“The memory of the righteous is a blessing, but the name of the wicked will rot.” – Proverbs 10:7 (ESV)
“It shouldn’t have happened.” Those were my wife’s words on Sunday — the day she and her siblings, our nephew, and I said goodbye to their mother, his grandmother, my mother-in-law. “It shouldn’t have happened. But it did.”
Just the facts, ma’am
My mother-in-law, Carolyn, and stepfather-in-law, Jack, were in their car last Thursday afternoon, October 5, when a truck in the oncoming lane jackknifed and hit them head-on. Both of them survived the crash but were badly injured and were rushed to the nearest trauma center. Both were conscious when they arrived, by helicopter and ambulance, respectively. And each was asking how the other was — not about himself or herself. Family rushed to the ICU where they were in rooms next door to each other, to watch, to pray, to let them each know we were there.
Surgical rounds in a trauma ICU are frank. The trauma surgeon explains how the patient came by her injuries, and then lists them along with what they are doing already and what they plan to do next. My mother-in law’s condition had to stabilize before the surgeon could do anything else.
The next morning, Carolyn was stable, but too frail for surgery. At 3:00 Sunday morning, her heart stopped. Although the nurses were able to restore her pulse, it became clear her heart just couldn’t meet the demands her injuries placed on it, We were going to have to say goodbye. And at 7:22 that morning, after each of us there had a few moments alone with her, Carolyn Lakes entered the Larger life.
In loving memory
I’m telling you these things for reasons I hope to make clear, but I want this to be a tribute to the wonderful woman who was my mother-in-law. Comedians and musicians have long made fun of the fraught relationship between a husband and his wife’s mother. I never got those jokes. From the first time I met Carolyn, when Mrs. Booth and I were dating and already serious, she was always welcoming and gracious. And through the nearly 32 years of our marriage, she was loving and supportive and never a giver of unsolicited advice.
Twenty-one years ago, when her beloved husband of 41 years died of cancer, I began telling her, “Come to our house whenever you like. Stay as long as you want.” I meant it, and she knew it. But she had made me feel welcome first, so it was easy to return the favor.
It was around that time that I first expressed my gratitude to her for the godly upbringing she and my father-in-law gave to my wife, her brother, and her sisters. That has been the greatest and most lasting gift from this most loving, generous and faithful woman.
Let me count the ways
If you’ll indulge me, I want to recount some of the things I loved most about my mother-in-law.
- Devoted – Carolyn loved God with her heart, soul, mind, and strength. She served her husband, her family, and her church throughout her life. I expect I’ll always remember the bustling kitchen at holidays, the stacks of books in the family room, and the swarms of people who greeted her in the parish hall after Sunday worship. Her love for God gave her a contagious love for people — and they loved her back.
- Active – Music was a big part Carolyn’s life, and she passed that on to her children and grandchildren. She sang in the church choir for years, and joined a community chorus that performed in the Czech Republic. She remained curious and read and listened daily. It was always interesting to discuss politics or theology with her. She took her positions carefully and argued them with vigor, but never took herself too seriously.
- Joyous – There was never anyone in the family more pleased than my mother-in-law to see the whole family together — laughing, telling stories, and sharing a meal she had prepared. She doted on her grandchildren, and was so proud of each of them. Her gentle laugh was never at anyone’s expense — except for that one time when my sister-in-law’s husband came to visit with two right shoes. He gamely wore them to church and when he knelt at the altar rail, the soles of his feet looked like quotation marks. She laughed ’til she cried — we all did.
- Determined – After she became a widow, she didn’t retreat from life. Instead, she got in her car and drove from Florida to New England and points in between to visit family. She did this multiple times over the years.
- Brave – She had already beaten breast cancer, and when doctors diagnosed her with macular degeneration that threatened her sight, she agreed to try a new therapy that required getting injections into her eyeballs. i kid you not! This was one courageous woman. And always a lady.
- Open to new things – She met and married my stepfather-in-law, Jack, when she was eighty. As unlikely as it sounds, it was the most wonderful love story. It was beautiful the way they loved each other and cared for each other. She stunned her family by becoming a dog person! And she adapted her love of travel to Jack’s passion for RV camping. They went all over — including traveling up to our son’s wedding a few months ago.
I’ve written before on the topic “When You Marry a Mountain Girl, You Marry the Mountain.” In those posts I meant that a man can’t just marry a girl and act like she has no ties. The home she comes from is a big part of your future happiness, so pay attention to those family dynamics. If you believe as I do that marriage is a covenant, you’re pledging to stay together until death parts you. A quarrelsome wife and or a quarrelsome mother-in-law are two burdens you can avoid. And a good relationship with your wife’s family is a blessing and a delight. My wonderful mother-in-law Was proof that it can be done.
I am grateful for the woman Carolyn is, for the home my wife grew up in, for the example of Christian character she modeled before us, for the way she loved my father-in-law, for the way she loved Jack, and for the many ways she loved us. I am thankful we will know each other in eternity and celebrate and remember.
Jack remains in intensive care, where he is stable and improving. We have decided to postpone Carolyn’s funeral until Jack can attend. He and all of our family would appreciate your prayers.
After Carolyn passed away, Tom Petty’s song “Wildflowers” kept playing in my head. I can’t explain it, but I have found it comforting and hopeful to listen to it. Given that Tom Petty and my mother-in-law had Gainesville, Florida, in common, and that they died within a week of each other, it seems fitting that I offer the following:
So how about you? Whom in your life would you like to honor or remember? Add your comments below.