By Nancy Smith Harris
My mother-in-law was not typical. There were the usual acts of unkindness: popping up for meals when she believed they ought to be served rather than when scheduled; arriving with much fanfare precisely every third Sunday between 4 and 6:30 p.m. to visit the kids and leaving early if they weren’t charming enough, disappointed that her time had been wasted; offering gifts pulled from a pile in the back of her closet: a clay ashtray bearing the message “Welcome to Tahiti, Home of the Tiare Flower” for my one-year-old son, a dog-eared copy of New Yorker cartoons for my three-year-old daughter.
I railed loudly and often but no one listened.
“That’s Suzy,” they said. “Get used to it. Keep your thoughts to yourself.”
“Toughen up,” Pete said, “you’re too thin-skinned.”
By then, the woman smelled blood.
“Bobby takes after your brother,” she said of my toddler, shrugging. “Well, at least it wasn’t the mailman.”
“When are you going to talk to a specialist?” she quizzed, frowning at her granddaughter. “If you don’t get her some oestrogen, she’ll end up an Amazon. Too bad the looks aren’t there for a career with the Rockettes.”
Of course, none of this abuse compared to the day she steered us into a steep detention ditch on our way to the kindergarten play. My last thought was that having abandoned her strategy of wearing me down with her mouth, she’d moved on to killing me off in the death seat.
The ER doc came to the waiting room where she sat with one tiny Band-Aid over her right eye. He told her I was gone.
He even used that phrase: “We did everything we could…”
“You didn’t work on her long enough,” she barked, marching past him through the curtain where I lay, flatlining. She jumped up on the table, throwing a leg over my sheeted body, and began vigorous chest compressions.
“Grandma broke my ribs,” I told my kids a week later at the dinner table on the third Sunday between 4 and 6:30. I could not thank her for saving a life in which she was a constant irritant. I could not stand the fact that she was the difference between my living and dying.
But I did return the favor.
When at 96, paralyzed and demented, she lay dying but for one finger to clear her air passage, I kept my finger to myself.