Three Cardboard Boxes

That’s all that was left of my mother in law’s life today.  Three cardboard boxes.

She slipped into a coma on Thursday night, and died peacefully Saturday morning. Today Jim and I went over to pack up her personal belongings.  It was the third time in six years that we’d packed for her, downsizing a bit more each time…the move from apartment to assisted living in 2002, from assisted living to memory care in 2005. 

In the cardboard boxes today we brought home mostly pictures – snapshots of Jim at various ages and stages, and of Brian at similar ages and stages, and photos of Magic and Molly, whom she adored.  Until recently, one of her favorite pastimes was re-arranging the photographs on her entertainment center.  Each time I went to visit her, they would be arrayed differently, and often she would take them all down whie I was there, tapping on the glass and laughing…”Isn’t he the cutest thing?” she often said about one photo of Brian (age 6 or 7, seated at his desk and typing away).  “Awwww…” she’d sigh over the close up of Magic and Molly. 

Lastly, she would take up the framed photo of her mother and kiss it.  “That’s my mother,” she’d tell me each time.

But in the last six months, her facility for speech was all but gone.  Probably the toxins from her failing kidneys had destroyed the last bits of her communication center.  Words came out occasionally, but they made no sense.  And the pictures have remained in their final resting places for months now.

One of her favorite caregivers is taking all her furniture.  Lucy is about 40 years old, one of the dearest women I’ve ever met, who took great care of my mother in law despite the fact that she was often cursed, kicked, and once even thrown against the wall.  Lucy’s husband left her for a 25 year old he met on the internet.  She “lost everything she owned,” as she put it, and is starting all over.  Lucy also happens to be raising her five grandchildren and undergoing radiation treatments for breast cancer.  (As my mother put it  – “that man should be lined up against the wall and shot.”)  Anyway, Lucy was ecstatic to have a sofa, chair, bed, dresser, entertainment center, television, lamps, and even some paintings to hang on her walls. 

“And I’ll especially love having some things to remember Chris by,” she said, hugging me with tears in her eyes.  “She was such a sweetheart.”

I glance over at Jim who is sitting on the couch while Lucy and I discuss all this.  A sweetheart?  he’s thinking.  His mother?  He wasn’t at all surprised to hear about the scratching and kicking parts.  The sweetheart parts…well, he’s probably not buying that.

It’s interesting isn’t it, how people’s perceptions of others are so different, and so dependent on their personal relationships.  Lucy (and Chris’s other caregivers, who all echo her sentiments) were able to look past her angry outbursts and violent moments, and find some affection for her. 

But her very sensitive son, who was subjected to that side of her personality throughout his life,  was unable to see past it.  It left a lasting impression on him, and he could never love her because of it.

So I’m glad she had Lucy (and Eva, and Deb, and Denise) in these last years of her life. 

I’m glad I was able to be with her on that last night of her life, to sit on the side of her bed and talk quietly to her about moving on into the next world. 

And I’m glad I have the three cardboard boxes.

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16 thoughts on “Three Cardboard Boxes

  1. When my mother passed away (in the nursing home), her possessions also fit into three boxes. I remember how much pause it gave me to register that. I still think about it. And I wonder how many boxes my boys will pack up when I’m gone. There’s a lesson here somewhere… In any case, your husband is a lucky man, Becca. And we are lucky to be on the other end of your very, very fine writing about this difficult time. Love, ~ sadie

  2. It’s been awhile since I last read here. Sad to hear about your mother-in-law’s passing. Glad you were able to spend time with her. And I can understand how your husband felt. My partner’s mother was equally difficult. He cried a lot when she passed. Given their relationship and how he’s not the most demonstrative person (to say the least), I was a little surprised and relieved by his reaction.

  3. Sending condolences during this difficult time. No relationship is without challenge; I’m sure that as time passes, Jim will be able to appreciate the good memories that have been crowded out by bad along the way.

  4. I’m glad you were able to be with her too, and my sympathy to you and your family. I hope your husband can come to peace about his relationship with her and come to know maybe she did the best she could. But I know that is hard.

  5. I’m sorry for your loss, and for Jim’s. It sounds like her caregivers were true gems. I hope that Lucy’s radiation treatments contain the cancer and that she goes on to live the rich life that she deserves. Things are really awfully temporary, aren’t they? It’s the memories of things (like photos) that make them special. Beautiful post and tribute, Becca.

  6. I’ve been thinking of you every day. This post was deeply touching on so many levels. How wonderful that you were with her and that she had caregivers who could truly care for her. I appreciate that you conveyed this story with Jim’s truth included. His is an experience that is shared by so many. Your words soar in the telling of this. My condolences to you and Jim.

  7. My condolences to you and Jim as well, even as I must echo what has already been said here about the power of this post. Deeply thoughtful, and deeply affecting writing. Thanks for sharing this, Becca.

  8. Becca, I’m reading these in reverse order – am so terribly behind in blog-visiting – and am sorry for the loss of your mother-in-law. I’m sure your husband has mixed emotions, just as I would if a particular member of my family died. It’s wonderful that Chris got those things. She sounds like a remarkable young woman, with way too much on her plate. This piece brought tears to my eyes, for so many reasons – mostly because of Chris, I think. Why is it that the really good ones have to suffer so much??!! A thoughtful, beautifully-written piece, Becca.

  9. The kindness that you showed your MIL despite the many problems is very commendable. I’m both sorry for your loss, and at the same time glad that one of your burdens has been lifted.

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