A Song of Farewell
Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A few years ago, I lost my dad. He left the earth in an instant. One second he was here—healthy, laughing, singing his songs, drinking wine, loving his grandchildren—the next he was found with no heartbeat, sprawled out on his roof in the middle of a chore.

It was the cruelest death. He was too young, too good, too vibrant, too vital in my life, in so many lives. And it took a very long time for my heart to mend. Actually, it never did completely. A loss of that magnitude leaves a crack that can never be properly repaired.

A few people said to me after his death, that I was lucky to have lost him in such a way. That his swift passing was somehow a blessing. I couldn't wrap my head around that concept. I found their words unconscionable. And I never had an answer. Honestly, I couldn't speak when that was said to me because the words that were bubbling up from my psyche were not pretty ones. My gut reaction was always the same, hard words that summed up exactly what I thought of their theory. Words that might have just had an F and a U somewhere in them. 

But because I had not experienced death any other way, I couldn't conceive of the passing of a loved one as a blessing. 

Unfortunately, now that is all about to change. 

My husband's mother is ill, critically ill. 

Without going into too many details, she had a bout with cancer many years ago. She fought the big C and won.

For ten years. Ten years, she was cancer free.

Ten years is enough time to exhale, to stop lying awake at night thinking all those awful thoughts, to start living again. 

Barely a year ago, the cancer came back. And when it did, it was ferocious. Invading every part of her. 

My husband has spent the last few weeks commuting to the Panhandle, being the strong shoulder, taking care of all that needs to be tended to, as he watches his mother slip away. And the worst part of it is, he just lost his father not too long ago. Her descent into the grips of this insidious disease is just such a sad and awful thing for my mother-in-law, for my husband, for his siblings, for all of us. 

I know this is how life goes. But it is always the worst part of the story. And it pains me, truly hurts every particle of my heart, to see my mother-in-law suffering and to see my husband go through this, again.

He's always been the strongest-shouldered man I know.

I won't even begin to tell you all the noble things he did for me and for my family, when my father died—my father who just happened to be his best friend. Because if I start listing all the particulars, this post would be a lengthier tome than it usually is and I would burst into tears at the thought of his kindnesses during that time when we needed exactly what he gave us. 

And I have done enough crying in the past few weeks. 

Instead, I would like to tell you about this woman I have known for over 25 years. 

I met her when I was a fresh-faced, 20-something-year old, stuffed full of vacuous nonsense, in the days when my biggest concerns in life were how big I could make my hair and which clubs had the best drink specials. 

I was nervous the first time my hubs took me to his parents' home. I quizzed him throughout the entire seven hour trek and by the time we got there, I had convinced myself his mother would not like me. 

And to be honest, I don't think she did. 

We had nothing in common. I was a feisty, Irish Catholic. I knew nothing of cooking. I was young, wild, impetuous and I loved her son and I knew none of these things would jibe too well with her. 

She is a feisty, Italian woman, a born-again Christian, an old fashioned woman with old fashioned sensibilities, a gourmet cook whose food can bring a grown man to his knees. 

I had a feeling it wasn't going to be pretty. 

We got to their house a little before dinner time and I very reluctantly asked this sprite of a woman if I could help her in the kitchen. I say reluctantly, because I was terrified she would give me a task beyond my cooking expertise. 

My cooking expertise in those days consisted of putting a frozen pizza in the oven, so it would have been easy to usurp my culinary skills.

And like she did for the next 25 years, she didn't require anything of me. 

At least in the cooking department. 

She never wanted other hands in her homemade pastas, her succulent rib roasts, her hand rolled sushis, her baklava. She only wanted your company, someone to chat with as she expertly bustled from one pan to the next. 

The night I met her she was having a cookout. She'd invited friends, neighbors and members of her church over to meet this girl with the blonde Bon Jovi perm who'd been dating her son now for almost a year. 

As I stood in the kitchen, awkwardly, trying to figure out where to stand, what to say, she gasped, "Oh dear me! I forgot the hamburger buns!"

Thinking this was a great way to get the hell out of Dodge, I offered to go to the store for her. 

And that's when she said, "No, it's alright. I'll just make them."

Make them? For real? I didn't know it was possible to whip up hamburger buns at a moment's notice.

I thought only Pepperidge Farm was capable of that sort of feat. 

But within seconds, the flour was out, dough was pounded and we had fresh hamburger buns. 

And that's how life was with her, filled with homemade delicacies.  

There is this big, aching hole in my heart at the thought of not being able to hear her ask, first thing every morning on our visits to her house, "Good morning! So, what would you like for dinner?"

I cannot stand the idea that my girls will no longer be able to group around her as she deep fries her fabulous Zeppoles and then lets my girls coat them in powdered sugar.

I cannot even begin to fathom a life without her bustling about the kitchen. 

I said to my hubs early on in our life together, "Have you ever noticed when we're with your parents, we're either talking about food, cooking food, shopping for food or eating food?"

It wasn't a bad way to live. 

At that first dinner, as we gathered to chow down, my in-laws announced we would first say a prayer.

Each of us. Out loud. 

I panicked. 

I was Catholic. We didn't make up prayers and share them with each other. That would be too . . . non-boring. We like our prayers recited in a monotone, antiquated drone. 

When it was my turn, I muttered a few, measly words of thanks, my face the color of beets. 

Back in the day, cooking and praying were not my strong suits. 

But I have learned a thing or two over the years in my mother-in-law's kitchen. 

She taught me the proper way to smash garlic with the side of a knife, for a milder, nuttier flavor. She taught me to never refrigerate my tomatoes and to always buy the very best in spices, same goes for kitchen tools. 

She taught me how to make her baklava, even though I still say phyllo dough is a giant asshole. But just like hers, my baklava brings all the boys to the yard. 

She also taught me the wisdom in holding my tongue, when I didn't agree. 

Something that happened often when it came to our philosophies. 

And after a few years of nodding and smiling at crucial times, a pretty cool thing happened. We became more than in-laws. We became friends over the pots of bubbling spaghetti sauce and the pans filled with her glorious sautés.

I don't know what we're going to do without her. 

I'd like to share just one more story if I may:

My mother and father-in-law were like a picture-book, 1950's married couple. She actually used to have the martinis waiting for him when he came home every night. I'm sure, while dressed in her swishy dress and matching pumps. 

He was a Marine, stoic and tough. She was a homemaker to her core. 

And she fussed over him. 


I always said she knew what my father-in-law needed before he ever did. 

As the years went by, my father-in-law grew more and more content to sit in his chair and watch TV. 

He lost his desire for the adventurous life they'd always lived. But my mother-in-law still had her boundless energy and she still had much to do, places to go, people to see. 

She hated the fact that his world had shrunk to the size of their home, but she stayed right there at home with him because she refused to live a life without him at her side. 

My sister-in-law, who was raised by my old-fashioned mother-in-law, is an ultra modern woman, with a job title I cannot disclose, but loosely translated, it means Official Bad Ass. Seriously, she has a bad ass super-secret job with the government that involves the possession of weapons at all times and terrorism and cartels, and that is just about as bad ass as you can get. She's pretty much Salt, except in my sister-in-law's case, the rest of the government isn't undercover double agent Russian spies with Liev Schreiber as the hot chief Bad Ass/double agent Russian spy.

At least, I hope not.

My sister-in-law, Salt, and I decided we'd had enough of my mother-in-law sitting around with my father-in-law doing nothing. We took it upon ourselves to emancipate my mother-in-law. We were going to make her into a modern woman, a woman with her own interests, a woman with her own voice, a woman who had no problem standing up to her man and saying, "I'm an independent woman and I'm going shopping."

Which is exactly what we did. Because the first step in emancipation always begins with shopping. 

We told her we were taking her shopping all day, an entire day away from her husband. 

It took some convincing. We told her she needed to have her own life, that she could use some time away from her husband, that women today didn't need to spend 24/7 with their husband, catering to their every need. And finally, after a few days of our incessant nagging, she agreed or should I say, she buckled. 

She lasted for about an hour as an independent woman.

And then she began to worry about him, what he was doing, who was making his lunch, how he was feeling. 

We realized that our emancipation was a failure, when she had no interest in trying on shoes at a fabulous shoe sale we'd come across. I mean, really, who on earth passes on a shoe sale? So, we gave up and took her home. 

Where she could fuss over him.


Eight months ago, he quietly and with no fanfare stepped over to the other side in his sleep. 

This time, even though he really hadn't been ill, it was no surprise to any of us. He had been getting ready to leave us for the last few years. 

The day before his funeral, my mother-in-law asked me to help her pick out something to wear. 

We stood in her closet and contemplated all the dark dresses and pantsuits she had pulled out. 

Each of them looked too dowdy for such a vibrant, fit woman, a woman who walked every morning and every evening, religiously every day that I have known her. 

Cancer is such an unjust bastard. 

I spotted a lovely coral shift, reminiscent of Jackie O, hanging in her closet, but I didn't dare suggest it. 

Until she pulled it out and said, "How about this?"

I told her it was exactly what I was thinking.

She told me then, that she wanted to look beautiful for her husband. 

She rocked that dress at her husband's funeral. 

And now, just a few heartbreaking months later, I had to round up my daughters to tell them their grandmother was leaving us. 

As I explained the rapid onset of her illness and the short amount of time she had left, my youngest daughter's reaction was, "Oh, that's so great!"

And I was all, "Um, what?"

And that baby girl of mine said, "Grandma and Grandpa hated to be away from each other. Now they'll be together again and they'll be happy." 

And in that moment, I realized I had no right to try and emancipate my mother-in-law. She didn't need emancipating. Her life was with this man. They had spent over 50 years together, taking care of each other. And it worked for them. It fulfilled her much more than any day of shopping or a life outside of him, ever could. 

On Thanksgiving, as my tribe gathered around the kitchen, my husband led us all in prayer, out loud, on the cuff, as we have learned to do over the years. After he gave thanks for all of our many, many blessings, I added my own prayer. I asked the Lord to send my mother-in-law tender mercies, to make her transition to the other side, a swift and easy passage.

It seems I have also learned a little about praying along the way.

Or maybe not.

As the Amen's were being said, I looked across the kitchen at my hubs and our dear friend Tim, two goofballs doubled over in laughter. As my hubs gasped for air, he said through his wheezes, "You couldn't have asked God for a miracle? Thanks for fast tracking my mom to the grave. I appreciate that."

At least we always find a way to laugh. We're kind of ridiculous like that.

If I can ask for the kindness of prayer, of intentions, of wishes for my mother-in-law, for my husband, for our family at this time, I would so appreciate it.

I'll see you soon and I promise, the next time, we will laugh because laughter always helps a heart to heal.

Today's Definite Download: U2's "Kite."

My mother-in-law had no use for rock and roll. She called it Satan's music. I'll never forget the time she discovered one of my hub's albums by the Talking Heads. In the days of vinyl, record albums were often works of art. My hubs had spent a chunk of change on a collector's edition album of the Talking Heads, that was indeed, a masterpiece. My mother-in-law picked it up, curious at the sight of such artwork, read the title of the album—Speaking In Tongues—and flipped the freak out. She held the album up, proclaimed it was blasphemy and flung it across the room like a vinyl frisbee.

Needless to say, my hubs considered her frisbee toss, blasphemous. I just chuckled behind my hand.

But somewhere along the way, I convinced her to take a listen to my beloved boys. I think it might have been when I mentioned that most of them had a deep and abiding Christian faith. I'm not sure if she ever liked them, but she tolerated their music for my sake and I appreciated that.

"Kite" and all of its sibling songs off the All That You Can't Leave Behind album have special significance to me. Something I'll share on another day. Today, I'll just say that album was a gift to me at a seismic-shifting time in my life.

This video was shot in Boston on the Elevation tour, a tour that brought Bono to the opposite peripheries of life. His fourth child was born and his father passed away, both, during that tour.

I have always loved this song, for all its layers and meanings. It is a song of goodbye, of letting go—always, in every capacity, one of the most heartbreaking moments of humanity. "Kite" for Marie.

Something is about to give
I can feel it coming
I think I know what it is
I'm not afraid to die
I'm not afraid to live
And when I'm flat on my back
I hope to feel like I did...

Who's to say where the wind will take you
Who's to say what it is will break you
I don't know which way the wind will blow
Who's to know when the time has come around
Don't wanna see you cry
I know that this is not goodbye...

Did I waste it?
Not so much I couldn't taste it
Life should be fragrant
Rooftop to the basement...


Jennifer Vanderbeek said...

What wonderful memories. I remember my grandfather at his best in his kitchen making fried bread for breakfast or studding a pork roast with garlic and green onions. Those smells always remind me of him and, gosh, he's been gone 12 years now!

And all I could think as I read about her declining health was "peace," even before you shared your daughter's lovely insight, so that is the intention I'm sending out to your family: a sense of peace and a hug of consolation.

Funny in My Mind said...

I left my sentiments in an email.

Kate Geisen said...

Oh, Joann, this had me teary. Your MIL and your family will be in my prayers. My quiet, said-to-myself prayers, because though I go to a Christian church now I was born and bred Catholic and that's still how I roll, prayerwise, anyway.

I lost my dad 18 years ago in much the same way you lost yours, and unfortunately I very quickly was able to feel grateful that he left us so suddenly, as I watched my much-loved aunt suffer though a 4-month cancer blitzkrieg.

This really was a beautiful testament to your MIL, to your family as a whole. She sounds like a remarkable woman.

Unknown said...

What a beautiful tribute to your mother-in-law.

Rae said...

I'm so sorry for the loss of your father and the loss you are soon expecting. You are right- no matter how it happens, there is a crack in our lives that can never heal. But how sweet are the memories you have of your mother-in-law!
I have a quote framed with a picture of my mother (who passed in 1988): "To live in hearts we leave behind, is not to die."
Keep the memories alive...Hugs to you and your family.
Miss you.

TesoriTrovati said...

Oh sweetie! Such a poignant and touching and funny and silly post all in one. I am sorry for the loss that is to come and the letting go that is happening now, but you your daughter is wise beyond her years. We hang on to those we love and think we can never go on with out them when the truth is that the best thing we can do for them is to keep living. And keep stirring sauces. And making impromptu prayers. And making baklava that brings all the boys to the yard. For in doing all of that you are honoring her memory and that is a great legacy to uphold.

My prayers are with you and the whole Mannix clan.

"Every day may not be good, but there is something good in every day."

Find your 'something good' in all of this.

Enjoy the day.

Gigi said...

I'm a relatively new follower and this is my first comment; but I have to say this post made me cry. It is so poignant and full of feeling. Losing a loved one is NEVER easy; whether it's a swift loss or a long one. I'm adding my prayers for you all.

The Woven Moments said...

So sorry for the loss of your dad and the suffering of your MIL.

I will be surrounding you with light and love in the coming days and weeks.


karen said...

"Life should be fragrant
Rooftop to the basement..."

Perfect. Somehow, I think that's JUST how your mother in law would view her own life. She sounds like an amazing woman who has lived a rich life, and has been well loved. I can only hope for such treasured wealth at the end of my life.
It's always hard to watch someone languish in pain, but consider this: it's a gift of time where she (and all of you) can organize your thoughts, and say the things you want to say to each other. And somehow, I think your family will manage to fill every second with love and meaning. And the reunion between your husband's parents will be joyous. Such great rejoicing on their side, even though it's sad for those who must temporarily say goodbye.
My thoughts and prayers will be with you all.

The Zadge said...

Beautiful words. And music. From one Irish Catholic-fallen-in-her-religious-ways to another.

Anita @ GoingALittleCoastal said...

Zeppoles! Gosh I miss those.

What a great tribute to your mother in law. So sorry you all are having to go through such heartache all over again. I will keep her in my thoughts and hopes she gets to be with her husband again soon.

granny1947 said...

This was a truly beautiful post.
You made me tear up.
Sending you strength.

Angie@mamainsomnia said...

Oh Joann, between your beautiful heartfelt words and my hormones I'm a blubbery mess. This post is such a touching tribute to your mother in law.
I loathe cancer. With ever fiber of my being. I lost my grandfather to it and my godmother and grandma are both currently batteling it. It's such an ugly disease and I hate the way it transforms our loved ones. I, like you, can only pray that their journey to the other side is as quick and painless as possible.
I'm so sorry you are going through this.

Lisa said...

I've been feeling weepy the past few days anyway, but I have tears streaming down my face after reading this post.

I'm so sorry.

I wish I could write a beautiful, eloquent comment worthy of your post but I just can't. I'm still crying.

Sending you love, hugs and prayers...

Alice said...

What a wonderful, loving tribute to such a special woman.

I was one of those that said things like 'they led a good long life' or 'it's a blessing they are no longer suffering' etc. In June I lost my dear mother mother who suffered so much and fought so hard to beat cancer,and with a ferocious will to live. I watched her die as we took turns laying beside her on her bead, and whispered loving words in her ear, hoping she could hear them.

In the days,weeks after, I heard those same words of 'comfort' over and over again. They were words meant well, but still it left me hollow and angry. I will never, ever, ever say words like that again to those who have lost loved ones. Instead, I will hold them, pray with them, listen to them, and wipe their tears away.

Pat said...

Your family has suffered a lot of loss in the past few years. I am sorry for that. Cancer is a horrible, horrible thing, and watching someone die from it is terrible. Although I feel the remark was rude about you being "lucky" the way your father died, there definitely IS a difference in losing someone fast and unexpectedly or watching someone suffer. But in either case, it's a loss and it HURTS. Bottom line, I hope your MIL doesn't suffer too much. Please extend my sympathies to your husband and kids, too.

LisaPie said...

I cried all the way through this post. I will pray for all your family to be held in God's loving arms as you find your way through this sad time.

Art Chick said...

Wow. Just wow. I am still crying. This is one of the most touching things I've ever read. All I can say is that I understand...and I wish you all strength and courage in these difficult times. What an amazing, wonderful, blessed family you have--cherish every single moment. And let the love inside your memories pull you through. Much love, Joann.

Alexandra said...

I love your daughter's right on thinking, but death is a bitch to the living.

How sad, she's gone..

but she's with her love now.

It's so sad, the endings of a beautiful lives.

This was lovely.

And I am so very sorry for your family's loss of such an anchor.

Alexandra said...

what ??

Where'd my comment go??


My Inner Chick said...

---Lovely memories.

I agree w/ your daughter.

Death is easy compared to living without our loved ones.

At least, this is what I am experiencing living without me sister.

Love your writing, sass & insight. x

Rebecca Grace said...

Sending you and your family hugs, love, and awkward off-the-cuff prayers for the most time possible, the least suffering possible, and that you squeeze as much joy and pleasure out of Christmas as you possibly can, despite the weight on your soul.

Judie said...

You were there for me last year when Mum was dying, and I hope you will let me be there for you. I was just today telling someone about your compassion and how much it meant to me. Please keep me posted, my friend.

Unknown said...

I am so sorry of the loss of your father and the soon to be loss of your mother-in-law. Your tribute to her was just lovely. You both so lucky to have formed a beautiful friendship with one another.
My FIL is in final stages of lung and brain cancer and it so scares me because I am not sure how I can help my husband with the loss of his best friend. Hugs to you, Meghan

Snubbs the White Rabbit said...

Even in hard times you find a way to laugh, or at least a way to make me laugh. So inspiring. Your mother in law sounds like a wonderful woman. I lost my great grandmother earlier this year ( at the tender age of 99) and it was very difficult, however, like your daughters I often thought about how she had outlived her husband (who passed before I was born) by 30 years or so. I learned to love and appreciate the time I had with her with that once she left us she would be with him. It sounds like you are doing the same.

Like yourself, I have strong links to music in times such as these. May I suggest a song for you? The song is called "Disarmed" by a band called Thrice. I probably won't do the song any justice by trying to describe what its about. I think you will like it though. The lyrics are are poignant and talk about how death has no sting on us and that we will see our loved ones again. The link is below.


Dawn in D.C. said...

I'm so sorry you are losing such a wonderful woman. It has been a rough year for your family. Your daughter is right, she'll be happy when she is "home" with her husband.

My heart goes out to all of you.

Shell said...

Sending prayers for your mil.

I started crying at her choice of dress for her husband's funeral... wanting to look beautiful for him. Oh, my.

Cari said...

Cancer sucks, and robs us of life and those we love. Thanks for sharing that story. It was beautiful and you can tell she was bad ass in her own rite. Takes a strong woman to stand tall by her man for 50 years, and make homemade hamburger buns!

You and your family are in my prayers.

Nicki said...

Dear Lord,

Please be with Joann and her family during this time. Please give them strength as they work through the sadness. Give them answers when they feel they have none and please God, help them feel peace when the time comes for you to take their dear mother. Where they see darkness, remind them of the beauty in eternal life with You. Please God, comfort Joann and her family and remind them constantly that their beloved mother is never going to be alone, in pain, or scared. Please make her transition from this earth to Heaven a wonderfully, beautiful transition and make Your presence incredibly obvious to their mom and to them. Thank you, Dear God, for all of the blessings you have given. Thank you for allowing Joann to meet such a wonderful person; a person who has brought Joann so much closer to You. Thank you for your gift of eternal life so that we don't have to be afraid when we are faced with physical death. And most importantly, Dear God, thank you for the gift of faith in You because without my faith, I would be scared and would feel completely helpless when people I care about are faced with a crisis. With You, I never feel helpless because I know that You hear my prayers and more importantly, You always answer them!

In Jesus's name,

Baby Sister said...

What a beautiful post. The part where she wanted to look beautiful for her husband made (and still is, apparently) me cry. She sounds like an amazing lady. My prayers are with you and your family during this time.

Julie said...

I hope when everyone gathers to celebrate your mother-in-law's life (inevitably, and I am oh so sorry about this)that the room is full of color...

..that you choose bright clothes to honor her as she joins her husband; the one for whom she wanted to be beautiful.

And you'll know that this is not goodbye.

You'll simply be wearing your love on the outside as you prepare to carry it on the inside always.

Wishing peace to her, to you, to your entire family.

As long as the wind blows...

Just A Normal Mom said...

I'm so sorry for what you all are going through. I read your post with tears. Tears for your family, tears for mine. We lost my mother-in-law two years ago. Just 19 months after losing my father-in-law. They, too, had been married over 50 years. We lost them both to that damned cancer. It is a cruel and merciless way to go. As a main caretaker for her through her fight and her death, I cherish that closeness we developed, the mutual respect and admiration we found for each other and the love we shared.

I know you'll cherish those memories of her and of who she was.

The Furry Godmother said...

Cancer sucks. So very sorry.

These words are not elegant, but state the simple truth of my sentiments.

Suniverse said...

Oh, sweetie, I'm so sorry for all of your losses.

I'm sending all my good thoughts out for you and your family.

W.C.Camp said...

Wow touching and introspective tribute. Just goes to show we should all value EACH DAY as special because you never know how quickly life can change. W.C.C.

Meg at the Members Lounge said...

How great you got to be such good friends? For some reason the hamburger rolls choked me up! I know what you mean about free form prayer, I prefer at staid ones said the lapsed Catholic ...

A lovely tribute, and my heart goes out to you and your family.

Unknown said...

A beautiful post and a wonderful warm tribute. Sending warm thoughts your way...

Unknown said...

I have a big lump in my throat. In spite of the pain, there is so much beauty here - in the history and in the relationships. Thank you for sharing this precious couple with us.

PS. I always think one needs to tread cautiously when "consoling" someone about death.

Becky said...

What a beautiful, beautiful tribute. I've never read your blog before now (came over here from BBP)-- but I will be a reader now, for sure.

The Sisters' Hood said...

Alright sweetness , we have not heard from you in a few weeks .... hope your Christmas was just lovely with your girls and your fab man and it was filled with happy memories of years gone by.
Hope to see you out in the blogosphere soon ... much love to you xxx

Ash said...

I want you to know, deep down in your heart and soul, that we are all better people for reading your words.

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