I have just one weekend with my husband-who-travels-a lot and his mother in San Diego, her home. To simplify things, I agree to just go along for the ride. You’ll see why.
We shall call him “Lars,” the man I married 25 years ago after being set up by my doctor (proud to be considered ‘good breeding stock.’) Let’s call his brother “Hans,” just for fun.
Oh and that doctor? She is their mother.
Lars and Hans take good care of their mother, though she is almost 93.
Here’s the poem your mind is trying to recall: (https://allpoetry.com/Disobedience)
She’s actually not quite 90 and hasn’t changed much since I met her in 1990.
Today Lars (a logistics guy in the army in a prior life) proposes a visit to the Cabrillo National Monument and its lighthouse. This, I note, will accomplish what I think are his three objectives. He wants to please not only his mother, but me and our family’s 11-year-old dog. The place is named after Juan Cabrillo who landed here in September, 1542. But things have changed a little in the intervening 476 years.
There’s genius in logistics.
Lars has been to the lighthouse before, and so has his mom. But mom doesn’t remember and I haven’t been at all. I navigate from the back seat at his request, i-phone in hand.
We find a parking spot, cross the street to the stairs and begin a slow ascent to the beacon that on November 15, 1855 began to guide ships, fishing boats, drug traffickers, you name it, into San Diego Bay.
I had been attentive, I thought, to the signage about pets as I guided my dog up the hill.
Not attentive enough. Just as our white-whiskered chocolate lab mix was leaving a large mark on the landscaping, a man in a fluorescent green vest approaches, clearly headed straight toward the woman at the end of the red leash: me.
Fortunately I have a thin plastic bag and as I stoop to scoop the poop, he advises me that sure enough, dogs are not allowed, m’aam.
I am not the more patient of the two in our marriage, so I am just fine with returning to the car, rolling down the windows and catching up on emails while hubby and mother-in-law see the sights. But Lars is quicker than me. Reasoning with the politeness I know to be genuine, he points out generously that I have never seen the lighthouse. I continue inching up the hill with my mother-in-law while Lars returns with the pooch.
I learn that the lighthouse, often obscured by fog and low clouds, was extinguished after 36 years and a new beacon constructed at the base of the hill.
My mother-in-law is in many ways quintessential to her role. Her sons can do no wrong, and although I was set up by her, our marriage has always in her mind been the best thing that could ever happen to me. I was expected to be grateful. And for most of those 25 years I have been. But now, I sense all those burdens have been lifted. She could simply enjoy the day, the company, the dog. She no longer needs to decide how I should feel.
I know I have enjoyed her kindness and support in many ways over the years but suddenly, that upside dominates our relationship. She smiles, she doesn’t ask difficult questions, she struggles to remember words and instead uses her hands, waving them about in mild frustration to describe ideas in the air … but somehow gets her thoughts across anyway. And those thoughts are never complex, her attitude is always upbeat, her outlook persistently optimistic.
Who says old age is not for sissies? It seems pretty delightful to me.
My mother-in-law stands in the graduation picture in a frame dominated by men. It’s Stanford Medical School’s class of 1952. Prim and erect, her lips are compressed in a forced and dutiful –but genuine–smile. That duty would be to treat patients in a rural community in northern California for nearly 50 years. And every other winter she would visit a remote Indian village on the sea of Cortez to treat the Seri Indians there while her husband du jour would go fishing.
So when we enter the museum next to the lighthouse it is with interest we both examine the display about the country’s first female lighthouse keeper.
We admire the view, acknowledge the quilts, study the lenses. Then we descend to the parking lot where my husband and her son waited with the dog. As I stand outside the busy women’s restroom listening for any call for help for what seems an hour, I text Lars to pull up out front. The doctor is pretty tired, although I suspect she works to conceal it.
After a picnic in a park where I hover over a dog that is expressly existentially prohibited, I watch some bulky but athletic young men wash a fire truck next door. Then we return the doctor to her assisted living quarters. Then we return to our hotel room.
I used to dread visits with my mother-in-law but this time I saw two beauties: My husband caring gently and gracefully for a person who is not in many ways present any more. And I saw a woman whose edges have worn down, whose good will has been purified, cleansed of the criticism she used to feel the need to carry. The intent of the doctor remains, just parts of the knowledge … and a rough edge … have been worn away.