I have wanted to write of my mother-in-law’s conversion for over a year now, but I knew that her story would not be complete until she went to the Father. Finally, it’s time. Carol, I hope and pray that I get it right and do justice to your life and beliefs. You deserve nothing less.
|Carol Sue Goldstein Miller at age 20, already a wife and the mother of my husband. |
A real beauty.
For the first 25 years that I knew Carol, we were polite but not close (that’s another story), and we did not speak of religion. She was adopted as an infant, raised Jewish and became an agnostic as an adult. She was secular. If she did have any spirituality, it was found in the crystals she owned, or the New Agey angels she liked, or perhaps even the mystical nature of the vampires, phantoms, ghosts, and ghouls that delighted her. I never knew for sure if she believed in God, as it was just not a topic to be discussed in the superficial, if loving, relationship that we had with her. Dean had converted from Jewish agnosticism to Catholicism in 1997 at the age of 31; Carol was not thrilled at the time, but she accepted it as she saw its effect on her son, and as she watched our family grow.
Carol’s life was a difficult one from the beginning. She had an abusive childhood, and as a pregnant teen she entered into a troubled marriage. She had two sons, my husband being the elder, and found herself divorced in her mid-forties, after 28 years of marriage. Life continued to be a struggle for her, and until her death at 67, she was often overlooked or condescended to, as if she were a silly little girl. To my shame, I was one of the guilty ones. I was so smugly sure that I knew what she was about.
Carol lived in Atlanta and we in Phoenix, so we saw her probably twice a year. She would stay with us when she visited, and while Dean and I sort of “tolerated” her idiosyncrasies and (what we considered) her childish ways, she and the kids had a great time, and she loved them dearly. One thing I notice only in retrospect is how bright was her smile, and how delightful, frequent, and genuine her laugh.
Carol found joy in the little things, and now I see that she was very childlike (not childish!) in her joy of things like her cat, her collection of bunny figurines, her shell collection, and her gleeful love of Halloween and Christmas. She enjoyed big, sparkly jewelry and would often change the color of her eyes with colored contact lenses. She loved wigs and make-up and colorful clothes, and she gave the most lovely gifts when finances allowed.
In 2010, Carol, a lifelong smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Frankly, it was something we expected to happen, but it was still hard to process. Dean was terribly upset. My husband cries only rarely, but that day on the phone, when he told me the news, he couldn’t stop crying. I was surprised when, between sobs, he was very specific: “I want her to be baptized!” Looking back, it’s an absolute miracle how God answered his tearful prayer.
Honestly, we thought she was the last person in the world who would find true faith in God, much less that she would actually be baptized before she left this earth. In our minds, it was simply not possible, and that is why Dean was weeping. In an attempt to console Dean, I suggested we send Carol some holy or religious things, anything that might resonate with her as she faced a difficult diagnosis and her own mortality. We actually bought a copy of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life to give her, since she didn’t seem to have or identify with any real purpose (it’s not a Catholic book, and we wouldn't normally recommend it, but we thought it was light enough to introduce some ideas). We discussed sending vintage holy cards since she liked pretty images, specifically a guardian angel card, since she was drawn to angels and all things "otherworldly". And we thought of sending an image of the Blessed Mother, since Carol hadn't had a loving earthly mother.
Ultimately, though, we sent nothing.
After trying and suspending chemo and radiation treatments that she could not tolerate, Carol became more and more frail, visually aging decades in just a couple of years. Strangely and happily, the tumors seemed to stop growing at one point (I believe God gave her the time she needed for what was to come), although she still suffered from COPD and other ailments that kept sucking the life out of her body. However, although she looked like a different woman, her spirits and good humor remained the same! I still did not fully grasp the stuff of which this woman was made.
Carol came to visit us for Thanksgiving in 2012, and one evening she and I found ourselves alone as I cleaned up the kitchen. We usually talked about superficial things, but this time we went deeper and I was glad. Lovingly, she told me that Dean and I had done a good job raising the children. In return, I told her something that I never really had believed all these years (in fact, I had believed the opposite): “You were a good mother, too, Carol.” And when I spoke those words, I was being sincere. She responded with a chuckle, “No, I was not a good mom.” I countered with the truth: “Carol, you raised two amazing men, family men, who love their wives and their children and are good citizens and human beings. You were a good mom. You taught them right from wrong, and when Dean was little and stole from the neighbors, you made him suffer the consequences, and he learned. Many parents won't do that today.”
We went on to talk about how kids are raised these days, how parents are afraid to parent, and the problems with pervasive disrespect. It was an interesting conversation, two moms in solidarity, which transitioned into a discussion of the broader culture. As with religion, we had always avoided talking about the culture and politics; Carol was politically on the left, and had "progressive" ideas about the social issues. There was very little that we agreed on. But in our newfound solidarity, we talked about the permissiveness of the culture, and I felt bold enough to discuss with her the ugly things that even small children and young teens are taught by the likes of Planned Parenthood, much of which shocked her -- like the "embrace your inner slut" video. She looked at me, horrified, and said, “I’m a liberal, but I don’t believe in that!” I told her I understood, and that most Americans are unaware of what goes on here politically, legally, and in our schools and universities, and that they would be shocked if they knew.
The entire discussion was interesting, edifying, and pleasant, and I felt like Carol and I had bonded as never before. I felt good at this step towards a better friendship and a deeper mutual understanding, and I was satisfied, feeling that this talk could tide us over for a lifetime. Now that that was done, it was time to move along, to relax and enjoy the rest of the night with mindless activities.
I was not expecting what happened next. It was a like a bomb: The question that changed everything.
To be continued....
Read Part Two here.