This is not Saturday. I realize that. It is Thursday. I had intended to write this and send it out on Saturday morning and if you get this on Saturday, know that the writing, editing, and crying consumed me for long enough to have this arrive in your inbox more or less on time. If you get it before Saturday and insist on waiting until Saturday to read it, you will be perfectly within your rights. I am not Douglas Adams; I do not misname my creations with deliberateness.(1)
Most of you who are reading these Musings know that my father-in-law, Jabez Jackson MacLaughlin, died yesterday, 05 November 2014. I would like to share the story of my relationship with Jay by way of my own private but publicized eulogy for him. I plan to attend his service but Jay had an aversion to funeral proceedings which included family members popping up and down to moan over the departed. He found it tacky. However, he liked my blog, and often read it, so I think I am safe in telling this story, here, today, in my way.
I first met Jay in the summer of 2009 when his son, James, and I started dating. Jay shocked me with his irascible nature and the somewhat dated views which he held and freely expressed. But he made a killer flan and always served a special, non-red-meat entree for me when Jim and I came to his house for dinner.
In the early years of my relationship with Jim, I struggled to get my footing with his father. I once had a complete and total meltdown in his kitchen when he scolded me for stirring caramel and causing it to crystallize. His daughter, Virginia, placed her hand on my arm and counseled me to "shake it off". But shaking off the scoldings of the men in the generation above me does not come easily to me. It's no secret that my father, rest his soul, ruled our house with a leather belt, an abusive manner, and a volume level that would scare the paint off an old stairwell. Though I got the least of his wrath, being sickly and something of his favorite, still, I suffered enough of it and heard it all. I came to middle-age with a tendency to shiver and retreat when faced with an angry man.
Over the next three years, Jay and I fenced our way to an ability to tolerate, if not like each other. And then, as fate sometimes dictates, something arose to bind us inexorably to one another. His beloved wife Joanna became ill, and Jay and I, along with his children, became her care-givers. In the seven months between the onset of her last illness and her death, Jay and I became fast friends. I grew to love him, to listen to him, and to respect him. Over that year, I found a new way of understanding Jay. He never raised his voice to me though we did not always agree with one another. He treated me in that "old-fashioned" way that men of his era treat women, and as time passed, I no longer saw his proclivity to pay my way and hold doors for me as a sign that he thought me less significant due to my gender. In fact, it meant quite the opposite, and I learned that from him.
Jay received his diagnosis of cancer in June of this year. I found this development unsurprising. Joanna died on 08 October 2013 and he longed for her presence with an intensity that rendered me breathless. I felt he wanted to go to her, as she was clearly unable to return to him at least in any largely satisfying sense. And so, when he took me to lunch and talked about his cancer, and his inclination not to undergo chemotherapy, I reached the conclusion that he had no objection to death even if he hoped not to suffer in the dying.
Still, speaking strictly for myself, I did not want to lose my favorite curmudgeon. I loved him. I looked to him as a father and felt honored that Jim and Virginia willingly tolerated my doing so. We had lunch and dinner outings, explored the Internet, and had our own personal happy hours. He called me several times a day in the year after his wife died. He would call to check on me, to talk about a future dinner date, to share some idea that he did not want to forget, or just to hear my voice. By the end of his life, he had taken to calling me sometimes six or more times each day and I would stop nearly any pursuit (as long as there was not a judge involved) to take his calls.
As the fall progressed, I found myself increasingly fearful that he would let himself slip away long before the year that he had been given. I found myself bargaining with him to prolong his life. The biggest pay-off would be the running of the 90-day exclusion period for his Long Term Disability policy. Jay liked nothing so much as the thought of sticking it to that company and the mere mention of that potential caused him to salivate. "Oh yes," he would say. "Got to get my money's worth for that policy." I'd cast my nervous eye on him and wonder if he meant what he said. He held his body in a still, silent way which suggested otherwise. But I chose to believe him. I had no recourse: To concede his impeding demise would cause me to lose my composure, and Jay hated to see me cry.
By September, no one believed Jay should continue to live at home alone, so off to a respite center for evaluation he went. On one of his five nights there, I brought a fancy Happy Hour kit, assembled by a clerk at the Plaza's Better Cheddar. Jay loved Happy Hour. "It's five o'clock," he would say; and any whose attendance had been summoned had better be present or the drinks would be poured in their absence and weak upon arrival.
I brought smoked salmon, and slices of expensive hard salami; fat ripe blackberries; good crackers; and a bottle of wine. His cousin Anne Jones arrived with her service dog, Katie, and a box of chocolates. We laid out the spread on the hospital bedside table and Jay ate the entire package of salmon and most of the salami. He drank the whole bottle of wine himself, save the half-inch that he allocated to me, allowing me to pretend that I drink without actually having to do so. Anne Jones called Katie to hop on the bed and Jay placed one spotted, worn hand on her head and smiled, with absolute tenderness.
Jay moved into assisted living at Brighton Gardens at the end of that week. We talked. He told me that he wanted to die at home and hoped that he could do so. He planned to use the sojourn in BG to "get strong" and move back to the house that he and Joanna had shared for nearly two decades. I indulged that dream. As far as I was concerned, I would fetch him back to his house in my car and stay 24/7 if that would give him an easy death.
But his decline continued. I'd tell him, "You can't die yet, Jay; we've got 60 more days til we can stick it to the insurance company," and he'd reply, "Don't worry about that! I'm getting their money!"
In mid-October, I asked Jay if anyone had arranged for him to vote.
Now, the mere inquiry should cause your eyebrows to shoot skyward. I am by way of being a yellow-dog Democrat, Missouri-born and bred, daughter of a union organizer. I've actually been accused of being a Socialist, and but for the sheer unworkability of the philosophy, I find it appealing. Jabez J. MacLaughlin, on the other hand, was a life-long Republican who crossed party lines once to his deep regret and would never do so again. He broadcast that fact publicly and firmly, even vehemently, though never disrespectfully at least not in conversation with me.
But Jay was my father-in-law and I loved him dearly. I knew that he had taken a strong dislike to the candidate running against Senator Pat Roberts in Kansas; and that he scorned the process by which he believed the race came to be narrowed to two, with the withdrawal of the weak Democrat candidate for pretensive reasons and the resultant strengthening of the chances of the Independent.
So I told him that I would handle his application for an absentee ballot, but on one condition: That he promised not to die before the election. You see, I saw the look of death begin to gather round his eyes a month before he passed, and I longed to stave off the certain surrender as long as possible, because I am both greedy and shameless. I did not want to lose him.
I don't think Jay's zest for life prompted his to promise to live until November 4th. He yearned to be with Joanna, whom he knew waited for him. I often visited her resting place and told him of my visits, showing him pictures of the flowers which I brought. "Tell her that I will see her soon," he'd instruct me. And I did. Every time.
No, Jay strove to endure because he wanted to vote against Senator Roberts' opponent by voting for Roberts.
I filed his application and the election board mailed the ballot. But it didn't come. On October 23rd, at my request, they mailed a second one. It still didn't come.
On the morning of Monday, November 3rd, Jay called me. We had discussed his voting in each of my visits the prior week, and I assured him that he would vote if I had to put him on a stretcher and push him to his polling place. But he grew weaker and I feared that voting in person would be hopeless. Had we thought, we could have changed his address to the facility, but that might have hastened his demise by destroying the charade which he liked to maintain that he would return home one day to die in his own bed. So the absentee ballot looked like the only option, with the potential for its receipt dwindling.
In that Monday morning call, Jay said, in a craggy voice which showed the gathering weakness, "I don't suppose there's much chance of my voting now, is there, honey? I'm getting weaker." My heart clenched and my stomach turned but I kept that out of my voice and said: "I will get you a ballot if I have to walk to Olathe myself and bully someone into giving it to me. So hold on, Jabez J. MacLaughlin. You promised me." And my favorite curmudgeon replied: "I'll try, honey; but hurry."
I placed a call to Olathe and talked to my contact there. She passed me to a supervisor who passed me to someone else. I explained what had happened and Jay's situation and she said that I should come ahead and she would get things started. I got on the highway, weak eyes and all, and drove like the wind, following the directions which the lady had given me. I arrived at the Election Board and discovered a line of early voters which extended the length of the building. I told one of them why I was there and the line parted. Like Moses, I crossed the Red Sea.
At the counter, I told the woman that I needed to speak with Cheryl. She instantly replied, "Are you the lady with the dying father-in-law?" and I burst into tears held back since Westport. I did not need to answer.
Twenty minutes later, I had been certified as Jay's Election Assistant and slid back behind the wheel of my car, sparing only a few moments to fear getting stopped for my long-expired plates. I leaned my head on the steering wheel and remembered my mother's death in 1985 when, with expired plates, I drove from my cousin Theresa's house to my parents' house at 7:00 a.m. to see my mother's dead body, passing a police officer going 50 in a 35 with four months' gone tags. He stopped me but gave me a warning when I told him the nature of my errand. I prayed for such leniency on I-435 and took off.
At my father-in-law's bedside, I completed the forms for his voting process: my pledge, his designation of me, a copy of his driver's license. Then we started the ballot completion, with Jay too weak to fill in the black circles and me, the Democrat from St. Louis, doing it for him. With my help, he voted for Mr. Roberts and a score of other Republicans, and cast a vote against a couple of taxes and a judge with liberal tendencies which he described in a spat-out sentence which I will not here repeat. I take some credit for reminding him of that judge being on the ballot, for he had already said, in a fading voice, that he did not know or care about any of the judges.
Jay took the pen in his hand to sign his name to the ballot, and I steadied both page and pen. And when he had done, he laid back against his pillows and told me: "When Senator Roberts wins by one vote, I want you to call him and tell him that it was my vote, and that I voted for him in spite of himself." And then he closed his eyes, his meager allotment of energy for the day spent.
I took the ballot to Olathe and return to his room. I spent several more hours with him, just he and I. And the next day, Election Day, I abandoned my Democratic Party Certified Poll Challenger duties after only two hours to go and sit by his side until his son could arrive. He held my hand. He told me that he knew I loved him. I laid my head on his arm and wept; and he told me not to cry. He hated it when I cried.
By 1:30 on Tuesday, November 4th, 2014, Jay had slipped into a kind of sleep from which he would not emerge. His son and I sat by his bedside for that day and through the night. I kept my hand on his heart while he slept. And once again, the irony rose thick and full: I watched the election returns with Jim on Fox News, and injected my voice with enthusiasm as I kept my favorite curmudgeon apprised of the results. And when the tables turned, and the senate went red, I took his hand in mine and told him, "You did it, Jay; Senator Roberts won; and your party has taken the Senate." And he smiled at me. I swear on my mother's grave: The news of the election results drew a smile from my favorite curmudgeon, as he lay in a sleep that would carry him to his Joanna's arms.
Forty-eight hours nearly to the moment from when he performed his last act, signing his name to that ballot, Jabez Jackson MacLaughlin slipped from us. His wife's love filled the room. One of his children held each hand. His death came easy. The deaths of good people should always be easy.
This morning, I crafted a letter to Pat Roberts. I told him a sanitized version of Jay's voting for him -- I pulled no punches about how Jay felt about him but left out the bits about my tears. I gave him Jay's message, and one of my own. I charged him with the responsibility of making Jay's endurance worthwhile. I asked him to do his duty, in honor to those who entrusted it to him,including and most especially my favorite curmudgeon..
Jay gave me something that I thought I would never have. He gave me the relationship of a father to a daughter. He loved me. He cherished me. He taught me, by example and by word; by action and by the smallest most meaningful gestures: The slight wave of his hand; the tilt of his eyes; the set of his jaw. That his son married me and gave me the most precious gift of being Jay's daughter-in-law endears him to me far beyond any love that I feel for my husband, far beyond any strain that our marriage has had, far beyond the cracks which might never be repaired. On the night that Jay died, I said that my words about Jay were mixed with the salt of a thousand unshed tears. And so they are: and so they shall stay, when the tears have fallen and dried; when the handkerchiefs have been re-washed; when the calendar's pages have fallen and withered.
When I go to visit them in their resting place --- Jabez and his Joanna -- I will place the roses on their headstones, and I will touch, briefly, their names engraved in the stone. And I will know, as surely as I know the enduring nature of their love, that I will never feel anything but gratitude for my curmudgeon and his beautiful bride. At the same time, though, I will never overcome the hole in my life where Jay once was, beside the hole that was once Joanna. A gossamer sheen might sweep itself over the rending. I can hope for little else.
But I will hold my head at the tilt which he taught me: Chin up; eyes bright; and smiling. For my tears hurt him; and he has suffered enough. His was a noble life though in many senses, a humble one. He raised two children and provided for them in a confident manner. He spent the last twenty years of his life traveling, and cooking, and caring for his Joanna. And me. He cared for me. Any goodness that still blooms in me, abides in part because of his tender nurturing of my spirit. And so, I bid farewell to my favorite curmudgeon. I will miss you. We never got to Lourdes, as we planned; but by God, we voted. We voted. And that's something of which we can both be proud.
(1) For those who do not catch this reference -- Douglas Adams wrote "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", the "increasingly misnamed trilogy" which had five books.