I felt her presence at my son Dale’s birth: I lay on the operating table, numb from the waist down, listening to the doctors chat as they performed my C-section. When I opened my eyes I could see the blue sheet raised in front of me, creating a sterile operating area from my belly mound. But opening my eyes made me think about the doctors slicing me open, layer by layer, so I closed them again.
I started humming music to myself, my mother-in-law’s songs. “Joy Cometh in the Morning.” As I began to focus more on the melody and less on the cutting, I could sense my mother-in-law. She loved her grandkids; she had doted on Scott and delighted in Norah’s babyhood. Now she ushered this newest grandson into life. Even though I wanted her there with me physically, to hold and love Dale’s new little body, I was grateful for the gift of feeling her spirit nearby.
She had come back to visit, just like she promised. The shadow of her spirit in that operating room made it more like a temple than a hospital.
I keep that memory sacred. New holiness of birth, mingled with the taste of angels.
* * *
“I need to go see Grandma!” Two-and-a-half-year-old Scott insisted. “I need to play farm.” Playing farm meant gathering the plastic animals and their grinning farmer, sitting on the carpet with his grandma, and pretending that they were having a birthday party. I let him go downstairs to see his grandparents, who lived in our basement. I went down a few minutes later to watch Scott play and see him through my mother-in-law’s eyes.
They had the animals gathered around for a party. “Can the farmer bring the cow to the party too?” she asked him. She smiled up at me. She looked tired but happy.
“Yes!” Scott said. He made the cow join the group.
“He’s so cute,” Mom gushed to me. “He just made the donkey blow out the candles.”
“Ha!” I said. I thought Scott was cute too. But I found the long pretend games tedious. My attention wandered. However, when I watched Mom interact with Scott, I saw how the endless birthday parties showed the clever way his mind worked.
The only thing that prevented Mom from playing daily with Scott was her fragile health. A diabetic, she struggled with many health problems, including a kidney transplant. Three weeks after my daughter Norah’s birth, Mom lost her transplanted kidney. For years it had functioned at only thirty percent strength. But this time, the kidney had truly failed. She began dialysis, the treatment that cleansed her blood and left her spent, exhausted, but still alive.
She spent a week in the hospital before coming home. Scott and I visited her there, leaving baby Norah with her other grandma.
Scott wore his cowboy hat everywhere, including the hospital. All the people we walked past smiled at him. He stared back. I didn’t know how to explain things to a two-and-a-half-year-old. He didn’t know about kidney failure. He clutched the picture he had drawn for Grandma, pushed the number seven on the elevator, and held my hand as we walked to her room.
She lay on her bed, surrounded by tubes and machines.
“It’s so good to see you,” she told Scott.
“Give Grandma a soft hug,” I said. He hugged her and handed her the picture. He looked at the machines, the tubes, the bed. I kept his hand in mine, to pull him back from grabbing something he shouldn’t.
“How’s today going?” I asked.
“Better,” she said. “I’m not so nauseated from the dialysis. I’ll probably be here a couple more days and then go home.”
“We miss you,” I told her. “Scott misses playing with you. I miss talking with you.”
She smiled. “I miss you too,” she said. “I’ll be home soon.”
* * *
Dialysis left Mom weakened, sometimes barely able to talk. We blessed Norah at home, instead of in sacrament meeting, so that Mom could be there. I started preparing some of her meals, since dialysis patients require a specific, limited diet, and Mom’s strength did not allow her to cook.
A few weeks after her kidney failure, we had settled into the dialysis routine: Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday she had her blood cleaned for four hours. She returned weak and nauseated, but still wanting to play with Scott. So we were downstairs playing again, Scott and I and baby Norah.
I thought about Mom’s possible death more than I ever had before; her fragile body would not qualify for another kidney transplant. I felt bold and curious and guilty, but I asked anyway: “So, um, not that you are going to die very soon, the dialysis seems to be going well, but do you know, uh, what you want at your funeral? For music? This is a weird thing to ask, but I want to know what you want.” Mom composed music, and I wanted to be sure we used her pieces, but I didn’t know which ones.
“No, Emily, it’s fine,” she said. “We need to talk about it. I want ‘Joy Cometh in the Morning’ and ‘Because of Your Faith.’”
Scott started singing “Happy Birthday” with his animals. We smiled at him.
“I don’t know how to talk about this,” I told her. “But we will miss you, when you go.”
“I’ll miss you too,” she said. “But I will visit. I’ll come and see you as much as I can.”
“You better!” I told her. “How does that work anyway?” We speculated on the nature of angelic ministration. Scott offered us a piece of pretend birthday cake. I pretended to eat.
* * *
Two months passed, months of feeding my new baby and my mother-in-law. I watched Norah’s body get chubby, and Mom’s body grow weak.
One morning Scott started crying when he heard the garage door open. Mom and Dad were leaving to go to dialysis, and he wanted to say good-bye to them. “Go see Grandma, go see Grandma!” he told me. He tugged at my shirt, insistent on seeing his Grandma Milner.
“We’ll see her when they get back from dialysis,” I told him. I wanted to conserve Mom’s energy, and Scott needed to learn that no meant no. “Grandma is tired now, we need to let her go. She needs to go with Grandpa.”
But he cried harder, and refused to be distracted. Every few minutes he told me, “Go see Grandma!” and pouted when I told him no. “We’ll see her this afternoon,” I promised. “We’ll see her soon.”
I got a phone call from my husband an hour later. He called from the cardiac ICU at the hospital—on the way to dialysis, his mother suffered a heart attack.
* * *
After she died I wrote her letters. Dear Mom, I miss you. Scott misses playing with you. I am worried he will forget you. You should have seen the cute thing he did the other day. Norah is rolling over now. I wish she were old enough to remember you. We miss you.
As I grew more used to her absence, I stopped writing. Maybe I felt a little silly too. As I wrote her letters, I wondered, Is she with me now, reading over my shoulder? When does she visit, like she said she would? Now I wonder, When the letters dwindled away, did I damage our communication?
Years have passed since we watched baby Norah play beside Scott’s farm animals. Now Norah stands in the time-out corner and sticks her tongue out at me. “Neener neener,” she taunts me. “I don’t care! I’ll stand here all day, I don’t care!” She makes her voice as sassy as she can.
I am mad. I’m so mad I could slap her, except I don’t slap my kids. I have to take deep breaths to calm myself. I told Norah to clean up and she didn’t, and I told her again and she didn’t, and then she teased Dale, and then she still didn’t clean up. Now here we are, four-year-old versus angry mother. Someplace deep I know I am wrong. I know it, but I’m mad anyway.
At night after a day like this, when I’ve calmed down enough to feel guilty, I sneak into my kids’ room. “I’m sorry I got mad at you today,” I say. Then, “I’ll forgive you for not picking up when I asked if you’ll forgive me for yelling.” I am humbled, as always, by my kids’ capacity for mercy.
Sassy Norah also twirls around the living room, blond hair spinning around her head, making a halo. Sometimes she and Scott and Dale dance together to Mom’s music. “I like to look for rainbows, whenever there is rain,” they sing, and my heart aches for Mom to witness her music written on their hearts.
I want Mom there, mid-tantrum, and also mid-dance. I want her to help my kids when I’m grumpy; I want her to calm me down so that I can be her kind of mother, playing pretend farm games with patience and delight. I want her to see the joyful moments, ones so pure with bliss that even I, who feel blind in my mothering, cannot fail to notice and revel in them.
* * *
When I wonder whether she can be with us all the time, I remember the night before Mom’s heart attack as I sat in our living room, rocking and burping baby Norah.
I heard a knock at the door to the stairs. “Can I come up?” Mom called. “I want to hold the baby.”
“Sure,” I told her. She made her way up the stairs, slow steps. I noticed again how thin her arms had gotten since she started dialysis. Thin and bruised. She lowered herself onto the couch and reached for baby Norah. Scott came over to say hi. We chatted for a minute.
The next morning she had her heart attack. The next morning I didn’t let Scott go see her. Needing to be right, I decided he could see Grandma that afternoon instead of right then.
I have cried about this moment. I did not listen to my small son, whose spirit knew that this was his last chance to say good-bye to his grandma.
But Mom also knew that she was leaving soon. When I had not planned on visiting that night, she came to us. I think if I did not have that memory of her holding Norah, hugging Scott one last time, my own failure to heed the Spirit the next day would hurt far more.
Do her angelic visits work the same way, I wonder? Is there a chance they heal my parenting blunders? Does she visit the daily messes as well as the occasional events?
I don’t know. Sometimes I feel a strength I can’t explain, a patience beyond my own, and I remember that when the Savior submitted, an angel came, strengthening Him. If this is so in my life, I like to imagine my mother-in-law as my angel. Her spirit is strong, freed from her body. When I lose my patience with my little ones, she comforts them. She sits beside me as I watch them dance, helping me open my eyes and see them clearly, for they are full of light. She whispers her love in our hopeful ears.