“The phrase 'Love one another' is so wise. By loving one another, we invest in each other and in ourselves. Perhaps someday, when we need someone to care for us, it may not come from the person we expect, but from the person we least expect. It may be our sons or daughter-in-laws, our neighbors, friends, cousins, stepchildren, or stepparents whose love for us has assigned them to the honorable, yet dangerous position of caregiver.”
― Peggi Speers, The Inspired Caregiver: Finding Joy While Caring for Those You Love
Our first introduction to a stepmother is through our storybook characters – Cinderella comes to mind. Not only is she a stepmother, but she is a wicked. We don’t get any insight into why she is evil, but we do see the consequences through Cinderella’s eyes. So when a stepparent joins your family, it takes a while to understand who this new person truly is.
My father avoided the topic for quite a while. I am not sure if he thought it would upset us, or upset my mom who on paper he was still married to although they hadn’t lived together for quite a few years. He told us he had a roommate named Jo. It was the truth and nebulous at the same time. There would be no need to meet or spend time with Jo because Jo had “his” own things going on. One day he just broke down and told us that Jo was short for Josephine. There was no big response to that because it really didn’t impact our world…and we had our suspicions. We did tell dad that it was alright. We were in our early teens by this time.
She was a southern lady, but very proud of the years she spent in New York. Her early life was spent in a beautiful little house built by her grandfather for her and her mother with a productive pecan tree in the yard. At her core she was a hurt person, the daughter of single mother back in the days when unmarried mothers were disgraced. Her father married another woman and didn’t fully recognize her, even in his will many years later. He left his possessions to “his only daughter” who was just a few months younger, leaving Jo completely out.
Her life was a long trail of fragmented relationships, a still born and other disappointments so by the time she got to us, she was really in need of love and compassion. This need sometimes looked like a hurting puppy. More times than not, it looked like a raging river. She enjoyed the 20 years she was married to my dad, although he sometimes called her the Warden. I will never say that she was evil. She was a Christian who loved singing and children, especially since she was not able to have her own child. When you have unresolved hurt, it festers. Her relationship with her natural family was strained so it was up to my sister and me to make sure she was safe and protected in her final days.
She was a consummate care taker for my father and when he suffered a stroke that left him unable to communicate and paralyzed on one side, she went to the nursing home every day for 2 years until he died. I often told her I hope to have someone as attentive if I should ever find myself in such a state. After my father’s death, she moved back to North Carolina, near her hometown. About 5 years ago she started to exhibit symptoms of dementia. Dementia takes on many forms; the most well-known is Alzheimer’s. For the purposes of this blog, I will cut to the chase and say it became very evident that she needed to be moved to Georgia so we could make sure she was being cared for - much to her displeasure!
Having her close meant she didn’t have to spend holidays alone. Her sister and nieces would invite her to their celebrations and even in her eighties, she could still drive, but often times she would decline. Last Christmas she came over and had a very productive cough. Any kind of cold for an older person is serious so we watched her closely. When a series of antibiotics didn’t work, we got her to the hospital. The cat scan didn’t show anything unusual in her lungs, but there was a mass on her pancreas. Upon further examination, it was discovered that this mass extended throughout her midsection and we were then looking at weeks based on the little food she was eating and drinking.
Over the next few weeks she was able to see and visit with her sister and nieces, best friend and family, and spiritual family from NC. After her last visitor spent time with her, it was clear that Jo had hung on as long as she could. I was getting to her every day since we got the diagnosis. She was a rascal to the end, fussing with the nursing staff when they needed to change her and refusing to keep her oxygen on. She would let me brush her hair and every visit while she was in Georgia, we would get a hymn and sing it with gusto. On her final day, she was really struggling to breathe so I told her she didn’t have to hang on any longer. “Everyone has been here to see you. You can go to be with your mom, your dad and your husband. Let’s close your eyes (I closed them for her) and relax.” I rubbed her hand and prayed with her...she took her last breath at 6:15.
One of my prayers for her was that I didn’t want her to die alone. I am so grateful that God honored that prayer and that she had the opportunity to transition peacefully.