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Right Church, Wrong Pew


My 84 year old mother-in-law recently did a lovely thing: On Mother’s Day, she reached out to her other son’s wife, with whom she’s had a strained relationship for the last couple of decades, and told her how much she cared about her.  I walked in to hear her telling her other daughter-in-law how happy she was to be talking to her, what a fine mother she was to her sons, and how she knew they had “bumped heads” in the past, but how she wanted her  daughter-in-law to  know how much she mattered to her.  They talked for a bit, my mother-in-law visibly glowing with new found warmth and peace of mind.

She handed me the phone so I could say a few words to the sister-in-law I rarely spoke with either.  She sounded a little different, but I chalked it up to a serious illness she’s had.  I asked how the boys were and she told me they should be home soon. I wished her well and told her we would keep her in our thoughts, and then we said our good byes.

My mother-in-law enthused about their conversation, saying how good her daughter-in-law had sounded, and what a nice conversation they’d had. And when her son called to wish her a Happy Mother’s Day later in the afternoon, she reiterated to him how much she’d enjoyed her conversation with his wife.    You probably know where this is headed; it turned out we hadn’t spoken with my sister-in-law at all. We have no idea who my mother-in-law dialed, or why the other party kept the conversation going.  Maybe it was a prank, or maybe a mutual confusion.

I told my brother-in-law, when he and I chatted about it later, how very sincere his mother had been in her warm and loving wishes to his wife, how deeply authentic and how hopefully happy she’d been when she thought she’d made amends.  He told me his mother asked him to please relay her thoughts to his wife, and how she’d meant every word she’d apparently shared with a stranger, but he told her she should tell his wife these things herself.  When she tried to call the correct number today, there was no answer, and no opportunity to leave a message – they purposely don’t use an answering machine.  The moment will probably not happen with the same authenticity and warmth she enjoyed yesterday, largely because the recipient of her intended message doesn’t really wish to speak with her and, in retrospect, probably wouldn’t have been as warm and forgiving as the stranger she spoke with on the phone.

So – was it a wasted apology, her misdirected love note?

My mother-in-law’s has been a bumpy journey, and without going into detail, suffice it to say that she’s been a hard person to love over the years.  Some of my sister-in-law’s reluctance to connect is definitely understandable.  But taking my mother-in-law into our home last year created something of a crash course in compassion. She set the bar high with personal challenges like learning how to love the sometimes unlovable, in replacing bitterness and anger with acceptance and understanding, in finding the lessons of shared humanity at the heart of inconvenience and ambivalence.   It’s still rocky sometimes, but increasingly I see the person instead of the action.

And the person I saw speaking lovingly to a complete stranger, in the belief that she’d reached across a vast, decades long gulf of misunderstanding and miscommunication was a good and loving person, trying to make amends.

If you apologize, if you say “I love you”, if you say you care, and no one hears you, does it reach a heart?

Someone did hear her though. Sure, she was in the right church but the wrong pew – but she was still in the church. Whatever the purpose in staying on the line, someone, somewhere, through an invisible telephone connection like some mysterious Confessor, heard and accepted her apology and her love.  Whatever her shortcomings and however imperfectly,  in an effort to drive out darkness and hate, my mother-in-law put light and love out into the ethers.

Maybe they’ll find their way to her other daughter-in-law’s heart, like they’ve found their way into mine.

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