My mother-in-law died a week ago at 83 from complications of uterine cancer. I will go with Richard to Kansas for a memorial service in March — possibly March 17, our wedding anniversary.
This seems oddly fitting, because Dorothy Steffens died believing her only son had never married. I will meet Dorothy for the first time at the internment.
Obviously, there is a story behind this. Dorothy Steffens suffered from mental illness and dementia. She was, Richard said, alternately demanding, doting, and delusional during his childhood. Richard was the only son of a Chinese mother and her farming husband, so he got more of his share of the doting — even smothering — behavior. His sisters weren’t as favored.
Dorothy became a divisive character in any household she lived in, setting spouse against spouse with frightening accuracy. Her cognitive decline added to her emotional turbulence, complicated by Type 2 diabetes and poor self-care. Soon the sisters realized that the only way Dorothy could be cared for was to place her in a nursing home.
In the nursing home, Dorothy became fixated on a savior who would sweep her from the nursing home and take care of her forever. At one point she had targeted the doctor at the home. When Richard and I were planning our wedding, however, she had pegged her own son as her knight in shining armor.
Which is why, when Richard sent her a wedding invitation, Dorothy tried to break out of the nursing home to stop the upcoming wedding.
Richard’s sister Linda called Richard — “How could you send Mom a wedding invite?” Richard had assumed that he should give his mother another chance to be the mother he’d wanted; it hadn’t worked that time either. It was agreed that Richard would fly down to Texas and assure his mother that he had broken up with me.
Of course I had fantasies that I would meet his mother and that she would bless our marriage. On the other hand, I am pragmatic, so I sent Richard to Texas to break us up in the eyes of his mother.
I had never met Dorothy E. Steffens when she died. She never knew I had married her only son. From all accounts, she would have tried to break apart our marriage either before or after the fact, and she might well have succeeded.
Strangely, though, I think I understand her. Sometimes, a child grows up in desperation — perhaps during the Chinese-Japanese battles of WWII — and no amount of safety or security will be enough. Because there’s never enough love, never enough food, never enough reassurance, the child demands more and more. The child who struggles with mental illness loses bits and pieces of their safety to the disease and needs even more to cling onto, and it’s never there because we don’t understand the broken glass of their perception.