Friday, November 26, 2010
This is a rough Thanksgiving weekend for me. It's not the holiday itself or any immediate circumstances surrounding it. It's that this weekend marks a memorial. A year ago this weekend is the last time my children and I saw my husband, Steve's father alive.
My father-in-law, Burt, had endured the difficulties of emphysema in recent years. A former chain smoker, this feisty German entrepreneur was slowed down by the challenges of his breathing. After enjoying a full retirement and enduring the loss of my mother-in-law, he resigned himself to the reality that he needed additional help. Moving north to the Minneapolis area where he could be supported by my two sisters-in-law, he lived in a nice senior apartment complex where he could have access to sound medical care while still enjoying his hobbies.
Pneumonia was an enemy he repeatedly had to defeat. And with each new episode, his lung function decreased. By 2009, it was apparent that his prospects were grim.
With that knowledge, I urged my husband to make a family visit to him during the Thanksgiving weekend. As there was a nice hotel right across the street from his apartment building, we could spend time together without overstaying our welcome or overwhelming his health. My husband agreed and we arranged to leave the Friday after Thanksgiving.
The weekend was a treasure! We had ample time to enjoy with Steve's sisters and their kids. We had the opportunity to stroll through the Mall of America, window shopping and fantasizing about what Christmas wishes might be fulfilled. Lego Land was delightful with its larger-than-life creations and children's dreams come true.
But the best parts were visiting with my father-in-law. Burt was a World War II veteran. And as our son had come to learn about the war in school, this became a special part of their relationship. On our visit, my father-in-law shared stories that he hadn't previously revealed to anyone else. He looked through a historic itinerary of his tour of duty with our boy, describing how he was just a kid as he managed the rough ship ride to Europe on his first tour. He described to our children what it was like serving in the artillery, showing pictures to illustrate his stories.
During our visit, though he was hooked up to oxygen, he shared laughs, including a silly mask he owned, with the kids. We cooked him a chili supper and helped clean his place up a bit. And when it looked as though he was fading, we knew to make a quick exit.
Our concerns became reality as he made the choice to spend Christmas down in Florida with his special friend. My sisters-in-law made the loving act of granting him one of his last wishes by flying down with him to enjoy the holiday as he longed to. His lady friend thanked them for bringing her "Christmas gift" as they delivered him to her door. In the weeks after Christmas, he was hospitalized, sent to hospice and made his glorious departure. Thankfully, my husband was able to spend time with him and deliver love notes from the kids while he was still lucid.
Burt was the kind of grandparent any special needs parent could ever wish for. He didn't always understand, but he always supported. In secret, he generously gave to our local hemophilia foundation without fanfare. He loved the children "as is" and without expectation for model behavior. He saw their precious qualities in ways that others couldn't. If they were naughty, one look, one quiet, stern remark from him would stop them in their tracks. And he was notorious for finding Tootsie Rolls behind their ears and singing them some silly song he had learned from a fellow soldier in the war.
As is true for so many spouses, my relationship with my in-laws had not always been the best. But I pressed forward responding as Jesus mandated me to. When friends urged me to alienate them and be nasty, I kept my eyes on my Maker and persisted in doing the next right thing.
And if you learn nothing else from this post, please know that honoring even your biggest critics can be well worth it. Every bit of effort I put into my contact with my mother and father-in-law was never a regret. I ended up genuinely loving them rather than remaining in anxious, tense strife. And I believe they loved me as well. Had I not personally gone out of my way to get along with them, I believe that not only my children's but my husband's interaction with them would have suffered deeply.
While this year leaves us all with sadness because Burt is not with us, I would much rather experience that hurt than the hurt of a damaged relationship. Our memories with him will remain a treasure each of the five of us can carry through every holiday season.