When I grow up, I want to be my sister-in-law. It’s true that I am 53 but she has a few years on me. I am married to one of her husband’s brothers who’s 18 months older than him. Both husbands have a much younger brother who is actually my age. We are all mixed up in this way, which may be part of the reason I think I am still growing up.
In addition to her husband, my sister-in-law has seven children. First, though, she went to law school so that she would be prepared to raise so many little gifts from God. Then, she home-schooled some of them, here and there, and now she teaches school in a large city. Privately, she schools me.
I just spent three slow summer days with her. We were surrounded by whispering aspens and loud children, hers and mine and some others – mostly preteens and teens. This type of child does not need lap time or diapers changed or tears dried. They also require an extraordinary amount of juice and turkey sandwiches and popsicles and yogurt and donuts and peanut butter. They must be told repeatedly to change clothes, bathe and brush teeth. In the steady stream of fixing snacks, making meals and general nagging, I was blessed by time with this woman God gave me through marriage.
She is miraculously calm, like a deeply tranquil turquoise sea which cannot be bothered with wind, wave or weather. This is why I want to be like her. She does not break her tender gaze into my eyes and peaceful statement of opinion just because six largish boys run through the kitchen screaming, “Get the guns and water!” or our mother-in-law appears in the doorway urgently needing to know, “What and when is dinner, girls?”
“And so,” she peacefully continues her story, “we spent time together praying that she might recover from her breast cancer and promising that we would not bake the poor dear any more chocolate chip cookies. Isn’t it something how much we like to bake cookies for sick people?”
“Mmmm,” I mumbled, chewing away on my sister-in-law’s fresh batch of butterscotch sugar cookies. “Mmmm,” I repeated, pointing a piece of the cookie at her. “I know just what you mean. It’s either cookies or pasta, isn’t it?”
“Why do we cook so much for the sad and the sick and the lonely?” I wondered as I rushed to my mother-in-law and said, “Spaghetti, Mom. We’re doing spaghetti on deck for dinner at 6:00 pm,” then, dashing out the back door to determine whether the guns or dearth of hygiene had yet injured anyone.
I am too intense, I realized, even as I shouted, “Helmets, boys! Helmets on those bikes! Don’t ride with the guns in your hands! Don’t shoot the neighbors’ cars! Don’t shoot each other! Drink the water. Have you each been drinking that water? Liam, that bike’s too small for you. Get off of it. No, you may not come in and play Warriors Without Limits. No, it’s not about to rain – but if it does, you will stay outside and I’ll throw you toothbrushes and shampoo. Yes, dinner is at 6:00, spaghetti on the deck.” I double-checked the cloud cover, intending to retrieve the computer I tossed that morning into the backyard before rain might ruin it.
I forgot to breathe between sentences and started feeling dizzy, gazing into the sky, suddenly confused.
“You are too intense,” my boss Peter said to me decades ago.
“Intense, intense?” I demanded.
“Yes, Marjorie, we all find you a tad intense. You need to relax and let things flow a bit more easily,” he added, smiling weakly, as I whipped out a pencil and small notebook.
“What do you mean intense?” I frowned, posing the pencil point on a blank page. “When was I intense, as you call it? What was the date and who was involved and what did I do wrong and what should I have done differently?”
I stared into thick cumulus, shook loose the memory and tried to recover my balance. I headed back toward the kitchen, hoping to find my sister-in-law so we could start dinner together. She was lounging on the porch, swinging gently in the soft breeze I had not noticed. Her book lay open and limp on her lap. I’d swear she was humming.
“Should we start dinner?” she asked happily, looking up like a sunning, good-natured iguana ready to call it a day.
“Oh my gosh,” our mother-in-law burst onto the scene. “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh,” she continued, panting with emotion. “Nonie is dying. Her husband just called. Nonie is not going to make it.” Mother wailed.
My heart missed a beat as doom and loss overwhelmed. “You’re kidding?!?!?” was the best I could do in reply. My sister-in-law cocked her head Mom’s direction, quizzical and interested.
Nonie’s a relation of confusing genealogy who uncovered her ties to the Campbell Clan only with professional help. “Remember the name Campbell,” her own mother had whispered on her death bed. Decades later, it proved the critical link when Nonie set in search of a wider family she knew existed.
I joined the Campbell Clan by marriage and have found it unique and often peculiar. Nonie joined ranks by jubilant discovery. She affirmed everything good and loving about each of us and we swept her and her husband and their children quickly into the bosom of the family. Not yet 60, a grandmother only within the last year, beloved. It was not possible that Nonie could be dying.
I was suddenly exhausted and disoriented. The moment felt stifling and crowded, though I was surrounded by sky.
My sister-in-law took over. She quizzed Mom about the circumstances, and I heard words like acid reflex, e-coli, unwashed lettuce leaves and induced coma. Still, as she absorbed these bits of fact and fiction, nodded with comfort and understanding and placed a reassuring arm, I could not still my anxiety. “Nonie,” I thought, “cannot die.”
Later, after Mom went restlessly to bed, and I’d begun negotiations with God, and the guns were put away and the last meal cleaned up and put into the dishwasher, I turned to my sister-in-law.
“Nonie could actually die? Be gone?” I pleaded.
“Oh,” she calmly responded with a serene smile, “Her eulogy will be beautiful. Beautiful.”
“Not yet,” I begged, unwilling, “Not yet. Please not yet. What about a rosary. Like that rosary you did on the beach in San Diego for the Jubilee year? Can’t we do that?” I said, as I ran from the house, screaming at the boys who’d resumed arms. “Put the damn things down. Now!”
The next day, we gathered on the deck. Mom, me, my sister-in-law and some number of reluctant children who all know and adore Nonie but could not fathom her end, and my sister-in-law led the Rosary with a mixture of mysteries and story-telling and well-wishing and explanation that only, only she could contrive.
I cried, to no one’s notice. And we prayed, in this special woman’s way, for the Lord’s will to be done.
The next day, when we received word that Nonie suddenly had responded to a new antibiotic cocktail, I noted my sister-in-law’s reaction: steady, calm, accepting. I asked God, with embarrassment, to set aside the deal I’d made with him – and I breathed with deep relief.
“Don’t you love thinking about eulogies,” my sister-in-law remarked to me idly that day when we knew Nonie was cleared for more living – when the boys were once again banished from video to make what they would of the outdoors with air soft guns and real trails and blazing, hot sunshine. “Don’t you,” she wondered aloud, “craft tributes to the deceased?”
“No,” I said flatly, intensely. “No, I write stories.”
"One thing only is required,” Jesus said. My sister-in-law has found it, and shared it with me. Perhaps I can grow up and embrace it. When I grow up, I want to be my sister-in-law.
Postscript: Our beloved Nonie died a couple of weeks after I wrote this essay. We all gathered to honor and bury her. And my sister-in-law was right. The eulogy was beautiful.