Remembering my mother-outlaw

The rabbi opened my mother-in-law’s funeral with an instruction: Turn to someone near you, he said, and tell that person what you’re reading.

"When we buried her, we tossed dice into the grave along with our shovels full of earth." (Photo by Diacritica via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

Judy would have loved it. For 24 years, as long as I’d been partners with her only daughter, nearly every conversation included a trade of notes about the latest title for her book group, the volumes on my own night table, or the biography she was reading aloud with my father-in-law, Alvin.

Judy read promiscuously, often three books at once, her place in each preserved with a wilted bookmark from Tattered Cover, Denver’s bustling independent bookstore. Judy belonged to a synagogue, but Tattered Cover was her true mecca; every family visit included a pilgrimage with the grandkids and a promise of one book each before they left.     

Judy loved games, too: Scrabble, Rummikub, and a dice game called Rat’s Ass, which one of my brothers-in-law taught to the whole family. The beauty of Rat’s Ass was that anyone could play: a six-year-old granddaughter, an 81-year-old grandma. It was noisy — the rackety-rack of rolling dice — and fast, and fun, with just the right cocktail of strategy and luck.

The luck (or lack) of the throw 

Judy knew about random throws; she’d tasted the sweetness of a lucky seven. She met Alvin when he was 21 and she was just 19. They wrote letters for a year, spent one afternoon together and corresponded for another year. Then she flew to Hawaii and married him.

But in other realms, the dice were not in her favor. Multiple sclerosis weakened her joints and wobbled her gait. Breast cancer snatched her mother and two of her sisters. Her husband, my sweet and funny father-in-law, endured multiple bouts of lymphoma before dying, six years ago, of prostate cancer. And then the cancer came her way. Snake-eyes: first one breast, then the other.

In her final weeks, on hospice care at home, she grew too foggy for Scrabble. Rat’s Ass still worked, though. Her kids could keep the tally. But no one could make the judgment call for her, the forked decision she faced with every turn: keep tossing in hope of a better score (but with the risk of losing everything accrued on that round), or settle for a modest gain and pass the dice along.

It was a gamble.

Judy knew that, five years earlier, when she signed up for the full arsenal of treatment — six rounds of chemo, then radiation, with a lifelong tamoxifen chaser — knowing it was no guarantee, knowing the treatment itself would wreck her immune system and leave her mouth tasting like old pennies.

“Are you glad you did it — the chemo, I mean?” I asked her later. “Oh, yeah!” she said. “Yeah! Because I wanted to live.”

Living life

And she did, even without her bashert. She went to the movies and the theater and the art museum. She wove a tallis for our daughter’s bat mitzvah and started one for the next granddaughter in line. She took me to my first opera, in Santa Fe. She invited friends for the Fourth of July, to gather in the backyard and read the Declaration of Independence aloud. She bought a Honda Fit and drove it to the JCC for water aerobics and schmoozing with the locker-room ladies.

I called her my mother-outlaw because, at first, it was the truth; no state would allow Elissa and me to marry. Then “outlaw” became a subversive wink. I kept using it even after Pennsylvania hopped on the marriage-equality bandwagon and we “got legal” last fall. “Hi, it’s your daughter-outlaw,” I’d say on the phone. “Dear Mama-outlaw,” I wrote on birthday cards.

And Judy was an outlaw. She disdained phony niceness, Republican grandstanding, and ambitious young women who claimed they weren’t really feminists. She wore Birkenstocks. She didn’t style her hair. She was direct and uncensored; if you gave her a book she’d read before, she nudged it aside. If I was teaching a class on memoir, she didn’t hold back her view that memoirs were a self-indulgent squander of ink and talent.

Sometimes I felt bruised by her bluntness. But I learned, over the years, to match her candor with my own. It felt good to be that bold, that clear: “No, thanks, hard-boiled eggs make me gag.” Or, “I hated Birdman; I don’t care what the critics thought.”

Luck and love         

At the funeral, I turned to Anne, a longtime friend. She was reading Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, a searing account of racism in the justice system. I was reading Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon’s exploration of children who are profoundly different from their parents: children who are deaf or dwarfs, children with autism or schizophrenia. It’s a book about diversity and tenacity, luck (good and bad), and the lengths to which love moves us.

If we’re to read each other’s lives as texts, then my mother-outlaw’s was a story of risk and loss, gamble and gain. This last time, the oncologist had a nearly empty hand: a punishing bout of chemo that might — might — buy her a few more months. Judy turned it down. And then she turned toward her life. She met with her book group 15 days before she died. She complained of not having a good novel. She read Gail Collins and Frank Bruni and watched Rachel Maddow late at night, propped up in bed with pillows.

And when we buried her, we tossed dice into the grave along with our shovels full of earth. I imagine her playing raucous rounds of Rat’s Ass with her beloved Alvin. By now, they’ve no doubt taught the game — language barriers dissolving in a riot of gestures and guffaws — to the Russian guy in the grave next door.

A month after Judy died, we invited some friends over and held a book swap in her honor. I gave away Americanah, a biting novel about race by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and I got Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer.

I still have 375 pages left in Far From the Tree. I’ll finish the book — it’s Judy’s well-thumbed copy, after all — and wish I could talk with her about everything in it. And then, because there is so much to read, and never enough time, I’ll flick on the small light near my bed, and reach for the next volume on the teetering stack.

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