AK Reader: A Meditation on My Husband’s Mother (2001)

I see where I dated this essay as 5/16/01, but I don’t see where it was published. Maybe it wasn’t published. In any case, both the similarity and contrast between my own mother Renee’s life and Ethel’s life strike me. Both were married to alpha men,  leaders in their professions. Both had children. But only one, my own mother, had grandchildren — and great grandchildren. Mom, a Libra, found her natural calling as the helpmeet of the alpha male. Ethel, a Leo in her own right, needed a bigger stage than the home front, especially if grandchildren were not to come along.

This essay could have a postscript, but it might turn out to be longer than the original piece. For example, I don’t know why I didn’t include the story of how Ethel once burst out (soon after my meeting her for the first time), while standing in a circle with her daughters, husband, Jeff and myself  in the waiting area to a posh restaurant in Disneyland, “Jeff, you’re the one who always loved me!” This remark, coming out of nowhere, stopped time; I watched her husband zoom out into space, her twin daughters turn to each other for solace, and Jeff himself sink into the depths of his very deep self. Truly a remarkable moment.

And I don’t know why I didn’t include the time, much later on, when she was in bed and waiting to die, and I made a special trip from Massachusetts (and my grandchildren) to New Jersey, to visit with her alone. Jeff’s dad told me not to bother; that she hadn’t said a word to him or anybody for months. I decided to go anyway. And when he ushered me to the doorway of her room and announced my presence, I walked in and she opened her eyes, gave me a huge smile, said a huge hello. That was another time when she and I went into other worlds together, as detailed in the story below. I don’t know if I’ve ever met someone so obviously vaster than her current expression in this body. But wait! I do know one. And that’s Jeff himself, her beloved son, and subject of my book This Vast Being,

Meditation on My Husband’s Mother (2001)

By Ann Kreilkamp


Jeff and I had been together for a year when his parents decided to visit us. We were both surprised. Ethel and Edward live in a big house in New Jersey, near New York City. Jeff and I live in a yurt in a tiny unincorporated village in Wyoming. The culture shock, for them, would be enormous.

I had learned from Jeff that his Dad had been an electrical engineer who worked for Bell Labs. That he held over 70 patents, having invented the switching systems responsible for most of modern telephony, including cellular phones. Edward had received many national and international prizes, he and Ethel traveling the world to receive them. (Two years later, we would stand in the Rose Garden of the White House watching him shake President Clinton’s hand as he received the National Medal of Technology.)

I was dreading the meeting with my future in-laws. Jeff had been born into an eastern intellectual family, and attended Ivy League schools. I was the hick from Idaho who had lured their precious son out of his high-paying job in Michigan to come live with a woman he had just met in a 20-foot diameter Wyoming yurt! Worse, this was the first time Jeff had ever made this sort of life decision because of a woman.

Was it because his mother still held him in thrall to her? Would no woman ever be good enough for her son?

Those were my fears during the days preceding their arrival.

So you can imagine my surprise when Ethel walked into our office and without even saying hello, dramatically thrust a gift-wrapped object into my hands while announcing in a loud voice, “Here. If you don’t like it, I’m leaving!”

What? Ethel wanted me to like her?

The next day we toured Yellowstone the old-fashioned way, men in front, women in back. Edward kept his head down, looking at the map of Yellowstone, and when he did look out, would make remarks like, “Why are there so many dead trees? Don’t they clean this place up?” Apparently, he had never encountered a forest in its wild state, where death and life intermingled, old downed trees slowly disintegrating into soil, home for upthrusting shoots.

Meanwhile, in the back seat, Ethel treated me to a non-stop monologue. Especially about Jeff, her only son, whose arrival was doubly blessed since he was not conceived for five long years. And oh! how proud she was of him! And how grateful and excited she was, she said, that he had finally met me.

I don’t recall her looking out the windows, to see bison, elk, erupting geysers. On our one venture out of the car, to watch Old Faithful spout, she had trouble walking from the parking lot (about 1/4 mile), and Jeff mentioned to me that her knees had bothered her since he was a child.

By the time we finished our tour, five hours later, I was exhausted and near tears.

The next day, still on parental overwhelm, I begged off going with them to visit Jenny Lake and the Tetons.

Nine years later, Ethel lies in a hospital bed in her bedroom, inert. She is slowly dying, sinking into the ground like one of those dead logs in the forest.

What happened between then and now? What is the connection between my exhaustion then, and her dying process now? I suggest some clues here.

Ethel was a dramatic Leo, a big woman in every way. As a young woman she had studied voice at the New England Conservatory of Music, and wanted to become an opera singer. One year later, the depression hit, and her family could no longer afford to send her.

When Ethel met Edward, he was a shy young student at MIT. The evening they met, he took her to his dorm room to show her his engineering projects, and to explain to her how the telephone dial tone worked. She was a good listener. And over the years she nurtured him into becoming a star in his profession, an international authority in telecommunications.

Ethel was a woman of my mother’s generation. Like many of them, she did not find fulfillment in her life. This generation was expected to find household arts fulfilling; however, most of them didn’t have as many children as their mothers did, and 20th century advertising had brainwashed them into buying newfangled applances, “modern conveniences.” The combination of these two factors freed up much of their time and energy. But for what?

In Ethel’s case, we need to also factor in her intensity and big expectations, her theatrical manner. Her opera studies had been interrupted, and instead of the large public stage she settled for the small private stage of the family. For awhile the demands of mothering three children close in age (Jeff’s twin sisters are two years younger) called out her natural big-hearted generosity. But then her children grew up and none of them married or had children (I was the first and only spouse, whom Jeff met when he was 43). As the years dragged on, Ethel felt more and more useless, her life more and more futile. New growth did not reinvigorate the dead rotting logs in her forest.

Her generation of women didn’t often work outside the home, for fear people would think the husband couldn’t support the family by himself. She was caught in this cultural expectation, and caught by her own psychological failure to imagine another life beyond her thwarted desire for grandchildren.

She had a surfeit of emotional energy, and could find few places to express it. No wonder I was exhausted after those five hours in the car.

That was nine years ago. Ever since that time I have invited her, indeed begged her, to attend annual Crones Counsels with me. She subscribed to Crone Chronicles and said she loved it, so I thought she would be thrilled to attend gatherings with hundreds of other older women who were transforming their lives beyond habit and social expectation. But she  never went.

Whenever we visited them in New Jersey, she would follow me around, want to hug and kiss me. Her huge need to love and be loved felt suffocating. Whenever I was in that house with her I felt trapped and I usually ended up sick. Moreover, Jeff’s folks never open the windows (neither do mine; is this generational?) and he and I joke that the place feels like a mausoleum. On each visit, as soon as we arrive, we drop our bags in the kitchen and rush upstairs to open the windows in our bedroom.

For our annual visit two years ago, she came to the airport with Edward to pick us up, as usual, but then refused to go out for dinner with us. This startled me. Why? I knew that our visits were what she looked forward to, as everytime we left she would plead with us to come back soon. Many times she hinted that we should just move in, that then she would be happy.

The next evening we did convince her to go out to dinner. I was walking her from the house to the car when she muttered, almost under her breath, “taking the old dog out for a walk, eh?” Her tone was bitter, ironic. I was shocked. This was the first negative thing I had ever heard her say.

She had always taken long naps, even when the kids were small, and during the years prior to that visit, her naps had stretched out longer and longer. A few months after that visit, Edward called to tell us that she seemed to be sleeping most of the time. That he brought her meals to her because she wouldn’t get up to eat, or take a shower, only to go to the bathroom. Edward was worried. We told him he had to get somebody in there to take care of her. He resisted, not wanting a stranger in his house. He talked about putting her in a nursing home, but she adamantly refused, announcing that she was “going to die in this house.”

So, with his children’s help and encouragement, and doctor’s orders, he arranged for a home health care aide to live in and care for Ethel.

Our next visit, in November 1999, was a relief to me. I no longer felt so suffocated by her need, since she was always in bed. Indeed, since she wasn’t reaching out for me anymore, I could reach in to her, kiss her cheek, pat her hand. One afternoon I spent  time alone with her, sitting by her bed, talking. Usually, she didn’t talk at all, beyond one word answers to questions. But this time she gradually opened up and we entered a zone together unlike any I have ever been in with anyone. I still marvel at it, and wonder why I cannot remember a word that was said. What remains is the sense of a vast and spacious mind hidden inside that stubborn implacable face and body. Our conversation was abstract and metaphysical, amazing to me who had never heard her utter one word that was not connected to her children, her husband, or the stuff of the material world.

Meanwhile, however, she appeared to be going downhill. She used a commode now, and had to be washed in bed. Right after we left, they rented a hoist to lift her out of bed and set her in her comfortable arm chair — in which she would immediately fall asleep, hunched over. When they would try to get her to stand, she was terrified, and disoriented, confused. What was the organic cause of this relentless decline? The doctors could find nothing “wrong.” All her organ systems were healthy, she had no discernable disease — except of course, the one they call “senile depression and dementia.”

Since there is no disease present, we cannot avoid talking about her dying as truly a spiritual process.  She is the first person I have known for whom we cannot “blame” her dying on disease. Unlike most people, her dying process is  obviously  driven by the needs of the spirit to leave a life which the personality views as purposeless.

Nothing motivates her. She simply has no reason to get up anymore.

Now it is May, 2000. Six months have gone by. We have just returned from another visit to New Jersey, where she continues as that old rotting log, sinking into the ground. She is now in diapers, fed pureed food by hand. None of her limbs work. She has lain motionless in bed for so long that they no longer move, even if she wanted them to, which she doesn’t.

Now she rarely opens her eyes, and seems to be in a coma, completely unresponsive. And yet we all know she’s not. It’s more like she’s a turtle, hiding in her shell, except for angry explosions when someone inadvertently touches her too roughly. “NO!!” and “OW!!” remain in her vocabulary.

If Edward is in the room, and her eyes are open, she glares at him fiercely. We assume she blames him for her unfulfilled life. He continues to be curious, energetic, and working even now at writing articles, attending conferences, and picking up prizes. He didn’t realize that she was mad at him until we pointed it out, and then he asked “Why? She always had everything she needed.” He’s right. It was up to her to change her life, and she never did it. And she’s right too, in that he was always impervious to her needs, and insensitive, living in his own world, with little left over for her.

A few months ago her best friend, a neighbor whose children grew up with hers, came for a visit. She insisted that Ethel talk with her. “I got only one thing out of her,” she said, “and it was very forceful: ‘NOBODY CARES.’”

It seems that Ethel has reached a conclusion, both literally and figuratively, and that she is determined, with her vast will and stubbornness, to hold on to it. To not receive our love. It is a terrible time. And yet it is a good time, too, because at last the energies are moving.

Edward was attending a conference in England during part of our last visit, and I used the occasion to open wide all the windows and doors. You can’t imagine the thrill of doing this, after all the years of dreaming about it. How spring, with its rustling leaves and lilac vapors and birdsong curled through the rooms, to begin to dissolve stuckness and decay that had settled there over 50 years.

And now, for the first time, we are all talking about death and dying, and we do it in her presence. She says not a word. It makes us all sad.

And, finally, for the first time, everybody is touching her, learning to slowly and gently stroke her body. We are communicating through touch what she will not hear in words.

I am learning, once again, that I cannot fix or change anybody else. That no matter how terrible the situation in which I am involved, all I can do is bear witness, and have compassion for the difficult part each one is playing in this, the last act of one Leo woman’s long life. Despite her declared appreciation for Crone Chronicles, hers was a life apparently uninspired by the last phase of the Triple Goddess. Her operatic dreams as a Maiden, her temporary fulfillment as Mother, did not transform into the detachment and wisdom of Crone. Instead of rebirth into a new phase of life, the matter to be transformed fermented into decay, and played out as hopelessness, bitterness, fury.

But Ethel is not dead yet. We don’t know how her final act will play out in the end. We continue to watch and wait, to pray for deliverance.

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