I can’t sleep, so I’ll hold a weird internet vigil for my mother-in-law. This is not how I envisioned reviewing Rod Dreher’s book, but I maybe if I write down some of the words swirling around in my mind I can get some sleep.
A couple years back I met Julie Dreher at some random Orthodox home school park outing. I have no idea what we talked about, but I liked her instantly. She’s one of those high-energy, sharp-witted women who sees the obstacles in her way as challenges to overcome with a good sense of humor. Or at least that’s my impression of her from our handful of encounters. I imagine if she lived in my town we’d share a lot of cups of coffee while we laughed about Shenanigans. Alas, she lives so very far away now, but that’s what Facebook was for. So I private messaged her ages ago and offered her one of Fr. A’s books in exchange for her husband’s new book: The Little Way of Ruthie Leming.
In May, she sent it.
In June, I picked it up and started it. A week later, my mother-in-law collapsed during a South African safari and received an emergency brain surgery to remove an enormous mass from her head. I found myself in an odd place, reading the emotions that maybe I should be feeling… like an echo from the future.
The news that month got better and she came home. In July in my own little life, I really felt like the sky was falling and I was just trying to hold a big enough piece of it up that it didn’t crush me and my children under the weight of it. Like that feeling when you are digging a hole in the dry sand at the beach and no matter how fast and hard you try to move it out, the sand just rushes back in. July is the month that archdiocesan thingies remove Fr. A from the team for ten days. So it’s never a restful month, but this month my children flooded three floors of my house with poopy toilet water (we have to gut the basement), the Squishy outgrew his crib so Chaos has been unleashed in the early morning hours, bags of wallpaper had been removed from walls that could have kept it awhile longer, and we found toxic mold in our kitchen. Sand people. Lots of sand.
I don’t even remember how we got the news, but Monday I was sitting around wondering what I was going to plant this fall, and Wednesday we were in a car driving like crazy with three small people stuffed in the back seat of a Prius to get out to Colorado Springs in time to say our goodbyes. I brought that book with me and I finished it on the way.
I’m not even sure what to say about it. I couldn’t put it down both times I picked it up. It made me cry. I felt the stings of rootlessness and a family that doesn’t understand me and probably never will, but at the same time I was considerably uncomfortable. To me, grief is something that you just don’t show and here was someone writing so intimately about it for thousands of strangers to read. Maybe that’s what writing always is… but I felt like a peeping Tom. The book was riveting and unsettling and beautiful, and Ruthie Leming sounds like she was a saint and I only hope one day I’m as a good a person as her brother said she was.
There was a lot of grit in that book. Being a part of a place means actively placing limits on ourselves. That’s a horse pill for most Americans, fed on stories of generations of people striking out to discover and conquer, eyes forever on that third star on the right. What we don’t read? The stories of those left behind: families left missing us, neighborhoods full of grandmothers and mothers who watch other people’s kids roam their streets. And who am I to talk? I’m not from anywhere. My mother did the same thing. So did my father. They took the ax to their own roots and realized too late that they had grown new ones. What about us kids? Where are our roots? Can I put one foot in Wisconsin and another in Lebanon? What about Florida or North Carolina or California or West Virginia? Should I even wish for a way to grow those roots that aren’t even my parents any longer? Honestly, I still do wish for it… but I won’t give that to my kids. I hope my kids grow roots here. I choose to put my own roots down so that I can give that to them. I meet my neighbors. I learn the names of people who work in my town. The Bishop put us here. Let’s do this for keeps.
My resolution can’t be returning home like Rod’s. I will never be able to make that choice. It was my parents who made that choice for me. I’m with the Vulcans on this one: time travel is impossible.
Anyhow, we made it out in time to say our goodbyes. Or, at least, my kids and my husband said the things they needed to say. When my time came… well, what was there to say? I don’t know what went through her heart in the last few months… those kind of intimate thoughts weren’t, and shouldn’t, have been for me to hear. But every time I went in to say hello, I was struck dumb. A hug. A kiss on the cheek. But what was there to say? Don’t we all live our lives preparing for that journey Home? My mother-in-law had been walking towards the cross her whole life and she was finally almost there. One day, I’ll get there too, and I hope it’s with half the grace and love she showed her family those last few weeks.
There was one moment during the week when she joked that her sister should get her a Camelbak filled with chocolate syrup, because what did it matter what she ate now? She was fully in the moment that week. She had mastered the present. And God brought her home this past weekend.
I know that most of her family is feeling right now what Ruthie’s family felt, and it’s probably Providence that I picked up that book when I did. I realized when I said my last goodbye, before we got in the car to go back east knowing the next time my husband came out it would be for the funeral, that I was ok. I didn’t say anything. I just gave her a big hug and a kiss… there was nothing to say. She knew I loved her and I knew I’ll see her again because when we say, “May her memory be eternal!”, them’s fighting words. Not just for our loved ones, but for ourselves.