"She’s the mother of your children and she’s not going to make it,” I said to my husband.
I was encouraging him to see his ex-wife, Elizabeth, despite the hard feelings that existed between them.
I had stayed away because I felt it wasn’t my place to show up in her hospital room where she—receiving hospice care at that point—was dying of lung cancer. The hard feelings that existed between her and I were more complex, less acknowledged.
A couple of days later, however, I found myself driving to the hospital because, according to my husband—who had finally gone to see her—Elizabeth was in the process of making peace with her impending death...by making peace with those she was leaving behind. Especially those she had strained relationships with. Now, he said, it was my turn.
Reaching over, I carefully wrapped my arms around her body, a body that had always been tiny but was now almost non-existent.
I sat there in awkward silence. What do you say to the woman who was once married to your husband and is now actively dying? The mother of three amazing adult children and a grandmother to a precious three-year-old boy? A woman you chose not to like? The mother who was going to miss out on all the things you will now get to do with her children?
“Hey Mom—how about a milkshake?” her daughter asked.
Looking for any excuse to leave, I jumped up. “I’ll get it,” I said. “What kind does she like?”
I barely made it out of the room before my throat tightened and tears prickled behind my eyes. By the time I got in the elevator, I was sobbing.
“It’s so crazy,” I said to the two nurses riding down to the cafeteria with me. “My husband’s ex-wife is dying. I shouldn’t be so upset.”
“Oh honey,” one of them said, patting my arm. We rode in silence as tears washed my face.
I wore my “not a mother” badge with pride. “Step is the kind of mother I was meant to be,” I’d declare, secretly unsure not just of my role, but of my very self. I wanted to believe that I was Super Stepmom, here to save my step kids from the villain I perceived to be an unstable and perhaps mentally ill mother.
Meanwhile, she probably saw me for what I was: a sanctimoniously insecure, judgmental woman-child who was trying to establish her place in her new husband's family.
I bounced between pitying her and feeling self-righteous anger.
I'd thought many not-nice things about her over the years. Sure, she'd had a painful childhood and experiences that would make you gasp. She’d been sexually abused as a child by one of her mother’s boyfriends, and another of them eventually burned down her mother’s house. That same boyfriend then murdered her mother—shot her in the head—in front of one of her two younger sisters. Elizabeth took those two sisters in to finish raising them—while she was raising her own children.
I bounced between pitying Elizabeth and feeling self-righteous anger because she didn’t seem to want to take care of herself physically or emotionally. I believed that she was creating pain for her children by neglecting their emotional needs, by not keeping a neat and clean home, by being manipulative.
I judged her. Hard.
What I know now that I didn't know then is that mothering is never, ever perfect—and that no child grows up unscathed. Because I, too, had unresolved trauma. I, too, spent much of my life not taking care of myself.
And I, too, created pain for her children. Like the time my husband and I tried to get custody of their then-teen daughter—even though she didn’t want to live with us. Or the times I tried to discipline them the way I had been disciplined, rather than trusting my husband’s more moderate and fair methods. Or all the instances when I was secretly thrilled when the kids complained about her to us.
My husband never encouraged or discouraged our relationship. He trusted my boundaries. And there were graduations. A marriage. The the birth of our grandson. In those moments, Elizabeth was gracious. She included me. She wanted me in pictures—with her kids. "You're part of the family, too,” she’d say.
In other moments, she’d disparage me to anyone who would listen. Even to her children, which is how I knew. And I did the same...except not to her kids, which made me better than her. Or so I thought.
I returned with the milkshake, which, despite our encouragement, remained untouched.
“My lips are chapped,” Elizabeth said with her eyes closed.
Her daughter offered Chapstick, which she waved away.
“I want something softer.”
There was a tiny pot of pink Vaseline lip balm by the bed.
"Do you want me to put some of this on?" her daughter asked, holding it up.
"No," she said gruffly.
“Do you want me to do it?” her son asked.
I was the only other person in the room. They looked at me, eyebrows raised, and her son asked, “You want Karen to do it?"
She lifted her finger into the air and replied with her trademark sarcasm: "Ding ding ding!" I dabbed a bit of balm on my finger and rubbed it on her dry, cracked lips.
Elizabeth died a couple of days later, just shy of her 57th birthday.
The last thing I expected from her was a lesson in being human. In fact, I didn’t know I needed or even wanted to learn it. And even if I did, I certainly wouldn’t have chosen to learn from her.
I didn't like her when she was alive. But when she was dying, she understood how important it was for us—and her children, who were watching—for me to be able to express care for her...and for her to receive it. How important it was for us to be two imperfect, emotionally mature women—together, finally.
Godspeed, Elizabeth. Thank you for being my teacher.
Original post here!