Five years ago today, my mother-in-law passed away in a Greensboro, N.C., hospital, a person taken before her time.
The death of Betty Ruth Hodges McFarland was the second in a series of tragic events that befell the Cook/McFarland families over a four-year period from 2004 to 2007. I have written about my dad, as well as the loss of Fran and Bill, but not about Betty.
Sitting on a bus, heading from New York to D.C., I started to wonder why I haven’t chosen to discuss the woman who — under most circumstances — would be a terrific character in almost any novel. Fiercely protective, full of contradictions and wonderful intentions, my mother-in-law was a brilliant woman who was both ahead of and a product of her time.
Or, as I once described her, a “liberal Presbyterian with a severe Southern Baptist strain.”
Betty took care of people — her mother, her brother, her children, her sister’s children — often at the expense of her own pleasure or happiness. She loved her family deeply, even though nurturing seemed difficult for her at times.
An English professor who loved nothing more than good literature, she had a big picture perspective and a rigid eye for the minutiae in life. Many times, minutiae won out over the big picture, preventing her from taking leaps of faith toward the happiness that was so elusive.
After retiring, several years before her death, she did take a leap, moving from Boone to Chapel Hill, and ultimately, to Greensboro. She joined a church and decorated her new home. She took care of her grandchildren, who miss her to this day, as do her daughter, son, and his family.
I guess the mother-in-law factor is one reason I haven’t written about Betty until now. It would be easy to characterize it in a stereotypical sitcom manner, but that would not do it justice. The fact is, I would not be together with Jill if not for Betty. Another fact: Once Jill and I were together, it's fair to say that the relationship I had with my mother-in-law was at times prickly.
Words were our mutual playing field, and we both liked to parry and thrust. Just now, I wonder what she would say about my characterization that our relationship was prickly. She would probably look at me, drop the "ly," and toss it back to me with a smile. Others miss her for their own reasons; I miss the banter we shared.
One example: Due to, or in part because of, her contradictory nature, she could parse the language in ways I never imagined. "Well,” she told me once. “It’s not appropriate, but I guess it’s acceptable.”
Betty’s death shook our family to its core. It still reverberates through Jill and Kate — who bears a resemblance to her physically and in terms of personality — and others who are close to her.
Two weeks before she died — from abdominal mesothelioma at the too-young age of 67 — Betty gave a deposition about the circumstances that led to her cancer diagnosis. I do not know how anyone who was suffering so much could have gone through what she did and held herself together to sit there. On that day, she showed an internal strength and fortitude I will always admire.
I never had the chance to ask her how she did it. But I know what her answer would be: “My family.”
Her life, and what she represented, lives on to this day — in that family.