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.
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 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.
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.