I had the privilege of meeting my dear friend Deidra Riggs in the flesh this past spring at the Jumping Tandem retreat, and she is every bit as authentic in person as she is on paper. I’m so happy to be able to host her today.
My mother-in-law passed away in March. She was strong. A fighter, right up to the end of her ninety-two years. She lived her life with just the right balance of grace and gusto, and when it came time for her to leave us, she did it her way. Frank Sinatra’s got nothing on Nancy.
We called her Nano and when I first met her, I was eighteen years old. I had just graduated from high school, and I’d met this boy at a Commodores concert. We liked each other enough that he thought I should meet his parents. I’d never been invited to meet a boy’s parents.
Only now, with my own grown-up son and daughter, do I realize what a big deal that was.
About a month after Nano died, my son brought his girlfriend home from New York to meet his dad and me. She is the first girl our son has ever brought home. To say I was a nervous wreck would be a gross understatement. Should I hug her, or just shake her hand? Would there be long, awkward silences? Where would she sleep? What would she eat? Would I say too many embarrassing things? Would I talk too much, or not enough? Would I like her? Would she like me? And all of that anxiety was wearing me out before the two even arrived on our doorstep!
When our son and his girlfriend did show up, what surprised me was just how hard it was for me. I had to come to terms with the fact that my son will one day settle down and build a family, and the woman he gives his heart to will be part of our family, ‘til death do us part.
It’s a big deal.
On that summer night when I first met Nano, I remember that she came into the family room from the kitchen, and she loved me right away. She was good at that — giving her entire heart to a person without reservation or condition. She loved me from the first moment, and she loved me just the way I was. Not everybody gets to have an experience like that. Not everyone gets a mother-in-law like that.
Recently, I read a book called “How We Die” written by Sherwin Nuland. The author, a doctor, talks about different ways a life can end — heart disease, Alzheimers, cancer, AIDS, trauma, age — and how the body shuts itself down, finally surrendering with the release of the soul. In the chapter about heart disease, he talks about infarction. I had to look it up to learn infarction is tissue death, caused by a lack of oxygen. I read the definition and put my hand over my own heart, my understanding heightened by the truth of my own loss.
“Now I know what heartsick means,” I said to my husband the day after Nano died; him all confounded and turned upside down in the undertow of his own waves of grief. He didn’t say anything. We just sat there with our breath sitting weak at the bottom of our lungs. For better, for worse; for richer for poorer; in sickness and health…
This is something new. We haven’t navigated grief together. Not like this. We’ve lost dogs. We’ve stumbled through difficult ministry assignments. We’ve sent both children off into the world. We’ve wondered how we would pay our bills, or buy diapers when our kids were babies. But this is new.
One day, a few weeks after Nano died, my husband and I stood on the deck of her condo. We had spent the week cleaning and painting and scrubbing and emptying and carting carloads of stuff to the Salvation Army. My husband is in his element when he’s got a task. Head down, hands busy, the more monumental the physical labor, the happier he is. No need for words.
I, of course, am wired differently.
Grief is a tricky emotion. It weaves its way through every moment without our even noticing. It drives with a steady, almost silent beat and then takes over like a crashing wave when we least expect it. It surprises me. It surprises everyone. Grief doesn’t know the definition of “business as usual.”
So, my husband and I stood on the deck. At an impasse. I wanted one thing. He wanted something different. Grief cut off the oxygen to our business as usual. For us, “business as usual” means finding a way to compromise. But, my gut told me this was different.
My husband leaned on the rail of the deck, and gazed out — unseeing. The yard exploded with blossoms in the sunlight. New life bursting forth with every turn of the earth and I stepped back. Stepped down. Backed off. Stopped talking. Stopped making my point. Stopped pressing my grief up under his nose and making him breathe it in.
And turned the tide.
Deidra Riggs is a writer and speaker. She serves as managing editor at TheHighCalling.org, and is a monthly contributor to incourage.me. As owner and creator of JumpingTandem, she invites people to the table by producing retreats, conversations, and other events that encourage individuals to pursue their God-sized dream(s) and to increase their understanding of different races, cultures, and ethnicities. You can connect with Deidra at her blog, deidrariggs.com. Deidra has been married to “H” for 27 years. They are the parents of two adult children, and the happy renters of an empty nest.