I spoke with my mother-in-law, Armorel, tonight. She told me, “I feel sad tonight, somehow.” And that’s exactly how I feel tonight, just sad somehow.
To set the record straight, Armorel is not my mother-in-law any longer. Twelve years ago I gave up any official, legal status as one of her family members when I was divorced from her son. It was a painful break-up, hers and mine, for we had seemed to share a mutual understanding about life. At times the break-up seemed even more painful than his and mine.
I have missed Armorel in my life, the way she once was. I’ve missed the bond I thought we had. In the years that we were close, Armorel was the gentle spirit of a mother I had always wished for, and I thought she viewed me as another daughter. We would easily converse for hours. But divorce can break families in unexpected ways. Lines of communication are no longer smooth or open.
This weekend Armorel moved to an assisted-living residence. She is 96 years old, and until now, has pretty much lived an independent life. Armorel only just gave up her car at 94, with more than a little reluctance and feistiness.
In fact Armorel has lived a mostly independent life, at times having to be fiercely independent. When she was 18, Armorel left a small fishing village in Newfoundland to join other hard-working “Newfs” in Chelsea, Mass. She married at 28, and at 36 was the sole support of her family with two young children, her husband gravely ill with brain cancer. By 47, Armorel’s children had left for college, and her home was empty. At 63 she married again but had just three, sweet, short years with her second love.
Armorel is accustomed to the tough changes that life can bring, and she’s always demonstrated amazing resilience in continuing on. Her faith has a lot to do with that.
But tonight’s phone call was different. It was our first conversation with Armorel since she moved into the assisted-living residence, and her strong spirit seemed to waiver. My daughter spoke to Armorel first. Looking concerned, she mouthed to me, “Grandma’s very sad.” When I took the phone to speak, Armorel’s deeply sad voice sighed, “Oh, Sarah.” Armorel didn’t need to say more. I understood. And it was at that moment that I recognized the bond we’ll share forever. It’s a bond known only by the heart and not by divorce decrees.
I knew exactly what Armorel meant by “Oh, Sarah” and what it said of where she was right now and where she has been in the past and what she has thought about. Because I know Armorel. I truly know her, despite those in-between hurt spaces of our lives. I know, and love, all the family stories about Armorel and her Newfoundland sisters, a time so long ago. And I dearly remember the wonderful times in our lives together, in the not so distant past.
“Oh, Sarah” she said again with such great wistfulness. And I welled up. There was so much to say and so little that could change things. Armorel knew that I understood what she meant. “I’m so sorry Armorel,” I said gently.
“I know I’ll get to like it,” she offered. “I know you will,” I encouraged. We both got quiet. There was a peace in that moment, a quiet reflective space. We understood. We have a bond. We weren’t just talking about a new living arrangement but about a stage of life. A stage you only face if you’ve been gifted a very long life. It’s such a bittersweet gift. A gift that requires a lifetime’s worth of heartful courage, a strong spirit and abiding faith to navigate its course. Armorel will, I am sure, continue life’s journey with exemplary grace.
Love you, Armorel… always have, always will.
Life is good (and sometimes just hard)