Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A Tribute to My Mother-In-Law

We lost my husband Aaron's mother a day before her fifty-sixth birthday and a week and a day before Aaron's thirtieth birthday. This is what I shared at her celebration of life. 

I am Shannon Sullivan, Bonnie's daughter-in-law. Or Ms. Bonnie, as I usually call her. What can I say--- it's hard to break habits from high school. We all know the stereotype of the relationship between mothers-in-law and their daughters-in-law, but it probably won't surprise you to know that Ms. Bonnie was not like that. In fact she supported me and defended me and continually checked in to make sure that Aaron was treating me all right. Even though my sisters insist that I am the reacher and Aaron is the settler in our relationship, Ms. Bonnie--- and David too--- always looked out for me. “That Aaron better be spending time with you instead of always going to the airport!” she would say to me.  

The first time I went to Aaron's house as his girlfriend, Aaron and I went walking through the woods and came back with the bottoms of my jeans caked in mud. She was mortified, worrying that my parents would never let me come back. So she made me borrow a pair of Aaron's pants so she could wash mine. And his pants fit me. Kind of a terrible experience for a fifteen-year-old girl who knew little about body positivity, but I later joked that we would have to get married because we would save so much money on pants if we could borrow one another's! But it was just the first of many ways she took care of me--- of us--- even while she made us laugh, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Mr. Mike told us the other night that she knew Aaron and I would get married when we went away for college even though we went to different colleges. But she never said anything to Aaron because she never wanted to influence him. Sure, she gave advice, but she always wanted us to make our own decisions and supported us no matter what we did.  

But it was her faith that really was transformational. There's a story in the Bible about the relationship between a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law. It's the book of Ruth. In it, a woman named Naomi loses her husband and both sons and decides to move back to her own country. One daughter-in-law kisses her and wishes her well but another clings to her and ends up going with her to Bethlehem. That one is Ruth, whose name means friend, and Ruth really took care of Naomi in the fog of her grief and nourished her into life. Bonnie was more like Ruth was in this story for me, and I was more like Naomi, especially this year. Naomi at one point says change her name to Mara, because Mara means bitter and she thinks God has dealt bitterly with her (Ruth 1:20). I felt a lot like Naomi this past year. Now, Ruth's life was one big struggle too, but she does not give up, as Naomi actually does and I felt like doing at times too. And Ms. Bonnie never gave up either. 

I was one of the people who helped care for my mother-in-law on and off for the past two years. I would come over to her house to help with meals and moving around, but I would bring my grief baggage and my frustration with God and my hopelessness that I would ever have a baby. Ms. Bonnie always had hope, for herself, for me. She was always there to give me an encouraging word. She would often say that it was so hard because she couldn't do anything, couldn't offer anything because she was so weak. Carrying hope for someone who doesn't have anymore is a pretty big offering. So is prayer. She and Mr. Mike would pray for Aaron and I every day, even while Aaron and my prayers were often focused on ourselves because of how isolating our grief and anxiety can be; she didn't let her physical isolation and even later her depression keep her from directing her energy for prayer towards others. She was a true friend, a woman who was always giving, always loving, in spite of her own pain and in spite of my frequent bitterness.  

Chaplain Allen Seigel at Upper Chesapeake read Proverbs 31:10-31 as Ms. Bonnie was dying. Verse 29 says, “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” Bonnie did surpass them all. And even though I am still thinking of changing my name to Mara sometimes, I give thanks to God for Bonnie's friendship, her guidance, her prayers. And I know the love of Christ that she taught us will still sustain us as a family always.