“Live the questions now.
Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually,
without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
~ Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
We are sitting around the dining room table after dinner last week, and the boys are discussing a math question with my father. Sometimes it does take a rocket scientist, and fortunately, we have one local. The question on the table is whether the fraction zero over zero equals zero? or equals one? Stick with me here – I’m not a math guy either. It could be argued either way, which is when it’s convenient to have a lawyer available, and we happen to have one of those in residence as well.
On the one hand, zero over anything equals zero, which would make the answer zero. On the other hand, when the top and the bottom of the fraction are the same number, that answer equals one. These options are mutually exclusive. The solution? When the number zero is on the bottom of a fraction, the answer is by definition undefined. There isn’t a number to express the answer. Undefined. It cannot quite be explained, but then again… it is not constrained by a definition either.
I was widowed in 2007, and my husband Tim was also widowed the same year. In one of the blessings that is our marriage, we have all eight of our collective parents:
- my parents,
- my late husband Sam’s parents (my in-laws),
- Tim’s parents (also my in-laws),
- and his first wife’s parents (my in-laws?).
What exactly is the right word to express the relationship between me and the parents of my husband’s first wife? If I refer to them as my husband’s in-laws, doesn’t that mean my own parents?
For the moment, let me refer to the father of my husband’s late wife as “My Undefined Relative.” Or maybe instead I should just call him Jed. The Hebrew meaning of Jed is the Beloved of the Lord. My Undefined Relative will appreciate that. And he will undoubtedly expect special treatment when I see him next.
Jed didn’t know what to call me either, by the way. How exactly does one refer to the new girlfriend of one’s late daughter’s widower? He once introduced me as “my son-in-law’s very…very… very… very special friend.” Even if you like her, it’s awkward.
Jed may not have known how to refer to me, but he was consistently kind to me. He has been inclusive of me and my children from day one. Before Tim and I were married, or even engaged, I accompanied Tim to a Rotary event at which Jed was being honored. Tim’s sons attended the event, along with many of their kin, but we left my sons home with a favorite sitter so as not to overwhelm them with family.
As I was reading Jed’s profile, I noted that program said he had 3 daughters and 8 grandchildren. Eight? Each of his three daughters had two children. That’s six grandchildren. I’m the lawyer, not the physicist, but I can count heads, and there are only six. When I pointed out the typo to Tim, he said, “Jed wanted to make sure that you and your boys were included.” We were not yet related, but he had already embraced us.
We did not know the answers, but we were living the questions.
He is not my father, but Jed is like a father to me. The term “father-in-law” doesn’t quite convey the affection we now share. I don’t dare call him beloved, as he would be insufferable come Father’s Day.
Jed’s wife, my mother-in-law-ish/undefined relative comes from a large family. Beverly has 12 siblings, and as a result she is a woman with an open and flexible heart. I cannot imagine how painful it must be to have lost her daughter, and yet she treats me as one of her own. It is truly “humbling.” Every once in a while she refers to me with her own daughter’s name, and I take it as a compliment. The fact that she has become comfortable enough to throw me in the basket with the rest of her puppies gives me great joy.
Last weekend, Beverly received a lifetime award from Rotary, and the entire family rallied to her side to celebrate. She introduced her family, starting with her husband of 50 years, and then her daughters, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. Beverly included all of my boys by name in the litany of her grandchildren. Five years ago, when Jed received this honor, my biological sons had not yet met most of this extended family; this time, they are comfortably flanked by uncles and cousins at a table across the garden, happily planning their next fishing trip.
Beverly has a way of simplifying things, and she did not attempt to describe the series of events that led to my sitting with the guest of honor. She simply introduced me as “my daughter Charlotte.” I would never have imagined feeling so at home with this big, boisterous, vibrant family. Yet here we are. We are living our way into the answers.
On the way home, our youngest boy – who, like Beverly, has a gift for seeing the heart of the matter – says, “Mom, I like the way grandma introduced you as her daughter.”
And I love that he simply calls her grandma.
Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And the patience to live the questions.