I met my mother-in-law when she was 66, my age now. She considered herself retired. Retirement meant finished with kid stuff like square-dancing and putting a fishing boat in the lake on weekends. But in spite of retirement, she had guts and spirit to spare.
When her only son and I were expecting our first child, she uprooted herself and her ailing husband to be near us. She sold her ’60s ranch on a quiet Salt Lake City street, packed her support stockings, her husband’s tackle boxes and pounds of medications, and moved east, their RV in tow.
Plenty of responsibility fell on Betty from childhood. The first of four girls born to a depressed mom and a beloved dad with a drinking problem, Betty picked up a lot of family slack. Today, she maintains a disdain for whining, plus a hatred of cooking.
A 91-year-old widow, she gossips heartlessly about the simpering weaknesses of the “old’’ residents at her retirement community. She fired her bridge partner without a drop of compassion when she couldn’t deliver the level of competitive play expected. “Friends” require more attention than she can be bothered to muster.
Therefore, it was a surprise when she demonstrated a quest for companionship three years ago by taking up with a sprightly young thing, an excellent swimmer, a creature living on mere crumbs. Alfie, as she introduced him to the family, had a quiet personality and was a perfect counterpoint to her brash banter. Never one to own a pet, Betty began showing signs of affection, possibly even love, for her betta fish named Alpha. She feeds him only organics. At Christmas, she tapes a tiny green stocking to his bowl. When sitting near him, she prompts him to exercise by clicking her shellacked nails on the glass. “It’s good for his heart,” she says.
Before leaving her apartment, she informs him of her destination. “We are going to the movies, Alfie,” she announces one night when my husband and I come to pick her up. And Alfie has captured the love of other family members, such as her great-grandson Nathan. Coming in Betty’s front door, he forgoes the formal greetings, preferring instead to shriek and sprint to the fish bowl. Being well schooled by his mother in proper fish-visiting behavior, he knows not to touch Alfie. Yet he wraps his arms around his torso straitjacket style, presses his 2-year-old lips onto the sides of the bowl, and sings tremolo: “No hug; kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss . . .”
Some time ago, when Alfie became visibly sick, I wondered what Betty would do. Would she decide the responsibility of fish management was too great for further investment? Her action was firm and swift. Within hours of the final flush, she visited the local Petco for a new betta she also calls Alpha.
When I asked her about her decision to pretend it was the same fish, she offered this: “I decided that Nathan was too young to understand death.”
Betty was recently hospitalized and received a pacemaker to boost heart rhythms. While there, she inquired after Alfie, questioning our care, joking that he could be lonely. After two weeks in rehab, she happily returned to her healthy betta fish.
We are all aware of Betty’s advanced age — and so is she; she talks of it matter of factly. She has beaten many odds to live the number of seasons turned, and yet we want more. Someday we’ll be missing her sideways humor and her reminiscences of bowling leagues and the naughtiness of her three sisters. When that day arrives, none of us will be able to avoid “understanding” death. There will be no replacing her. And we will have a mourning betta fish to comfort.
Elizabeth Rose is a writer in Georgetown. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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