Posted by: Kate | February 20, 2010

The Other Stuff

That last post was about our experience with Grandma’s actual passing, and I wish very much that there was nothing left to say.

But, of course, there is always more to say. Always, there is the inevitable angst that rears its ugly and multifaceted head whenever anything involves my in-laws.

The bliss – and this is not to be discounted on any level, and my gratitude is deep and real – is that said angst is really low-key and, for the most part, mere echoes and reminders of behaviors past. Nothing much new happened; certainly nothing dramatic. It was more about the complications and anxieties engendered by the fear and memory of those past experiences.

The punchline? We never laid eyes upon Willem’s mother, never spoke to her, not once throughout the whole process. This is both appalling and inexpressibly relieving.

In fact, our entire mother-in-law communication consisted of 15 sentences, 13 from her to Willem and I and two from me back to her, all in the form of emails. First was an 11-sentence email relaying the fact of Grandma’s hospitalization and dire prognosis to begin with, including a very brief summary of her status and the telephone numbers for the hospital and Cousin A, with clear instructions that any follow-up from us should occur in that direction. She never said, “Don’t contact me,” but the implication was there, between providing alternate contact information and her prior seven months of absolute silence.

And before you take in that breath, the one that immediately precedes a horrified, “She did what?? She informed you that his grandmother was dying by email??” let’s give her the benefit of the doubt. She has never been given our new address or telephone numbers, and so email was her only guaranteed way of reaching either of us. (Go ahead, toss her a bone for including me in the emails in the first place, I can’t imagine she was thrilled to acknowledge my presence and she certainly could have opted to just send it to Willem.) Now, yes, you’re right, the flip side is that she could have sent a note saying, “I have important family news, please call me immediately,” instead of actually writing it all out in the first message, but I’m sure she was experiencing a lot of stress and was trying to do what she thought was best.

So. No blame or shame there, she did notify us – both of us – within 12 hours of Grandma’s hospitalization. And then, whether she thought it was the right thing to do or she just didn’t want to deal with us or she felt unable to handle it, whatever the reasoning, she removed herself from the communication and gave us alternate contact names and phone numbers. It was a workable solution, and I won’t fault it.


OK, there was one small thing. Just three little letters, really. Three letters which, if she had opted against their inclusion, would have only improved the email via their absence. Leave them out, and we never would have noticed; not only include them, but place them as the first three characters in the note, and we’ve been handed a new, sour punchline to an old and painful joke.

The culprits? “FYI.” She began her note, the first contact of any form since August 2009, with, “fyi – my mom is in the hospital.”

Now, when I first got this note, I was home alone, and went immediately into problem-solving mode. It was time to make phone calls, and plans, and decisions, not time to think about semantics. So I fired off a return note, within moments, to the effect of, “Thank you. I really appreciate you letting us know,” because I wanted to confirm the note’s reception but did not want to engage in any further or unnecessary communication, for her sake and for my own.

It wasn’t until quite some time later, when I was speaking with Willem, that he pointed out the incongruous and somewhat bizarre nature of that little “fyi.” “FYI,” we decided, is something that belongs at the start of interoffice memos like, “FYI, there are doughnuts in the break room!” or even, for more urgent matters, “FYI, your fly is down.” Not, “FYI, your grandmother is dying.” And whenever it is used, it deserves all capitals. Just ’cause.

So, yeah. That has created some black-humor moments, times of trying to decide, “Would now be a good time for an FYI?” The answer, usually, is no, although there are some borderline circumstances… such as, “FYI, I’ve just gone into labor” is not the right way to notify one’s husband of such an event, but “FYI, my water just broke when I was sitting in your office chair” might be OK for one’s coworker.


Really, though, more than anything, that’s just us injecting (admittedly inappropriate) levity into a moment of high stress. Bigger picture, I am grateful that she saw fit to include us in the news, and grateful again that she saw fit to step back again instead of insisting that she be the only contact person this time around.

She was not at the hospital when we were there; we learned of it all around noon on Thursday and decided that the best time for us to make the trip to see Grandma was on Friday afternoon. We have already both spent some time wondering if maybe we should have just dropped everything to travel on Thursday instead, because by waiting that extra day we missed any last remaining chance to see her coherent… but between Willem’s job, and my delicate condition, and the children’s youth, we thought it better to give ourselves the extra day to think it through and act deliberately instead of impulsively. My mother-in-law, who lives alone, is financially independent, and does not have a job, felt that her presence was not required for yet another day more, and she arrived in Long Island on Saturday.

Regardless of her reasoning, this means that our paths never crossed. I cannot find one single reason to think that this was anything but for the best.

We did see Willem’s aunt and uncle – mother-in-law’s sister, the one who opted to use Grandpa Norman’s memorial as the setting for inappropriate and impulsive conflict last summer and the erstwhile anonymous commenter on this very blog – at the hospital, and I am happy to report that while a memorial gathering does not seem to carry enough weight for her to bother moderating her outbursts, a hospital setting does. There was very, very minimal communication there, and that which was unavoidable was brief and shallow. Perfect.

There were a few things about the interactions with Aunt D that left us feeling uncomfortable on various levels, but I’m happy enough about the absence of meltdown to just let them fade.

I’m less favorable, all around, about the fact that we learned of Grandma’s death on Saturday night via text message, and that was from Cousin A. Twenty-four hours after Grandma died, we got a follow-up email from Willem’s mother. It was impersonal and unpleasant, and I have stopped trying to understand why she felt it was necessary to type, much less to click on “send” afterward. Neither Willem nor I could come up with one single, appropriate thing to say in response, and so we opted not to reply at all. Just like I learned from Bambi, “If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” Which, OK, agreed, I’m prone to saying all manner of not-nice things, in all manner of circumstances, but when it came to a direct response, it felt neither constructive nor nice to reply.

I did get a telephone call from Cousin A on Monday morning, in which she apologized for delivering the news via text and explained some of the background there, and I will say that I have never seen Cousin A act in a way that could be interpreted as malicious or even just thoughtless. She was stuck in the middle of many very complicated emotions, and was trying to cope with her own grief and stress, and she did what she thought was right.

So. You get the idea. There was fallout, and I’m sure there will be more. But nothing huge or dramatic, and nothing new.

And on the strange-but-amusing side of the coin, I know that Grandma knew about my pregnancy, and has done so almost from the start. We called her within a week or two of first finding out, and had kept her updated on my progress. She knew, back when she was able to talk about it – and cry some – that we will be using her beloved Norman as a middle name, should this child come out with the necessary equipment to be laden with a boy’s name, and we were in touch via letters and cards and photos in the intervening months. Cousin A knew, also, and asked questions and offered congratulations as appropriate. I don’t know whether Aunt D knew ahead of time; I would guess so, but I wasn’t able to see her face when we first entered the hospital, so I can’t know. I do believe that her husband, sweet-but-ineffective Uncle P, either was entirely clueless about the pregnancy or is a far, far more skilled actor than I have ever given him credit for being, because he genuinely appeared both shocked and pleased for us.

We have still not received any acknowledgment from Willem’s mother, and are truly not interested in receiving that. If she is willing to walk away from the grandchildren that she already knew, why on earth would she be laying any sort of claim or admission to a child not yet born?

Enough. Grandma is gone, and we will remember her with deep affection and true fondness. We have her special, secret spaghetti sauce recipes, photos from our visits, and the gift of her unconditional love and undivided attention when we were with her.

We opted not to attend her memorial gathering, because we will find ways to celebrate her life and remember her on our own. Memorials are for the living, and her children have already shown their willingness to completely destroy any semblance of decorum or tact at one memorial within the past year. No reason to open that particular door again.

And Willem is left with very, very little in the way of family, at the moment. Grandma was the last direct family member whose love was uncomplicated and unconditional, and thus he is able to grieve her passing and miss her without caveat or confusion. It remains to be seen whether his mother, his brother or his aunt will choose to attempt to repair some of the damage that exists in those relationships; I know he would be willing to work with him, but he is no longer willing to pretend that damage isn’t there. The other, less-directly-related relatives will, in all likelihood, fade away over time, which is sad and unfair for Willem. He deserves better. We both take some comfort in knowing that my parents, my grandparents, and several not-family-but-still-family out there have all opened their hearts to him and love him just as though he was their own.


  1. You’re right, the “FYI” will never be the same….

  2. I will never think of FYI the same again! 🙂 on the serious side, I am very sorry for Willem’s loss, both of his grandmother and of all she meant to him in the way of true family. Hugs to you all!!

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