Three years ago, on a warm summer’s night, I burned my mother in law while a small crowd looked on with tearful smiles. Not many people have an opportunity to write a sentence like that in their lifetime so a bit of explanation may be in order. While I warrant these statements to be true, I confess nothing. Here’s the rest of the story.
I first met Sheila when I was sixteen years old. As my girlfriend’s mother, she was cordial enough in the beginning and maybe even a bit taken with me if I do say so myself. We shared a mutual fanaticism for Stephen King, Bob Dylan, Greenpeace and a few other miscellaneous commonalities that made for easy conversation in what’s normally an awkward relationship.
As the emotional connection with my future wife began to intensify, we quickly grew beyond girlfriend/boyfriend status and moved solidly into the realm of soul mates. Watching this transformation, Sheila’s motherly concerns naturally took over, but despite her good intentions, the ever increasing rules and restrictions only seemed like unfair hindrances to the passion of our teenage love and tensions quickly began to rise. This was a time before the Internet and, aside from our allotted one date night per week, our only connection was maintained through short lunches at school and twenty minutes on a phone that was actually wired to the wall so conversations were seldom as private as the deep secrets of our young love required.
At that age, injustice is a way of life and wisdom is simply another word seldom understood until you no longer have the energy to get into much trouble. As a parent now, I can certainly relate to being concerned about your child’s deepening infatuation at such a critical juncture, but when you’re sixteen, such issues are simply more evidence that your parents and the adult population in general, are incapable of ever understanding the complexities of your world.
Needless to say, diminishing our compulsion to be together at that stage of our relationship would have required an atom splitter as the attraction we felt for each other existed at a cellular level. We took to skipping school from time to time and spent our afternoons smoking and drinking coffee at the Omelette Shoppe or Arby’s, both close enough to Central High School to pop in for the “important” classes. When afternoons became insufficient, we resorted to sneaking out at night. With my parents being less restrictive, it was my future bride who was so often charged with the task of finding new and interesting ways to exit her home in the dark of night. Once the successful escape had been made, we’d steal away to the beach or one of the many fire trails that existed on the Old Mission Peninsula near her home and spend the night counting stars and whispering about the future.
At 18 and 19, we were married next to the Boardman River on the lawn of a home we were renting from family friends. Much to our parent’s mutual chagrin, we soon bought a motorcycle and ventured south to the Florida Keys to marvel at the ocean and a variety of creatures we’d never seen. We worked various odd jobs as gas station clerks, diner waitresses and midnight laundromat attendants before I met up with a middle aged carpet layer running from his most recent divorce and probably a few other things that we were unaware of.
Rick took us under his wing, offering assistance and unsolicited relationship advice which often seemed misplaced given his questionable marital history. He exploited my young back as a carpet layer’s apprentice, paid me in cash for working ten hour days in the unbearable heat and bought us a case of beer every Friday. Looking back, it was some of the best times we’ve ever had but a Florida winter is enough to sour anyone with a soul, so in the space of about two days we decided we’d had enough. We ramped the bike into the back of our newly acquired used pickup truck and drove straight through to Michigan, arriving in shorts as a gentle snow was falling.
We did a stint at the local college, started the area’s first internet service, surprised ourselves with a pregnancy and generally lived our early 20s with the enthusiasm only someone that age can realize and maintain. Things with Sheila improved greatly with the addition of a new grandson and a second one six years later made things even better. There were regular phone calls, holiday visits, dinners, shopping trips and the general sort of relationship most grandparents would hope to have with their family.
In her early forties, Sheila was diagnosed with MS but remained mobile and relatively active through her mid fifties. The slow progression from a functional person to someone with a full blown disability was well underway when she lost her second husband to heart failure. She was still able to walk with the assistance of a shopping cart at that time and returned from shopping at Kmart one afternoon to find her husband dead behind the wheel in the parking lot.
At home, short walks required planning so she could steady herself on a line of tables or chairs to get from one side of the room to the other. Canes eventually gave way to a walker which ultimately became a wheelchair. Driving was relegated to nieces or nephews when sufficient motivation could be applied and life for Sheila became a diminishing world consisting of the house she loved and the circle of those who stepped through her door.
As the disease took further hold within her brain, Sheila’s behavior and mental capacities began to deteriorate and an eventual legal guardianship was required although she fought us strenuously throughout the process. This all occurred while she was staying in our spare bedroom as it was no longer safe for her to remain on her own. I remember her legal counsel ringing our doorbell but refusing to have any conversation except to ask the way to Sheila’s room. It was an uncomfortable and unpleasant time for all so once the guardianship had been awarded we arranged for a live-in caregiver, allowing her to return home with some helpful supervision and assistance.
We’ll never know if it was the scarring within her brain or just the animosity she felt after the guardianship process but life after that point was filled with constant ranting phone calls and visitations were seldom more than perfunctory grocery deliveries interspersed with bouts of yelling. This continued for several months, but as Sheila’s health continued to decline at a greater pace than even the MS should have been able to muster, we knew that something more must be at work and we checked her in to a local hospital for an evaluation.
Unfortunately, there was not much they could tell us and arrangements were made for a short stay at a nursing home to hopefully get her condition stabilized. As we were driving in to pick her up and take her to the home, we received a call from her doctor informing us that they discovered Sheila had lung cancer when they gave her the standard x-ray before the transfer to another facility. This was stage IV and there was little to be done with the added complications of the MS.
Needless to say, we were floored by this news. We already knew that Sheila had a terminal condition. MS is certainly not a disease that one recovers from but it’s not a fast process by any means and everyone at least has time to get used to the situation and deal with it in their own capacity. Learning of inoperable stage IV cancer was like watching the Emperor’s thumb turn slowly downward at the end of a long and hard fought gladiator’s match. The judgment was instant and coldly efficient.
Our plan at that point was to continue with the temporary move to the nursing home so we could make the necessary arrangements and line up hospice care at Sheila’s home. We knew that she was terrified by the thought of dying away from the house she loved so much and time was of the essence. After 10 days at the nursing home, we had everything in place. A hospital bed now waited in the living room where her couch had once been. Twenty-four hour care had been arranged, hospice was on call as well as a supply of the liquid death known as morphine.
When we arrived to pick her up, Sheila had become so weakened that I had to carry her into the back seat of our car as the nursing home attendants cried and said a tearful goodbye knowing that the end was near. She laid with her head on my wife’s lap during the drive home, crying out “hurry” and “I don’t have long” as I sped out to the Peninsula.
I lifted her from the back seat and carried her to the wheelchair waiting inside the door like an old friend, her body weighed no more than a bag of groceries or a basket of laundry. Once Sheila was back inside her home, she perked up a bit and asked to be wheeled to the kitchen table. She had one last cigarette and asked for a sip of my full beer which I could never bring myself to finish. Maybe it was an irrational fear of catching her cancer or perhaps I was just no longer thirsty at that point but I’d like to tell myself that it was somehow a tribute to the spirits when I poured it on a tree outside.
Sheila died two days later. We received a call at 3 a.m. from the caregiver saying that the time was near and we raced out to the Peninsula from our home in Rapid City. We arrived well before dawn and sat with her through the morning. Sheila stirred at one point and uttered, “Oh, it’s you,” before drifting back into whatever sort of pre-death consciousness she had emerged from and never spoke again. I stepped onto the porch shortly after she passed away and saw an enormous crow perched atop a dead pine tree outside the door on that chilly October morning. It cawed once and flew out toward the open water.
In happier times, Sheila had always spoken about her dream to be put out to sea in a Viking funeral when her time eventually came. One evening during her stay at our house, she spoke to me on our deck and asked me to promise that I would do that for her. Looking back, I’m sure now that she knew more than she was letting on. Needless to say, I promised to do so without any thought of the logistics or what other family members might think.
I’m “handy” and a fairly able carpenter but certainly not a craftsman or anything resembling a builder of boats. Research began almost immediately in preparation for the planned memorial on the 3rd of July as we always had a family gathering to celebrate her birthday and chose that date to honor my wife’s mother and the other woman I’d also come to love over the last 25 years.
The boat was finished in the late spring and our thoughts turned toward the memorial preparations, eulogies, seating, food and the various realities of the minutia that exist within the land of the living. It was a perfect day and a beautiful ceremony. Sheila’s ashes rested in the boat on the sand along with boughs of fresh cedar, various paper memorabilia from her life and cards that those attending had written their last words upon.
The eulogies were timed to end at sunset and as the last rays spread across the horizon, my brother in law and I carried the boat into the water, flanked by my wife and her sister as LeAnn Rimes’ “Amazing Grace” played on the sound system. The boat was lit on fire and burned spectacularly. As the broomstick mast succumbed to the flames, Three Dog Night’s “Joy To The World,” one of Sheila’s favorite songs, echoed out across the water as the fire raged on.
The sight and experience was something that those in attendance will surely remember for the rest of their lives. There was a sense of pure satisfaction in knowing that we had completed this one final task for Sheila and despite the bitterness at the end, I’d like to think that she somehow realized how much she was honored and loved after witnessing our humble actions on her behalf.
Lo, there do I see my father.
Lo, there do I see my mother.
Lo, there do I see my sisters
and my brothers.
I see the line of my people
back to the beginning.
They do call to me to take my place
in the halls of Valhalla
where the brave may live forever.
Viking Funeral Prayer