She speaks to me in Spanish now, and there is no gracious way out of this predicament. I cannot respond to a language I don’t speak, and she can no longer find her English. She is blissfully unaware she is using the wrong language with me, so I pray, “Lord, make her choose a word, just one Spanish word I recognize, that I might reply appropriately.”
Is this what she does? Pray for a recognizable something—anything—when someone speaks to her, so she too can attempt a plausible response?
She is leaving us: Noemi, my mother-in-law.
I want to be her Ruth, but she has been so much more graceful in this than we, her children. We panic, prompt her, quiz her, remind her, correct her. We are frantic for her to remember, as if we can will a thing into being so. We want to keep her and have her, and desperate love spurs us to actions that are unbecoming and do not honor her. What would honor her is the patience, acceptance, and assurance we are wont to muster but can’t. She is leaving gracefully, but how can we be gracious in our being left?
I want to be a going away gift. But that requires not fighting what is happening to her, and how on earth is that done by a child with fierce love for her mother?
Surely God knows something of this and will show us the way into the unknown.
Her son, our pastor, says, “Turn with me to John chapter ten.” All ninety-eight pounds of her, a statuesque beauty, sit beside me. She flips pages and fiddles, trying not to need help.
I gently direct her pages to the book of John, this woman who learned the books of the Bible together with her ABCs as a girl. This woman, who has read her Bible cover to cover every year for the last fifty, can no longer find the gospel according to John.
I much prefer casting her Bible off her lap and shaking her back to herself like a cell phone in need of reorienting from landscape to portrait. Instead I gulp the cup of fear and heartbreak and insatiable desire to rescue her from her future. I swallow it all down, and dutifully find Evangelio según San Juan capítulo diez in the worn Santa Biblia on her small lap.
She smiles at me demurely then quickly averts her gaze. But I think I glimpsed the longing for home in her eyes just the same. I pat her hand in a paltry attempt to bolster her and whisper, “It’s fine.”
Her eyes meet mine again, and she sees in me the truth—that I lie. We both so much want it to be true; we both know it is not. She doesn’t say so for my sake, so I won’t say so for hers. And the words that don’t hang in the air between us are heavy anyway, the voice of her son, my husband, now preaching God’s word in the distance.
It is not fine. She can’t find John, but she can’t forget the truth of this. The irony stings. We squeeze each other’s hand with a last knowing glance, let go, and turn forward. Mother and daughter-in-law, sitting side by side, are left to our own devices, two brave faces turning together and alone into the unknown.
Cover photo by Anton Darius.