe that she could barely leave her bedroom for a year. And it was there that the overwhelming love of and for her children inspired her to spend hours in physical therapy so that she could get well again. And she did.
In that house she raised four smashing children and raised many of their friends as well. She started organizations critical to the well being of her city and wrapped grandchildren in her arms when they bumped their heads. It was there that she lovingly buttered their toast, taking extra time to ensure that the butter spread all the way to the outer edges and that there was plenty of it. It was there that she cooked the Christmas "gooses," year after year, never once losing patience with the twelve grandchildren milling around under foot.
It was there that she hosted her annual garden party, last year's being the most joyous because it had been so unclear whether she'd be alive at all. With stereotypical post-chemo short hair, she welcomed hundreds for the last time, having invited them to join her to celebrate her family, the garden and "life in general."
And so it was naturally there that she came to end the vibrant life that had created and celebrated so many other vibrant lives. She couldn't leave her bed at all during the final months, but the city came to her, one person at a time, to say goodbye in the room where they'd said so many hellos. And spring came early this year, as if the flowers felt the race against time to show her how much they appreciated the beauty she'd allowed them to create. On the good days, she'd get wheeled outside to see it from her bed, but every day somebody brought the spring in to her in a vase -- first the forsythia and crocuses, then the cherry and pear trees and finally, the week that she died, her over-the-top spectacular tulips.
And then, goodbye. She left the way she had lived -- with courage, conviction, loyalty, endless love and high standards -- in the place where she'd brought it all to life for the rest of us. Home.