Mother-In-Law Hell? Hell, No!

I admit it: when I hear that my mother-in-law, just shy of 91 and on oxygen, wants to fly across country, from Boston to Newport Beach, California, to attend my son’s wedding, I think she will be a burden. After all, she was hospitalized three times over the winter, has breathing problems from radiation treatment, carpal tunnel in both hands, and often a swollen knee and hip.

We are dutiful adult children, visiting her an hour away every other weekend minimum, but I want no distractions to our wedding. If she could stay home, I think but don’t say, it will be so much easier.

It doesn’t happen.

My brother-in-law carries oxygen on the plane just in case and a medical supply company meets me at the hotel in California with portable oxygen and a mammoth machine for the room. It turns out, she needs the oxygen only at night — and that she’s hardly a burden.

In fact, her presence enhances the event.

During the wedding weekend, she has the time of her very long life, and so does everyone else, in part because of her. My mother-in-law is thrilled to be there, smiling and uncomplaining — an inspiration and joy to the younger guests. To see our friends and those of my son and daughter-in-law, as well as her grandchildren, interact so tenderly with her is unforgettable.

Picture this: I am dancing at the wedding when I watch my 23-year-old nephew steer his beautifully coiffed grandmother in her hotel-borrowed wheelchair onto the dance floor. She can barely hear, even with two hearing aids, but she swishes her hands back and forth to the beat.

Two of our male friends jump in, each taking one of her arms and twirling and “dancing” with her as she sits. Anyone left standing hits the floor and dances around the wheelchair. Later, another grandson pushes her onto the dance floor and a Congo line forms, with Grandma in front.

My friend, a newly minted massage therapist, offers to massage my mother-in-law’s swollen hands. Slipping the oxygen on, she falls asleep on her bed being rubbed by a close friend who has never met her before. The next night, another friend helps me undress her. It is my friend who tucks her in and gives her a goodnight kiss. (I should probably leave out the part where she emits gas loudly; when we leave the room, my friend and I heave with laughter at the memory.)

Since my mother, in Connecticut, couldn’t travel 3,000 miles to the wedding, my beloved aunt and uncle, who live an hour away in Los Angeles, represent the older generation on my side.

Just six weeks before the wedding, my 88-year-old uncle has a large tumor removed from his lung. His wife, my mother’s sister, is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. The last time I saw her she was doing the¬†New York Times¬†crossword puzzle and playing bridge. She now thinks her daughter Emily is her childhood friend Betty Jane and her husband is “Mommy. “

At one point while the band plays, my uncle turns to my aunt and says, “Come on, Peg, let’s give it a whirl for old time’s sake.” He takes her hand and leads her to the dance floor where they do a poignant slow dance. Later that night, my aunt wanders out of her room at 3 a.m. and security finds her in her nightgown on the grounds. She will never travel again. But she made it to the wedding, whether she remembers or not, and seemed to have fun.

Having my mother-in-law, aunt, and uncle there so enriched the wedding for everyone. We live in an ageist society, where old and infirm family members are often invited out of obligation, not genuine desire. On this special wedding day, these vibrant, albeit disabled, adults manage to make it — and much more.

For me, “I do” has come to have new meaning.