I first met my mother-in-law on paper.
I was in a hospital in Colorado having just broken my back. She and Dean’s father, Ed, sent me a care package. I remember there was a teddy bear and a lovely card, written in her hand. I don’t remember now what it said except that she closed by saying, “We love you.”
It surprised me. Not only had we not yet met, but my relationship with her son was still undetermined. Dean and I had an intense and complicated bond, but our relationship was very new and we didn’t know yet where it was going. Apparently, Joan didn’t care. She knew her son loved me and that was enough. She loved me, too.
The first time I visited Dean’s family home was for Thanksgiving, just about a year after I was injured. It was an adventure in so many ways. The house was totally inaccessible. Built on three levels, it was full of stairs and narrow doorways that made even going to the bathroom a production. But what really struck me was how different mine and Dean’s families were. I thought I’d landed on Mars.
I remember Joan and Dean’s sister, Lea, cooking throughout the day and when an item was finished, they’d put in on the counter in the kitchen. Some people might get up and have a plateful, others not. After a couple of dishes had been put there, I finally turned to Dean and said, “When does dinner actually start?” There wasn’t a single cue I recognized in Thanksgiving, Purvis-style. I’d never thought of my family as formal, but compared to the Purvises, we were down right uptight. This was such a relaxed, unstructured affair, I didn’t know what to do with myself.
I remember during that trip Joan attending frequently to my comfort. She so obviously wanted me to feel at home, to feel welcome. And I did, even though it was Mars.
One night, Dean, Joan and I were lying on the bed upstairs just chatting. I’ll never forget it. She told us stories about when she’d met Ed and their early years together, about how, at such a young age, she started teaching ballet (a passion and career she would nurture for decades). I asked her so many questions, trying to glean who this woman was. And she asked me questions, I’m sure for the same reason.
At one point, it came up that I hadn’t liked Dean when I first met him. This is, in fact, a rather famous story in the chronicles of Dean and Lyena, how he was smitten with me virtually right away and I basically couldn’t stand him. Joan was so funny when she heard. She tried, at first, to be diplomatic, at least dispassionately curious, if not sympathetic. But after a few minutes, when we’d moved on to another topic, she burst out with, “How could you not like Dean??” Dean came to my rescue by explaining that he wasn’t really being himself in those days, that the man I met was a persona he’d adopted and, admittedly, his persona wasn’t really a nice guy. Joan seemed willing to accept this but only just barely. Not like him…. Indeed.
I remember walking with her and Dean along Macgruder trail in the cold and wet of that November. She told me more stories, about Dean’s childhood mostly, and I told some of my own.
In the following years, there were long e-mail exchanges, infrequent but rich. She was often curious about what I was doing, and how I felt doing it. I appreciated so much this interest. It made me feel loved and valuable to her. Though I hadn’t been a ballerina, we had dance in common and, of course, also our love of Dean.
I remember once she told me how grateful she was that he had found a partner that honored his tenderness, a relationship where he could feel free to express that part of himself. It felt good to tell her that that was, in fact, one of my favorite things about Dean, that I would always honor that and strive to encourage it. I think about that often now, as I watch Dean with our son. Dean’s tenderness is also a gift to Aidan, and I’m so grateful that Aidan has his father’s example. I understand, at a whole different level now, Joan’s protectiveness of Dean’s softer side.
When Dean and I announced that we’d gotten engaged, Joan was a little “Yes… And….” Apparently, it was a given for her, just a matter of time. In fact, there was almost a hint of what-took-you-so-long. It was similar in feeling to her telling me so early she loved me: My son loves you; I love you. You love each other; you get married. Joan was a practical woman, if nothing else. While she received our complicated, messy emotional lives with some compassion, it was simpler for her. And she patiently waited for us to catch up.
One of my favorite stories of her practicality… Dean was about five and at an amusement park with his family. He’d been eating an ice cream and had milky, chocolate drips all over the front of his shirt. When Joan’s brother asked if she had a change of clothes for Dean, she said, “Yeah.” Then pulled Dean’s shirt off, turned it inside out, and put it back on him. Dean didn’t care that the sticky was on the inside and that was that. Done.
I can’t tell you how often I think about that story as I watch my child get everything on him. When I start to feel uptight about keeping him clean, I think of that story and suddenly, there’s just a little more room for Aidan to be how he is, just a little more permission to relax, live and enjoy.
Joan was always generous with me, with love, attention, money… But the most generous thing she ever did was after Dean and I got engaged.
Dean asked me to marry him on Oct. 4, the anniversary of my fall. That’s a complicated story I won’t go into now, but we made the calls to family members during that day to share the good news. We talked to his parents and mine, our siblings, etc.
The next day, Joan called us to say that her cancer, long in remission, had returned. She knew the day before but had opted to keep it from us. She wanted us to have that one day just for ourselves, to celebrate and rejoice. I will never cease to be grateful for that, that the day we got engaged wasn’t also the day we found out Dean’s mom had cancer again. It was such a generous gift.
Joan battled cancer for several years after that. Dean’s reaction in the early months was another “I’m on Mars” experience for me.
I remember driving in the car once, talking about it, and I suddenly exclaimed, “Why aren’t you more freaked out about this??” He seemed so calm, so reasoned, so… Joan. And he explained that the family had a lot of experience with Joan having cancer. She’d had ovarian cancer a long time before, then kidney cancer after that. She’d never had to battle too hard and had always won. This could be the same. The perspective was foreign to me but certainly appreciated. We would all just have to wait and see.
From what I know, the battle this time was much harder. She had surgeries and went through treatments. I remember at our wedding 14 months later, she was quite wobbly walking Dean down the aisle. But I don’t remember her ever smiling so much. Taking photographs before the ceremony, she was just beaming. And the way she held my hand… I can still feel it in mine. Her skin was so warm, a little dry, and she held my hand tight, just like my own mother did. It was so clear how glad she was that we were getting married, and that meant the world to me.
A few months before that, she had floored me in a conversation on the phone. We were talking about her prognosis, and she said that she was at peace with the possibility of her imminent death. That, in terms of Dean, once he’d fallen in love with me, and it became clear that we were going to work out, she could breathe a sigh of relief and let him go. He was in good hands now, and her job was done.
I could not believe the honor she was bestowing upon me. Though my relationship with Dean is not comparably maternal, she trusted me with his heart, and made it clear she was passing the torch. Now I, as his partner and companion, would cherish him, support him, help him find his way.
She was right to put her faith in me. Simply, I adore her son. And I am only more honored now by that faith. As my love for my own son grows, so does the depth of my desire that he be blessed with someone who loves him true. That she considered me worthy of her precious son means ever more to me now that I have my own precious son.
Joan did not live to meet Aidan, nor even to know that Dean and I managed to get pregnant. But when Aidan was born, I felt her nearby.
I don’t often feel that now, but when I think of her, I do feel a tremendous sense of peace and an exhilarating sense of freedom. I see her on a glorious adventure, busy discovering new lands. She checks in with us now and again, curious to see how Aidan is growing, showering love on Dean when he needs it, but she is tranquil in her belief that we are fine, that we have all that we need in the love that we feel. And because she believes it, so do I.
I did not know Joan very well, and for that I am sad. But I loved the woman I knew, and I know that she loved me.