36) Respond to provocation with the respect you wish a person would show you. —56 Ways to Be Merciful During the Jubilee Year of Mercy
I could feel my heart harden before I even put down the phone. A cocktail of anger, resentment, and hostility flowed through my blood into suddenly icy chambers. A caseworker from Colorado who was working with my mother-in-law on housing was calling to say that she knew my mother-in-law had written to ask about moving to Ohio. And why hadn’t we responded?
I couldn’t help but be defensive. I looked at the very letter she was speaking about, sitting on display on my kitchen countertop. It had arrived only the day before, and was the first I had heard about any desire or intent to relocate to be near us. Through gritted teeth I explained that we were happy to have her move to Ohio and assured both of them — while uncomfortably on speaker phone — that we would start looking for an apartment and transferring her services as soon as possible.
Explaining my reaction is more complicated than undoing my daughter’s ever-tangled Slinky. With work, family, and other obligations, I constantly felt overwhelmed and stretched to my limits. I just couldn’t imagine adding another thing to my plate. And then there was the host of unknowns: How much help would she need? Would I be taking her to the grocery store and doctor’s appointments? What would happen as she aged and needed more assistance?
There was also the fact that my mother-in-law wasn’t ever very welcoming or nice to me. She wasn’t the stereotypical monster-in-law that is suffocating, overbearing, and constantly correcting your childrearing choices. No, mine was completely unengaged and uninterested. She never initiated any conversations with me and I spent nearly all of our visits painfully thinking of questions to ask her and receiving one-word answers. I often wondered if she really knew anything about me besides the fact that I was married to her son.
After eight months of apartment visits, numerous phone calls to facilitate the change-over in her benefits, and countless conversations with social and caseworkers, my mother-in-law arrived at my front door on a cold February day. (Securing out of state housing for her was more complicated than I anticipated, so the plan was for her to stay with us for nearly four weeks.) I had taken great pains to set up a comfortable space for her: I moved all my children into one bedroom, set up an arm chair, bought a TV and ordered cable for her room.
Though there had been no dissipation of the deep resentment I held in my heart, I was resolved to act charitably towards her in all ways possible and committed to never, ever, complain.
And I didn’t. I made her breakfast, lunch, and dinner and checked in on her needs with frequency. And every few days I would pat myself on the back for suffering in silence and being such a good, generous and kind person.
As the days passed, I could see that my mother-in-law was getting weaker and more confused. While initially she spent time walking and would sit in our family room observing the children, she suddenly was unable to navigate our stairs. At first she wouldn’t leave her room, then she wouldn’t leave her chair, and then she could no longer sit up. After only a short portion of what was to be a month-long stay, my husband was carrying her out of our house to admit her to the hospital. Within a week, she was gone.
And as I sat in my black funeral attire, I was filled with shame as I learned about a woman who I had known for 10 years but who — due to my own preconceived ideas and shortsightedness — I had never met. A woman I had taken into my home merely as a boarder and not as a human being worthy of love.
I heard stories of her causing her sisters to roar with laughter as she entertained them with tales of her shenanigans, of how she brought life to the neighborhood because she was always up for sneaking over to the playground or initiating a game of tag, and of how it was heartbreaking when she was sent home from the convent after an unexpected breakdown and the shattering news of her bipolar diagnosis.
With new eyes I began to reflect upon my interactions with her and the stories of my husband’s childhood. She almost instantaneously went from weak to heroic: surviving a devastating divorce and a husband who physically abandoned her and two young children, a move cross-country to be close to family who, upon her arrival, changed plans and relocated, a woman who took the bus downtown every Sunday to attend Mass at a city parish, and though eventually penniless, still took great pains to exercise generosity.
I missed these things because my focus was cemented on me. How I thought a mother-in-law should be, how I blamed her for the effects of the divorce, how I couldn’t understand that she was always so distant. And with that came missed opportunities for me: to learn from her, to grow in compassion, and to truly love her.
So with that, I have resolved, when faced with a difficult person, to always fix my gaze outward and beg St. Anthony for an understanding heart.
Beg for us, powerful St. Anthony, the grace of an understanding heart. Then, we shall see the image of God in all those we meet and in every creature. Let our hearts always be fixed on the true source of our joy, Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Amen.