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Reflections on a Big-Hearted and Generous Life

February 19, 2018
Phyllis at the beginning of 2018, days away from turning 97.

My mother-in-law Phyllis Stone, passed away on January 16, 2018. She had just celebrated her 97th birthday on January 5. On January 10 she caught the flu. She was hospitalized a couple days later with flu, pneumonia, and additional issues. She died peacefully on January 16 with Dick and me holding her hands. 

She was a strong person, mentally and physically. Dick and I have since joked that it took both the flu and pneumonia to take out Phyl. I thought she would make it to 100. (She comes from a long-lived line; her uncle lived past his 102nd birthday.)

It’s hard not to think about Phyl every day. For the past 38 years Dick and I have had weekend meals with them. For the past 25 years we have been actively involved in their health care, taking them for doctor’s visits (Phyl thought I was a better driver than her husband so she was calmer when I drove her); and ultimately helping them relocate to eldercare when they needed constant care. 

Since their move my days have been ruled by two things—finishing my work up in the mornings, and getting over to the nursing home before Bingo starts, so I can spend time with Phyl. If you missed that window, boy, she’d be happy to see you, but after a quick greeting she’d wave you off so she could concentrate.

It’s just another way Phyl had of helping us all keep our egos in check.

Phyllis (left) with her mother Harriet, and her younger sister Delores.

In the last few years the folks lived in their house Phyl became more and more dependent on her husband, but CR was too frail and blind to really help her.

Phyl, who was always a social person, always throwing block parties and large multi-family picnics, started sleeping 20 hours a day without the help and stimulation at home. But once in the nursing home she went to getting up 6 a.m. and lasting through the day past dinner. She’d go to every event and activity on offer. She would wheel herself into the administration office and ask what was going on. 

To many Phyl seemed brusque and bossy. She knew what she wanted, she wanted what she wanted when she wanted it, and she expected (in her later years) that you would be her arms and legs to get her bidding done. 

But if people thought that, what they missed is that Phyl like all true alphas, had already done the extrapolations and the examination of possibilities. She wanted things done and checked off her list to move forward in a no-nonsense way. 

It was a method of self-reliance she developed through the struggles in her own family; and also a method of trust that she built up with those closest to her. As she became more frail, this framework was a way to still have action in the world, because she was not a passive person. 

It was a great honor to be her lieutenant in her final years.

Phyllis as a young woman; she is sitting on the retaining wall along the Mississippi River (cliffs) at the University of Minnesota East Bank campus. The wall was a WPA project and this section (about 2 blocks from her family home) was removed around 1960 to put in the 94 Highway.

Phyllis was in fact one of the most aggressively alive people I’ve ever met. It didn’t matter if she was fighting for the health and welfare of her children (all three of her children experienced extreme medical emergencies during their lives, with Phyllis helping them through); or creating a home where everyone was welcome at any time; or taking care of her own parents in their declining years. Family mattered the most to Phyllis and once you were in the family you never left.

She was the pillar that everyone lent on for support.

Unconditional love, without sappiness. “Crap is crap,” she would say when you were messing up, but it was the action and not the actor she was upset with. 

I think that’s one of the things I respected most about Phyllis, she was christian without any of the fakery and judgement and evasions that lesser people used to get by. Charity, compassion, and grace were real actions in her life. They were not concepts to be weighed, debated, and applied only to the “worthy.”

Everyone in the family has different memories of her. Because Dick and I were always here we have special event memories, but also daily life memories. Too many memories to recount. So here are a few memories that speak to the supportive way she loved me.

When I was just out of graduate school and interested in doing some larger paintings she “hired” me to paint four paintings for a wall in the family room. Phyl paid for all the materials, including new brushes, so that I’d have supplies to work with when the project was over. I was not the only starving artist she helped through commissions in the almost four decades I knew her.

Phyl in 2016 making art with flower leaves and petals. I was always grateful that Phyllis started to make her own art when she moved to assisted living. She jumped into the creative stream so completely that she seemed to be in a trance as she worked.

Dick likes to hold on to things. And he’s messy. (We have work separate areas of the house because of this.) One day Phyl came over to chat about something. She walked up into Dick’s “area” and let him have it. Not in a rage-filled way, but in a logical, “Why have you allowed this to happen?” way. The next day I came home from work to find Phyllis and two of her friends sitting on chairs in the middle of the offending room, sorting things. 

“You were not put on this earth to clean up after my son,” she said.

In her later years, either at their house, or in the nursing home, almost every time I saw her she asked if Dick was treating me right. “Because if he isn’t I’ll kick him in the butt.” (Strong words from someone who didn’t believe in swearing.) Phyllis had a long history in the family of shaping people up. But I assured her that she didn’t have to worry about Dick.

Phyl worried because she and I both knew that I was married to a clone of her husband. Dick’s parents had great love and a long marriage, but there had also been great strains. She didn’t want that for anyone else. It was a frequent topic of conversation between us.

What I knew was that for all the similarities between father and son, almost all the rough edges and all of the pettiness had been eliminated from Dick by her actions and example. 

I also know that she understood that before she became ill. She wanted reassurance that what she’d tried to do had been successful. It was, and I always thanked her. And thanked her by showing up to reassure her.

It was easy to tell Phyl you loved her, it was easy to hear her tell you she loved you—it all came without strings.

Dick also learned about unconditional love from Phyl. That’s a great gift to give a daughter-in-law.

It used to be that I would get up in the morning and look at my work and figure out how to get it done so that I could get over to Phyl before bingo. 

Now when I get up in the morning I pause for a couple moments because I have to get my bearings. Because life is different now. (CR doesn’t play bingo so the schedule is a lot more flexible!)

I admit I’m a bit angry these days. Depending on the “authorities” you read, anger is just one of the steps to grief. I’m pissed because I really believed Phyl would go for 100 years. I know she loved life. She met everyday with a desire to make it a good day, and to ease the burdens of someone else’s day through a kind gesture or word. I was deeply involved in the art piece she was making of her life.

But I have more than anger, I have a realization.

The other day I was explaining to Dick what it feels like to me to lose Phyl. He knows my whole history. He knows that I love him. He knows I have an argumentative relationship with “The Universe.”

I turned to him and said, “It wasn’t until Phyl died that I saw it clearly. You’re great Dick. But she was supportive in a way you could never be. You weren’t my gift. Phyl was my gift, free with purchase.” 

And we both laughed.

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    • Roxane Kampa
    • February 19, 2018
    Reply

    I think this is the most beautiful thing I have ever read. Thank you for sharing your heart with us and giving us a glimpse of this woman who meant so much to you. I am sorry for your loss and your grief, but incredibly grateful that your life was touched in such a beautiful and powerful way by Phyl.

    1. Reply

      Thanks for your very kind words Roxane. I know my friendship with Phyl was one of the great relationships of my life and I get to carry that forward with me. On the bad days I just follow her lead.

    • Beverlee
    • February 19, 2018
    Reply

    What a wonderful remembrance of a remarkable woman. Thank you for letting us know her a little better. What a gap her death leaves for you, and how lucky you were to be in her life. I’m so sorry for your loss.

    1. Reply

      Thanks so much Beverlee. I am lucky, and it makes it a little easier. Thanks for stopping in.

    • Diane
    • February 19, 2018
    Reply

    Beautiful. We all knew and loved her through your reporting all these years. So sorry there is now a hole in your life.

    1. Reply

      I’m glad that Phyl had fans through the blog. It always made her happy to see that people enjoyed the sketches. She enjoyed them so much. We are hanging in there and there are more good moments than bad. Thanks for the kind words.

    • zeke browning
    • February 19, 2018
    Reply

    This is beautifully written, Roz. What an amazing woman Phyllis was! And I loved that you realized that she was your gift, “free with purchase.” I also smiled the minute I opened this post because I “knew” the picture was Phyllis because of all of your wonderful sketches of her. You’ll get over being pissed at being cheated and then will be able to not be sad because it’s over, but to smile because it happened.

    1. Reply

      Thank you Zeke for your kind words and for understanding what Phyl meant to me. I have good moments when I’m not pissed. In this family we start the smiling and laughing early, right at the deathbed, as Phyl taught me! So at least I’m doing OK in that respect. I was just talking with Dick today about how Phyl taught me to face death.

    • Paul
    • February 19, 2018
    Reply

    A moving tribute Roz. It’s rare to find a kindred spirit, let alone in a mother-in-law :o). Like others who have followed your Blog for years, I recognized Phyllis’s photos from your wonderful drawings of her. Those closest to us never really leave, their spirit lives on in us and reveals itself in surprising ways in the fulness of time. Take care.

    1. Reply

      Thank you Paul for your kind words, I do believe that Phyl is with me. So much has happened since her death that I haven’t been able to share with people because of the tech problems. I am looking forward.

    • Carmel Campbell
    • February 19, 2018
    Reply

    A beautiful tribute!

    1. Reply

      Thanks for taking time to stop by. Thanks for your kind words.

    • Tina Koyama
    • February 19, 2018
    Reply

    I’m so sorry, Roz (and Dick, too). What a beautiful person she was — and free with purchase, too. It doesn’t get any better.

    – Tina

    1. Reply

      Thank you Tina, and I will tell Dick. It really could not have been any better. I hear and see horror stories with mother-in-laws all the time. Dick said Phyl and I would just be doing our thing together, thinking in concert, while other stuff was going on. He thought it was fun and funny to watch.

    • Sophie Pfeiffer
    • February 20, 2018
    Reply

    Thank you for putting together this wonderful tribute Roz. There is such an adjustment required after the years of elder care come to an end. I think that Phyl would agree that she lucked out in scoring you as a daughter in law (Good work Dick). I hope that you are both doing well.

    1. Reply

      Thank you Sophie for your kind words. Since we had such an open relationship I do know Phyl felt lucky to have me. Knowing how she felt is part of the good part of having no regrets and no what ifs. Dick is still under the weather (he caught the flu from Phyl and that turned into a sinus infection) but is coming out of it. I think it will be easier for him when he’s 100 percent again. But I don’t know if he’ll ever get over the loss of the unconditional love. I have jokingly told him I can’t take that on! (You know me.) I get less angry every day. It helps to have CR to focus on.

    • Gail Hight
    • February 20, 2018
    Reply

    Roz, what a loving tribute to Phyl. I have followed your blog for years (maybe never commented) but especially appreciated when you shared your experiences with aging parents, since I was in the same boat. My own mother just passed on December 29, and my father, exactly 2 years before her, so the grief is still very raw. My heart goes out to you and Dick for your loss. Our relationships with aging parents are so multi-layered, complex, beautiful and hopefully full of love (that was true for me). May our memories live on and do take care of yourself.

    1. Reply

      Thanks Gail for you kind words. I am sorry to hear about the passing of your parents. I know that you understand what is going on, and I feel for you as well. I think you have said it correctly—”multi-layered, complex, beautiful, and full of love.” There are things that happen which people not involved with eldercare don’t understand. I feel very honored to have gone on this journey with them. Hang in there!

    • Cousin Robin
    • February 20, 2018
    Reply

    Roz you have captured so beautifullyand so succinctly our beloved Phyllis. She celebrated me and supported me over my entire life, in a way that was so uniquely her. that included calling almost daily in her later years just to say, “I love you!” It is so true, “Phyl was my gift, free with purchase.” Thank you so much for capturing her essence so eloquently and thank you for being there with her and for her for so many years. You were her gift and her blessing.

    1. Reply

      Robin I’m so glad you were able to keep up your long-distance connection with Phyl. She always enjoyed seeing you. She had such a big heart and loved all her nieces and nephews and their partners and wanted so much for all of them. She was able to care without care taking! We have so many stories to share going forward in life that will keep her always with us.

  1. Reply

    Roz,
    What a lovely tribute. I am so sorry for your loss. Phyl sounds like a beautiful soul and you and Dick were truly blessed to have her in your lives.

    1. Reply

      Thanks so much Evie for your kind words. Dick and I appreciate it.

    • Dena Limpede
    • February 20, 2018
    Reply

    Absolutely beautiful tribute. I’m sorry for you and your family’s loss.

    1. Reply

      Thank you so much Dena for your kind words and thoughts.

    • Krista
    • February 20, 2018
    Reply

    What a lovely telling about your mom in law and your mutual kindnesses and honesty with each other. I enjoy your writing with all the nuances and pitfalls of a project sorted out in advance. Phyl must have had great comfort with you taking care of things the way she wanted them done.

    1. Reply

      Phyl took great pains to make sure I knew how she felt about me (because of the way she was and the things we both dealt with) so I know she did take comfort and I think it’s probably the best thing I’ve done in my life. It’s definitely the most learning I’ve ever done. I’m glad you enjoyed reading this and I appreciate your kind thoughts. I am going forward with Phyl still with me.

    • J
    • February 21, 2018
    Reply

    Thinking of you, Dick, and all who loved this obviously amazing woman. This is a lovely tribute to her.

    1. Reply

      Thank you for your kind words and thoughts.

    • Christine K
    • February 23, 2018
    Reply

    I knew it wouldn’t be long before I was reading this post but am still saddened by this news. Please accept my heartfelt condolences to you, Dick and, of course, CR. If you’re anything like me, after the initial grieving time has passed and life is starting to get back to normal, something will come up in your day and your first thought will be “I must tell Phyl about this”. Those instances used to make me sad because I couldn’t tell my Mom anymore or my sister or my mother in law but now I think of them as a wonderful opportunity for these amazing women to come into my life again.

    1. Reply

      Thanks Christine, yes we were fortunate to have Phyl for 97 years. (I got 38 of those.) While we all knew it was coming at some point as death does come to us all it was quite a shock that it happened within the space of a week after she’d been in relatively good condition. I’m already waking up and wanting to tell Phyl stuff as you say. We are having a little bit of a laugh about it because of the things I want to tell her; and then we are having a laugh. Like you I agree that we have these moments because we did have wonderful women in our lives. I’m so glad that you had your mother and sister to help you build a strong life!

    • Eleanor
    • February 23, 2018
    Reply

    Dear Roz, thank you for sharing Phyl in life and passing. You are one awesome Daughter-in-law! Condolences to you, Dick and CR.

    Ps I got this post 2/23/18 3am . Hope the technical stuff is ironing out.
    Love and Hope, Eleanor

    1. Reply

      Thanks so much Eleanor for your kind words. And for the p.s. on the notifications!

    • Sheryl C
    • February 24, 2018
    Reply

    Phyllis sounds like my kind of person! I’m sorry for your loss; I’m happy you had her in your life for so long, you and Dick both. Prayers for all who grieve her passing.

    1. Reply

      Thanks so much Sheryl!

  2. Reply

    Sorry to hear of Phyl’s passing, you were a much loved daughter I have no doubt about that. I’ll miss your stories about her and her coloring books and art work, I do hope when I’m in need of living in such a place, that I’ll still have a crayon to color with too. Peace to Dick and all your family.

    1. Reply

      Thanks Elaine, I appreciate your kind thoughts. Here’s hoping we all have crayons, though I wouldn’t mind it if someone brought me some nice dual tipped Tombows like the ones I would bring for Phyl.

    • Jude
    • February 26, 2018
    Reply

    Roz I’m so sorry about Phyl. I have been envious of your good relationship with your in laws. Phyl was a wonderful person, it’s so hard when people die, but we are lucky to have had them in our lives. I have to mention that I got several recent notifications that you had posted a new blog entry, but didn’t get one for this post or the one about your end of the year assessment of you productivity. If I remember to look I feedly I do see them there. I will sign up again for notifications.

    1. Reply

      Thanks Jude for your kind thoughts. I’m glad you could meet Phyl through the blog. I don’t know why you started to get notifications again and then they stopped. The mail program is a total mystery to me. Please just check back once a week and you’ll find something new.

    • Cherry clark
    • February 27, 2018
    Reply

    It’s a very precious thing to be able to help someone you love, that loves you, when they can no longer help themselves. I am so sorry to hear about Phyl she sounds so wonderful.
    sharing your elder care stories have been a great comfort and support to me with my own situation and I thank you very much for that.
    I am sending you dick and cr much love and peace

    1. Reply

      Cherry, thanks for your kind words, and I’m glad the eldercare posts have helped you. I think we have to constantly remember we aren’t alone in this. I was able to get this far with help from local friends who had parents just that much older that they have already broken a path. It helps.

  3. Reply

    Hi Roz,
    I absolutely love that you shared these stories about “Phyl”. It warms my heart to read how you two exchanged love and art and time together. I love how you and Dick got a good laugh about Phyl being your gift, free with purchase. Laughter is healing. May you continue to allow yourself to grieve this great loss in a a way that soothes and heals you. I am thinking of you and Dick.
    Sending you peace and love,
    Briana

    1. Reply

      Thanks so much Briana, I appreciate your good wishes and also the support your friendship has given me over the years.

    • Denny
    • August 11, 2018
    Reply

    Very well “said.” A great tribute to a woman who meant a lot to you. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Reply

      Thanks so much Denny for your kind comment. Phyl has been much in my mind this past week as Thursday we had her memorial service and I gave one of the remembrances/eulogies. (I wrote about unconditional love and how Phyl was an engine of unconditional love.) It was great to get together with family and friends who loved her. She touched so many lives.

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