Honor your mother-in-law

Honor your mother-in-law

Remembering Gloria Breslow and rediscovering myself

Deborah Breslow hugs her mother-in-law, Gloria Breslow. (Deb Breslow)
Deborah Breslow hugs her mother-in-law, Gloria Breslow. (Deb Breslow)

My dear mother-in-law, Gloria Breslow, a lively and quick-witted conversationalist, knowledgeable news source, empathetic listener, gracious hostess, generous gift-giver and devoted grandparent, who for close to half my life was my trusted confidante, died on the morning of April 5.

Having been her primary advocate for the past five years, it’s not surprising I’d feel somewhat unmoored. But more than that, I’m struggling. In an effort to piece together my feelings in the aftermath of her funeral and burial, it’s become clear to me that some lines are blurred. I am finding it difficult to distinguish Gloria from her care.

While I’ve lost Gloria, the person, I’ve also lost a role and a responsibility I took seriously.

Throughout the last several years, I’d been using my organizational skills, my insight, my medical knowledge, and my sensitivity to provide care for her. I was determined to treat her in the manner she expected and deserved.

Before airplanes take off, flight attendants remind responsible adults to place their oxygen masks on first, before assisting children or those passengers who may require help. Somehow, I perceived my role in caregiving differently. With Gloria, I often put her oxygen mask on first, which meant putting her needs before mine. I reacted and responded to her instantaneously. I predicted what was best for her, often providing her with what she needed before she knew she needed it.

My husband, Jay, was involved in the areas of support that he knew best: managing his mother’s finances, paying her bills, overseeing home repairs, and weighing in on live-in care and medical decisions. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for his mother or for me.

As time passed, both Gloria and her live-in aides, the agency that furnished them, Jay, his brother, our children, out-of-town family members, and eventually, her clinicians began to rely on me as their primary resource for managing both her care and her life.

People have asked me what caring for an elderly relative encompasses. Is it providing transportation, food, supplies, medications, clothing, scheduling appointments, laundry, hygiene, safety, and social stimulation? Is it giving love, heart, patience, tolerance, open-mindedness, flexibility, empathy, sensitivity, advocacy, and understanding? Is it all of that?

Yes, good care for someone you love requires all of that.

When it was clear to anyone with eyes that I’d reached and then gone beyond the human limitations of completing the daily tasks associated with caring for my mother-in-law, one of my best friends would gently remind me that I was a loving daughter-in-law, more like a daughter actually, and that there was a special seat waiting for me in heaven. She’d also point out, regularly, that I was generous and purposeful, but at my own expense.

Looking back, I believe she was on to something.

My own mother died shockingly and suddenly in August of 2013. It rocked my world. Although I had been denied the opportunity to say goodbye to her or care for her in her later years, I kept her with me by emulating her best character traits and living by the values that were part of our family makeup.

Gloria and her aide, Shelly Carter, enjoyed spending time together. (Deb Breslow)

I watched the way she treated her own mother and mother-in-law with respect, honor, and dignity. She was an outstanding role model who died too soon. It took me years to manage my grief.

Without saying so, my mother-in-law was aware and deeply respectful of the process I had to go through to regain solid footing, and she waited for me. We both knew that she wasn’t my mother, but unlike lots of daughters-in-law, who may not have considered just how to go about making a deep connection with their husband’s mother, I was yearning for a relationship with someone like her.

It wasn’t long before I naturally opened my heart to another strong maternal figure, a person who’d patiently and unassumingly been waiting in the wings for me — my mother-in-law.

Gloria was dynamic, cultured, smart, sophisticated, and attentive. She had a marvelous sense of humor.

Gloria started every phone call with “What’s cooking? Everything good?” It was hard for her to talk about things that were hard or sad or worrisome. My way was to express, process, ruminate, unravel. Hers was to acknowledge, accept, and move on. At 96, she continued to look at life positively and optimistically — insisting on seeing the glass as half full. Perhaps that’s how she lived so long.

During one of our last visits, when Gloria was bedbound but still talking, I swooped into her bedroom, gave her 16 kisses on the head, and asked her what she was in the mood for. Without skipping a beat, she said “love.”

I will always remember her laugh. I will always remember her smile. I will always remember her devotion to her friendships, her interest in the news of the world, and her abundant generosity. I will always be grateful for her intense and unbounding interest in me, in my husband, Jay, and in the goings-on of our children. She cared deeply about anything and everything that was important to us. She cared about me.

What to do without her?

It’s the second night of Passover and for the first time in 64 years, I did not plan, prepare, shop, cook, serve, host, or attend a seder. I did not pour four cups of wine, light the candles, open the door for Elijah, sing “Dayenu,” or make charoset.

My late mother always told me that it was okay to bend the rules if a Jewish holiday coincided with a medical crisis or a death in the family.

I followed her sage advice this year and gave myself a pass on making Passover.

More important than the missing brisket, which was my mother-in-law’s specialty for years, I desperately need to honor the waves of sadness that have come crashing over me at the most unexpected times. I’d been told by a grief therapist who I saw after my parents died that often, when we experience a new loss, memories of previous losses come to the surface. My emotions are inexplicably on overdrive.

On Monday, after driving around aimlessly feeling the weight of the holiday I’d chosen not to host, I ran into Kosher Nosh in Glen Rock. I knew that Passover was to begin at sundown, that the shelves and cases would be bare, and that the dining room would be set up for customers picking up their pre-ordered dinner food. I don’t even know what I wanted, but just to feel like I was in the game, I asked the guy behind the counter for the smallest container of whitefish salad. “The smallest?” he asked. “I just want some for lunch,” I told him, averting his eyes. He somehow saw through me. Filling a quart container to the brim, he gave me a wink, wished me a zissen Pesach, and left it at the register with a box of matzah. Holding back tears, I paid the cashier, got into my car, and sobbed.

My next stop was CVS in Fair Lawn, the same CVS that Gloria’s aide, Shelly, would walk to while pushing Gloria in her wheelchair. It was a destination — just to get out of the house. Uncomfortable at the time with the use of any assistive device, Gloria was baited with the promise of a Hershey bar or two, just for agreeing to be seen in public.

While the hospice medications had been disposed of under the able supervision of Gloria’s treasured home care nurse, Kat, I needed to safely dispose of more than 30 vials of oral medication that had Gloria’s name on the labels. After being directed to the bin, which looked like a mailbox, I placed my Steve Madden shoebox on the chair and took a breath. Removing one vial of medicine at a time, checking her name on the label as if to say goodbye once more, I pushed the no-longer-relevant life-sustaining medications through the slot until I heard each one fall to the bottom. These were the medications for conditions that I’d discussed thoroughly with each of her treating doctors, conscientiously ordered through her mail-order pharmacy, then, once received, carefully placed in day-by-day dispensers to be doled out in the morning, at noon, and at night.

I’d review the dosing instructions with her aides, referencing my carefully typed out instructions, which were posted on the refrigerator. Eventually, the medication was crushed and given to her in apple sauce. When she could no longer swallow, we stopped giving them to her altogether.

When the last vial was disposed of, I found the CVS customer bathroom, sat on the toilet, and once again cried.

My final stop on the afternoon of the first night of Passover was Food Showcase, a kosher grocery store in Fair Lawn, conveniently located in the same strip mall as CVS. I was hellbent on finding the marzipan rainbow cookies my eldest son loves. There was a pre-Passover buzz in the store. Mothers and fathers and sons and daughters were rushing around, filling their carts with last-minute items for their seders before the store closed for the duration of Passover. Combing through the shelves, even checking under the makeshift curtain where the chametz products were hidden, it was clear I was out of luck — no rainbow cookies.

Feeling that familiar sadness welling up in me for the third time that day, I left the store empty-handed. I was almost in my car when a kind woman, another customer, called from the curb to see if she could help. “Miss,” she said. “What were you looking for? Can I help you?”

Walking back to the store’s entrance, I told her about the rainbow cookies. We both went back inside to inspect the shelves more carefully.

And there, on the bottom shelf, all the way behind the fruit slices, the jelly roll, and the sponge cake, was one box of rainbow cookies. At first glance, they looked okay, but they weren’t. Someone must’ve dropped the plastic clamshell container and shoved it back on the shelf before anyone noticed, leaving the once intact layers of yellow, green, and pink in a haphazard mishmash of colors. They were broken—- just like me. I thanked the woman for her help, wished her a happy Passover, and left in tears.

Everything is different now. Gloria is gone, my father-in-law is gone, and my parents are gone. Memories of Passovers gone by will remain cherished memories. And this Passover will begin and end without parents, without grandparents, and without me in the role that has fit like a glove for as long as I can remember. I will no longer serve as caregiver extraordinaire for the elders in my life.

What will that be like for me? Can I treat myself more gently? Can I see myself through a softer lens? Can I honor both the person I lost and the often tedious and exhausting tasks that are no longer a part of my daily life?

Dr. David Kessler, the notable author, public speaker, and grief counselor, reminds us that healing doesn’t mean that the loss didn’t happen. It means that it no longer controls us.

While I’ve not always subscribed to a sentiment that people say when someone dies, I believe my mother-in-law is truly at peace. And so am I.

With great respect for the time it takes for every human being who experiences a loss to grieve, I hope that the love, mutual respect, and adoration that made my relationship with my mother-in-law so special can seamlessly be transferred to other aspects of my life.

The observations and reflections I’ve committed to memory — just from caring for her — can only enhance my relationships with family, friends, and those I’ve yet to meet.

There’s a light inside that keeps her memory alive and leads me closer to finding room for me.

Deb Breslow of Wyckoff is a freelance writer, editor, and college essay coach. Her personal essays and reported work appear in publications focused on home, parenting, and medical advocacy.


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