I never knew what to call my mother-in-law. Mom was out of the question; “Marge” reminded me of The Simpsons; and Margery was reserved for my father-in-law. I used to wait to naturally break into a conversation or catch her eye so I could start talking without having to decide on a name.
My husband, Carson, had a brother Matt who struggled with schizophrenia for years. Tragically, he committed suicide nine months after the birth of our son, Jacob. Somewhere in her fractured grieving, Margie began to identify Jacob with her dead son. As he grew, their frustration with our discipline methods increased. In some strange way, his parents felt we were injuring Matt by disciplining Jacob. Because they attributed our parenting decisions to me, we strategized that Carson would be the exclusive disciplinarian when we were together. Nothing helped, though.
Fast forward. Jacob was eight and we visited Nana and Papa’s winter home in Ajo, Arizona. During breakfast, I took Jacob aside in the adjoining room to talk about some misbehavior. Returning to the table, I encountered silence. Later that day, Carson’s mom broke, and she screamed, she accused, she raged. As she railed, I heard the Lord tell me, “Don’t come to your own defense.” At the same time, I grew very worried how our interactions impacted Jacob and our daughter Bethany, who were sitting in the bedroom of the trailer. An hour after she slammed her way out, Carson and I returned from a walk in the desert to see an ambulance in front of the house.
That final conversation marked the last time I saw Carson’s mom for years. The ambulance rushed her to the hospital in Phoenix after she suffered a heart attack. As we waited at a park in the city, Carson’s dad arrived. I asked if I could go to the hospital to see her. He said no. “Please don’t feel bad. We’re only letting family in.” Ouch.
While my own father, a physician, assured me nothing I had done could have caused the heart attack, this medical fact did nothing to change what my in-laws believed.
“Wendy is just a rough road for us.”
“She is no longer welcome in our home”
“We will never eat a meal with her again.”
These were the pronouncements from my mother-in-law after years of struggle in our relationship.
How could I process rejection like this? It would have been easier if I had anticipated it. Instead, Carson’s mom, the mother of three boys, had been delighted to have a girl in the family. She sent me make-up, perfume, and other “fun girl things” because she had never had the chance to buy them for someone else before.
I went to the Lord with little hope. How could He possibly bring healing? Could I heal? Would she ever be willing? As I cried out to Him, He clearly told me, “I was able to reconcile the entire world to Myself. It is a little thing for Me to reconcile two people.”
And so, the years progressed. But years are made of moments and in those moments, I had choices to make about things both spiritual and mundane.
The spiritual: how do I pray? A key to this answer came by an unlikely path. I had to call her my enemy. Instead of whitewashing over her behavior or stuffing my own pain, by acknowledging her as my enemy (or at least someone acting like an enemy), I had clear directions. “Love your enemy. Pray for those who mistreat you.” I knew that prayers such as “Jesus, help her to stop hurting me” or “Lord, change her mind” wouldn’t cut to our hearts. So I asked Him, “Teach me how to pray.”
The answer was boringly simple: “Pray real blessings.” I prayed for years very simple things:
“Jesus, help Carson’s mom to have a good drive to work. I know how much she hates the traffic.
” “Lord, I know how much she loves her garden, so help her find a special flower today that brings her joy.”
To be honest, I can’t remember most of the prayers, but I always tried to think about what could make her day.
For years, nothing changed. We would fly into Seattle with the kids, meet Carson’s parents in the airport, and watch them leave for a week-long visit to the island. My friends asked me how I could be sure Nana and Papa weren’t somehow turning Jacob and Bethany against me. I couldn’t.
Those were the days of Survivor’s surging popularity, so I used to joke that I had been voted off the island.
Carson didn’t see the humor and asked me to stop. I did. It was easy to honor him in that because he had chosen me. When his parents had made their pronouncement about me, he told them that we would not keep the kids from them, but if they didn’t want to see me, neither would they see him. That was a huge sacrifice on his part, especially since his dad had been his hero. Jesus tells us that death precedes life. A seed must be buried in the ground and die before new life, abundant life, can spring forth.(John 12:24) I believe that Carson’s sacrifice of his relationship with his parents was the seed that died in the ground to yield the fruit of reconciliation.
How do you know when you have been healed? Physical healing can be instantaneous. A relationship is a tricky thing and impossible to track. Although I had known our relationship had progressed from disdain to tolerance, a specific moment brought the gift of reconciliation to light.
Carson’s dad lay dying at home. As a final gift to him, Carson’s mom had created a story of his life. She intended to show it to him and then send copies to family after his death. When she realized the emotional difficulty of getting the copies made, she came to me, “I need someone to be with me while I do this. Would you come?”
She had chosen me!
Jesus says He has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that the Father “reconciled us to himself through Christ .. not counting people’s sins against them” (2 Cor. 5:18). He explains how this ministry arises out of being a new person – a new creation. Old things pass away and something new is born. Reconciliation really is a ministry, you know. As in any ministry, the process takes work. It takes time. There was little to no visible fruit in our reconciliation process, but God was working. He always is. Twenty years later, with my own mother suffering from increasing dementia, I finally decided what to call Marge/Margie. I just call her “Mom.”