We gathered to celebrate my father-in-law’s birthday on Sunday. His birthday was last month and between everyone’s schedules and his health, it’s taken a while for us to gather. The following is a character description of the attendees, not unlike you’d see at the beginning of a script:

Dr. White (My father-in-law): Recently retired professor of anthropology, diagnosed with Lewy Body dementia. Doing very well in the face of his diagnosis. Accepting, kind, well liked. Marked physical decline in recent months. I have know him, my mother-in-law and husband since I was six.
Mrs. White (My mother-in-law): Also recently retired professor, of Arthurian English studies. Smart, competitive, with thin social skills. Seems to disagree with anything I add to conversation on a matter of principle.
My Mom: Long retired art historian editor diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Smart, defensive, likes to school others on how to do their job, waning social filters, poor balance, increasingly challenging to manage in social situations.
Mr. White (My husband): The guy classically stuck in the middle of all of the women in his life (My mom calls him a saint). Smart, stoic, does not do conflict well, uber supportive and long suffering, tho he would likely not describe himself as suffering.
Me: As my brilliant and funny physician put it recently: Women between the ages of 40-60 are their family’s estate managers. Check.
Chloe (My step-daughter): A college student, working 32 jobs, lives with her mom. She is amazing with my mom. She listens to her repetitive grandmother with unwavering kindness and attention. I appreciate her more and more as she’s matured into a really great young adult.
(My) Daughter #2: An RN who’s practice is with the elderly and their corresponding “crazy families.” Also amazing with my mother. She’s probably saved my life a number of times, particularly when my father was fighting his last fight in hospital and my mother, literally, lost her mind. She knows when to tell me, “Mother, leave, Get Out of Here, NOW!”

Everyone in attendance at the lunch are included in my top tier of people. This doesn’t mean I always like or approve of the choices they make or the way they conduct themselves and relate to each other (or me) all the time, or even a lot of the time. The anxiety that swells up inside of me when we all get together at my in-laws is so profound that I’ve developed rather a lot of empathy for those who deal with anxiety in every day situations. It’s akin to tendonitis. Don’t think someone is weak until you too suffer the same pain.

While it wasn’t as stressful as I thought it was going to be (it seldom is) here a few exchanges/observations:

  • My father-in-law has a lovely leather chair that is now far too low for him. My daughter observed this twice watching her grandpa trying to stand. He is huge fall risk. A fall for someone in his shape could be the last thing they do on this earth. At the end of the visit she kindly mentioned to my mother-in-law that her grandpa needs a higher chair. She was met with a volley of data about Lewy Body dementia (which my daughter probably knows more about than my mother-in-law) verses Alzheimer’s and which illness presented with physical decline first over mental decline, how there’s no point getting a higher chair because he’ll need a chair with a lift in a matter of months etc. My daughter’s concern for her grandfather’s quality of life and safety was defensively shut down. 
  • My mother-in-law refused any help getting lunch to the table and then had to jump up repeatedly to get things she’d forgotten: Napkins, spoons, salad dressing etc. She’s under a tremendous amount of stress.
  • When my mother-in-law talked about what was going on in her garden (a topic to which she made a sudden hard turn to in order to avoid discussing something more personal), she stared intensely at me the whole time. I have a degree in horticulture and a small collection of related industry licenses and certifications. The arena of gardening (plus all topics on child rearing, nutrition and medicine) is one where she must have the upper hand. There is nothing I can contribute to a gardening conversation that isn’t countered. I would Never question her knowledge of French grammar, how to conduct an on-line English Lit class or anything that she clearly has greater knowledge than I. Why I got the steely stare while she spoke about her tomatoes is beyond my understanding. I’ve learned to smile and nod.
  • The table had been ‘extended’ with two sturdy oak TV style tables so we could all sit together. As we approached the dining room, I wanted Chloe and I to sit at the TV tables, or better said, I did not want my mom to sit at one. The space is tight, the TV table is sturdy for what it is, but we’re talking about my mom who tends to catch her feet on things and is generally tottery.  I can’t express all of this in a social situation as my husband is encouraging me to sit next to him and others are asking me where I’d like to sit. Anxiety starts to wrap itself around me like a cloak. Mom took the TV table next to me. As if on queue, the first thing she did was almost knock it over, complete with water class. Chloe, who did take the other TV table, quickly put mom’s water glass on the dining room table. 
  • The seven of us shared a bottle of champagne to toast my father-in-law’s birthday. My mom, who’s last trip to my in-laws was highlighted by getting shit-faced drunk on Thanksgiving, asked for a second splash. None of us are tea-totallers, however, we rarely, rarely serve anything alcoholic to my mother any more. She won’t stop and she can’t handle it physically any longer. Dementia doesn’t help in that she very likely forgets how much she’s had. This is an area where my mother-in-law has my back. While it was mid-day, the single bottle of bubbly, rather than enough for everyone to have a glass, was most likely a calculated decision on her part, for which I am thankful.

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