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A Lesson in Compartmentalizing

I sat in my client’s great room discussing delivery schedules for their new home furnishings. Over my client’s head through the slider to the lanai was a clock showing me the time was already 11:15, that little wave of anxiety started to flutter in my chest, the one that arrives every time I’m winding down the work in one office to head to the next. I mentally was checking off the list of what I had accomplished and what I still needed to button up before my flight. I returned my focus to my client and compared their travel schedule with mine dialing in on optimal delivery dates, when my wrist vibrated. It’s always a careful little dance I do as I try to glace at the text coming in but not losing focus on my client. I glanced and saw it was Joe, important text messages are long … otherwise, his text messages are one liners. This one filled my wrist, I knew instinctively it was something that needed my attention.


ME: My apologies, (leaning towards my purse to grab my phone) … this is Joe I’d like to check my phone more closely to see what he needs.

CLIENT: Oh Yes! Of course!!!


… and it was exactly the response I expected because I am blessed with amazing clientele, every one of them adores my husband.


ME: Thanks, I know we’re short on time …

CLIENT: Psssshhh … don’t be silly we’re just about done we need to get you outa here and on a plane to Joe!


Before I started reading the text I looked at both my clients and smiled thanking God for blessing me with such understanding amazing clients.


TEXT FROM JOE: Moms leg has gotten bad again, 2 spots looking bad. Sue is coming to take a look. I’m pretty sure she has venous ulcers. It’s when blood flow in the leg isn’t good enough leading to sores. Takes weeks to months to heal. No official diagnoses, but that’s what I think.


A second wave of uneasiness filled my chest, tears sting the back of my eyes, I slide the phone into the side pocket of my purse. The guilt I feel when I’m away from CT can become overwhelming at times, especially when it comes to Joe and Mom. Nevertheless, I needed to compartmentalize for a moment, I was running short on time, I could call Joe from the car.


CLIENT: All good with Joe?

ME: Yea, it’s my mother in-law … I’ll call him in a few.

CLIENT: I’m sorry, I hope she’s ok …

ME: (thinking to myself … just compartmentalize) Oh, yes … as well as she can be! (smiling as I look away, because now that amazingly understanding client has reached over and gently squeezed my knee)


I reviewed our agenda to ensure we’ve covered all important issues, made our next appointment, shared warm hugs and well wishes as they walked me to the door.

I packed binders and samples into my front seat and quickly skipped around the front of the car to access the driver’s side. As I opened my car door I looked up to see my clients standing in the driveway smiling.


CLIENT: Hey Lisa?

ME: Yea?

CLIENT: Safe travels and get home to Joe … I’m sure MIL will be ok … (with that she blew a kiss and waved)

ME: Thanks … you don’t know how much I appreciate that …

CLIENT: Go on now … get outa here!


I backed my car out of the driveway and before I scooted away I paused and looked out the passenger side window there stood my clients waving well wishes in the driveway. I thought to myself, God sends me angels all the time, these two angels somehow unbeknownst to them had calmed my soul.

By the time my car nose was approaching the gate to leave, I had already started dialing Joe.


JOE: Hello?

ME: Hey … how’s she doin’?

JOE: She’s good …

ME: How bad is the leg?

JOE: … its … its not lookin’ good …

ME: I thought we were on the mend?

JOE: Me too … huh? Yea, no I’m waiting … uhuh … ok, yes that’s important she keeps reopening it … yep, yea ok …

ME: who’s that?

JOE: Nurse, she’s giving me some updates, they need to get Coban tape … she can’t pull that off …

ME: I don’t understand why this isn’t healing?

JOE: It’s hard honey … she … what? Ok … Ma you ready for lunch? … Yes, hmmumm (chuckle) … Ok that’ll do … Sorry honey … what was I sayin’?

ME: we were talking about Moms leg? Why doesn’t it heal, why can’t we fix this?

JOE: (I can feel his hand stroking my arm through the phone because that’s how he chases away all anxiety) Honey she’s ok … its complicated … Hey Ma? It’s Lisa want to say hello?

ME: Yes! Let me say hello!

MIL: hellllloooo?

ME: (careful to talk slowly and clearly) Heya beautiful!

MIL: Hiiiiii …

ME: I … I’m coming home tonight Ma!

MIL: Huh? .. I’m going home tonight?

ME: Me … Mom … Me I’m coming home tonight …

MIL: Oh!

ME: I miss (my voice cracks) miss you so much Mom …

MIL: I miss you too

ME: I can’t wait to wrap my arms around you ….

MIL: hhmmmm yea, …. You make me feel good ….

ME: YOU make me feel good Ma!

MIL: (giggle) that’s good!

ME: I love you …

MIL: yea ….

ME: (chuckle) OK I’ll see you tomorrow?

MIL: OK …. Bye …

JOE: Hey?

ME: Wow that went well!!!!

JOE: Yep sure did

ME: That the best phone conversation I’ve had in a long time …

JOE: Yep … here ya go Ma … Yep it was! … what? Yes, that’ll work … sorry honey …

ME: It’s ok … I’m stopping at the apartment, then office, then to airport …

JOE: You remember I’m working tonight right?

ME: Yes … I love you

JOE: Love you too …

I press end on my dashboard and my mind begins to wander … these sores on Mom’s leg are in the area from where her skin graph was placed, from a bout with Necrotizing Fasciitis. I remember the months after she left rehab in Wallingford lived with us. It was a challenging experience for all of us, Mom fell ill on Father’s day of 2001, after months in a hospital in Boston she was transferred to CT for additional rehabilitation, when that phase of the rehab was completed she was still not strong enough to make the trip back to Arkansas, so she moved in with Joe and I and the kids.

This is pretty much how the scenario looked like …. on Monday September 10th, 2001 Joe entered Paramedic school … Tuesday September 11th… well I don’t need to tell anyone what happened that day. On Wednesday September 12th, I picked Mom up at the rehabilitation center while Joe was in Paramedic school to live and rehab with us for what would turn out to be almost 8 months. Joey was 2 Ashely was 8 … I was working full time, Joe’s classes were Monday, Wednesday and Fridays 6-10pm in Hartford, with Saturdays as a full day of clinicals.

I’ll admit I was a little overwhelmed when Joe floated the idea of Mom living with us while she finished her rehab. He had just been accepted to Paramedic School, we were raising a 8 year old and a 2 year old, while I was building a budding design career … no let’s be honest, I looked at him like he sprouted a third head, I think I may have even told him he was nuts! In the end he pulled at my heartstrings, he knew … and I knew the best place for her was with us, really with Joe, I was just a support role. So … I agreed.

Those months Mom and I built a very special bond. I’m often referred to as ‘kinda perfect’ funny … I’m far from that … What I didn’t know is that Mom thought I was that ‘perfect wife & mother’ too! I could cook, I kept a fairly neat house, I ran a strict household, no television during the week, eating dinner as a family, only two extracurricular activities at one time … no PG movies until you were 12! … yea, somehow people thought I was perfect.

Then it happened, one night while Joe was in school, I had ruined dinner, I had forgotten to wash Ashley’s brownie uniform and again I had failed attempt at the potty training diabolical with Joey. I collapsed on the sofa next to Mom and sighed heavily.

MIL: You ok?

ME: Meh ….

MIL: You sure?

ME: I … I don’t … (sniffle) I don’t know Ma …

MIL: What don’t you know …

ME: Sometimes … well … sometimes it’s a little much …

MIL: hmmmm … yeah, I’d imagine so …

ME: I’m ok … Really, I am … sometimes I just need to (gulp) ….

MIL: need what …

ME: I don’t know … (a tear escapes)

MIL: Tell me …

ME: I don’t know if I can keep doing it … Joe gone 3 nights a week and all day on Saturday … all he does is study when he is home, he’s exhausted from working and studying … (sniffle) Joey is a handful why isn’t he using the potty? I mean …. How hard is it to aim at the damn freaking cheerios?! I feel like I don’t give enough to Ashley (tears now escaping without control down my cheeks) … she’s such a huge help, still I yell and scream at her for no reason … And tonight … ugh … Dinner was disaster!!! … I can’t believe you choked that God awful mess from the crock pot down your throat … and have you seen me lately? (wiping my nose with the back of my hand, grabbing the part of my hair and pulling it apart) Look at these rooooots! My GAWD… I look like a train wreck!


Mom pulled head back and opened up her eyes wide. I blinked back my tears as a I watched a smirk creep across her face.

MIL: That’s it?

ME: (stunned) What?

MIL: That’s it? … (she lightly laughed) That’s all you got? … (waving her hand in dismissal) You got this …

ME: No! I don’t … I didn’t even tell you about work! I mistakenly ordered the wrong hand printed wallpaper at the cost of 1200.00 dollars … I completely forgot an appointment to measure a backsplash and I have a presentation next week … that … sh*t I don’t even know how I’m going to make the project work, she’s asking for the impossible!

MIL: yep … ya do ... you got it … (still wearing a smirk)


A another tear slipped down my cheek and bounce on my hand as I watched Mom. Her eyes became intense and that smirk softened into a warm smile. She opened her arms to me and I collapsed into them and just cried. Those big sobs that make you snort and gasp for air. She stroked my back and shhhhed me. I don’t know how but next thing I knew the 10 o’clock news blasting out of the television speakers and Mom was gently stroking my head. I wiped not tears out of my eyes but rather sleep, apparently, I had fallen asleep there in her lap turned and looked up at her. The tears were dried from my cheeks, and I was a little, to say the least, embarrassed about my little hissy fit.


ME: Mom?

MIL: hhhhmmmm?

ME: I’m sorry ….

MIL: What for?

ME: (sitting up and letting out a little snort) ummm were you in the same room when I had that massive break down?

MIL: That? Pssshhh … that’s nothing … I actually liked seeing you not so perfect … (chuckling)

ME: Perfect ?! Ma?! I’ve FAR from perfect!

Mom was silent for a moment …

MIL: I’m sorry I’m such a burden

ME: What? Oh My GOD! No!


The tears stung my eye again, they always hurt even more when they return after already having a good cry!


ME: Mom … no. You. Are. Not. A. Burden. …. Please don’t ever think that.

MIL: You have to admit it would be easier if you didn’t have to add me and all my (waving her hand over her bandaged legs) … neeeeds … to your list of things to do.


I looked at Mom, I sighed. Yes, it was a lot to juggle appointments with specialists, wound dressing changes, VNA schedules and medications with everything else that was going on … and honestly I have my own Mom that I can run to, to cry with and put my head in her lap … she will tell me I’m doing a great … we’ll make it just fine … Yet at that moment I looked at the woman in front of me and had a moment of clarity, that I thank God for every day. She had given me the greatest gift I could have ever received only second to my babies. She … gave me her son. I owed her …


ME: Ma?

MIL: (now looking down into her lap) yea …

ME: Ma, look at me … (she raised her head and made direct eye contact with me) I couldn’t do this without YOU!

MIL: huh?

ME: Mom … you’re a pillar of strength for me right now. I love coming home and calling out to you and hearing you yell back. My babies can’t wait to see you when I pull into the driveway … I swear seat belts are flying before I’m halfway up the driveway. You make me smile, you remind me daily I can get through this unbelievable journey Joe and I have decided we could navigate. Where would I be right now if you were home in Arkansas … I’d be alone on this sofa, crying having a hissy fit while Joe was in class. He’d walk through the door and I’d probably yell at him for something stupid.


MIL: no you wouldn’t

ME: Hell ya … I would!

MIL: (starting to laugh) no …

ME: Look at me … you’re an inspiration to me … sometimes I look at you and I can’t believe what you’ve accomplished in life …

MIL: well, thank you but …

ME: But nothing ..


The back door opened, Sophie our dog greeted him with that unwavering devotion and love that all good dogs possess. I heard him enjoying the ‘love’.


JOE: Hellllo?

ME: Hey!

MIL: Hello!

Joe entered the family room after 11 years of marriage, he knew immediately I had a rough night. Well, maybe the bright red nose and puffy eyes gave it away….


JOE: All ok?

MIL: Yep … we great … how was class?

JOE: Good?

MIL: Good …


Mom rubbed my shoulder, then gave me a light tap. She looked up at Joe and smiled. She asked some random question about his class or the traffic coming home. I honestly don’t remember what I do remember is she refocused the conversation, so I could compartmentalize my night. So, I could put away my feelings of being overwhelmed, not ‘perfect’, not good enough. Mom knew exactly what she was doing at the moment, what she didn’t know was she was teaching me how accept and live our journey ten plus years in the future. I watched intently as Joe explained what he had learned in class to her, and how excited he was about Saturday’s clinicals at the hospital. I realized God knew exactly what he was doing.


My blinker ticked as I turned the corner onto Pine Ridge Road. That important check list in my head pushed away the beautiful memory …Turn down the air, take out the garbage, wipe down counters and double check the dryer, don’t forget to water the lime tree … Joe will love the limes next month.

As I turn into the entry to my apartment building a tear hits the steering wheel. I wipe my cheek and put the car in park. I put my head back against the head rest and remember the ‘MIL’ that helped guide me through a very challenging chapter of my life.


People often say I’m a saint for what I do for my ‘Mother In-Law’ … I’m no saint … I’m just returning the favor …

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