Don't think for one minute that Southern women are delicate flowers. They're not; they have ancestry that goes way back to the beginning of this country. They know how to put a meal together from nothing. They can clothe a family from feed sacks and there are some that can shame experts when it comes to loving their families and raising decent law-abiding kids to adulthood. My mother-in-law can do all that and more.
She has a strong faith in Christianity and believes that Jesus looks out for her and her loved ones. Her greatest attribute, though, is often missing from folks who have a lot more than she does.
She has a spine of steel and a will to match.
She looked at her son - her only son - lying in a hospital bed, broken and bruised and dependent on machines to take care of his basic needs. "Ya haf to git better, son," she said in the same tone of voice she probably used when she told him to eat his vegetables if he wanted dessert.
"Ya be too young t' join yore Pa. So take yoreself some big breaths an listen t' the doctors an git yoreself up an outa that bed, ya hear me, boy? Don't be laying there like it's over 'cause it ain't. Ya gotta lot of livin to do an I 'spect ya to do it."
Taking his hand, she bent to kiss his brow and whispered that she'd pray to Jesus to help him get well and then she said she needed to go home. "Ya stay with him," she told me. "I gotta git m'self home and bake my boy some fritters. He smells those fritters... well, he be up in no time. Mark my words."
I spent the night at Barry's bedside, half dozing and the other half bargaining with God. I was there every day and every day, I revised my promises to God if only He'd let Barry come back to me. When my mother-in-law visited, I left them alone so she could say whatever she wanted to say without worrying what I'd think. I'd go home while she was there, shower and change and sometimes, take a nap and then, it was back to the hospital to sit with Barry.
Every moment with him became extra precious and I talked to him while I held his hand. I told him what I was thinking, and reminded him of things we had done and said before the accident. As I talked, I looked for signs that he heard me - an eye blinking below the lid, a harsher breath, a finger twitching - nothing. And I'd watch the monitors that showed his heartbeat and blood pressure to see if any of them changed - nothing.
I laughed and cried and sometimes I got so angry, I'd hiss under my breath calling him Mr. Adams instead of Barry. A week after his accident I woke up nauseous. Two weeks after his accident, the doctor confirmed my pregnancy. I was four weeks along and desperate to share this joy with my husband.
But he was comatose and I was alone... a Yankee gal in Habersham County.
"Like I been sayin," my mother-in-law's words brought me back to the present. "I didn't much care for ya when Barry brung ya home. But ya treated me right even tho I never showed ya a bit of kindness an ya growed on me. I 'spect yore Ma raised ya right. Might be there's a Yankee or two worth a'knowin. I don't mind sayin I was a bit 'shamed of m'self 'cause I knowed I'd been less than Christian t' ya. I won't be askin ya to forgive me but I be trying t' be more... I can't think of the right word," she paused. "But y'all be welcome in this here house from now on - no matter whut."
Did I mention her spine of steel? It took a great deal of courage for this proud woman to say those words to me. I knew it was as hard as anything she'd ever done and I was humbled. Her son, my husband - our love for Barry - had been our only link. Now we had another one. We shared our worry and sorrow, both of us praying and hoping against hope that he'd wake up and be well again. I moved to the chair next to hers at the table, took her hand in mine and rubbed the back of it with my thumb the way Barry always held mine.
"Thank you... Mom."
Her eyes filled and so did mine and I was tempted to tell her that I was expecting that grandbaby she wanted. At ten weeks gestation, I wasn't showing yet and the summer smocks I wore hid what little roundness I had. I don't know what stopped me but I decided to wait until I was further along.
"I think I'd like another piece of that pie," I said with a teary smile."
"A fresh cup, too," she said a little gruffly, covering her emotions. "I be jus a minute; gonna make a fresh pot."
She stayed in the kitchen while she made coffee giving both of us a chance to compose ourselves. I hugged her words to myself; there wasn't any guarantee she'd ever repeat them and I wanted to cherish them. At that very moment, my mother-in-law seemed vulnerable and while I had always been an independent and self-sufficient person, I had come to lean on Barry. I had learned to depend on his love and his strength when I needed him to hold me. He was my rock, but now there was a chance I would have to stand alone again and I needed to be strong for my mother-in-law as well as myself, and hopefully, for the child growing within me.
A rush of adrenaline filled me. It was an exhilarating moment and a frightening one.
We spent the rest of the evening looking at photo albums - Barry as a child growing up, his sisters and the annual obligatory family Christmas photo the senior Mr. Adams had insisted on. My mother-in-law told me of the mischief Barry got into when he was younger and laughed at some of the exploits, saying he was "all boy" and that his father had been proud of him. Barry was the only one in his family who had attended university and his bachelor's degree had been framed and was prominently displayed on her bedroom dresser.
"Was hard times when that boy of mine went to that college down Atlanta way. He'd come home after a bit but his Pa and me... well, we missed him somethin awful. Prayed extry hard fer him to be alright an t' do whut needed t' git done. Thanked Jesus mighty hard when he brung my boy home all safe an graduated too. Downright proud of that boy I am."
I watched her as she told me stories I hadn't heard before. She was animated and her laughter transformed her face from the bitter woman I had known for several years into the beautiful woman she must have been in her youth. She must have realized she was enjoying herself for the first time in a long time and with me, of all people. She grew quiet and shocked me when she took my hand, rubbing the back of it the way Barry did - the way she must have rubbed his hand when he was younger and in need of comfort.
"I thank ya, Hope," she said with quiet dignity. "I thank ya fer lovin my boy an fer bein who ya are."
It was strange sleeping in that house and in Barry's old bedroom but it was comforting, too. This was where he had lived for so many years and he had been happy here. Regardless of what life had in store for us, I had a feeling our son or daughter was going to spend some wonderful nights here with Barry's mother.
I was dreaming... Barry was holding me and teasing me the way he did, his magical kisses making me hunger for more of him. I woke startled and with a great urge to see him and forgetting it was the middle of the night, I got dressed.
"Ya feelin poorly?" my mother-in-law asked as she came out of her room tying a robe around her nightgown. "I'll fix ya some tea with a honey biscuit. That always makes me feel like new again. Ya interested?"
"I can't explain it," I said when she realized I was dressed to go out. "But I need to get to the hospital. I have to go. You want to go with me?"
"No, child," she said softly. "I'll go git m'self some tea an talk to Jesus. Ya go on t' see Barry an tell him I love him. An ya drive careful now, ya hear?"
I turned when I heard my name and watched a nurse rush toward me.
"I was just about to call you, ma'am," she said, a broad smile on her face.
"He's awake! The monitors beeped at the nurses' station," she explained, her words exciting me as we rushed to Barry's room. "Couldn't believe it was Mr. Adams... called the doctor right away... was about to call you..."
Her voice faded as I dashed into my husband's room. His eyes were open and as soon as he saw me, he smiled and I thought my heart would stop. People were fussing around him but his eyes were only for me and then and there I knew he had an angel looking out for him.
The staff finished doing whatever they were doing and when it seemed like half an eternity had passed, we were finally alone and I was holding his hand and he was squeezing mine. "I've missed you, Mr. Adams," I whispered.
"Gonna burn your lil butt soon as I can get out of this bed, sugar," he told me, his voice all raspy. "Heard you calling me Mr. Adams over and over. Body's a bit weak but I'll be back on my feet in two shakes of a lamb's tail so you better sit while you can."
"I will," I smiled, grateful Barry still sounded like Barry. "I've got lots to tell you when you've rested," I said, "but I don't want to wear you out. Your mama's going to come back to life now that you're awake."
"The doc said I've been out of it for a spell now. You've been spending time with my mama?"
"A little." I didn't say more. Barry was awake but obviously exhausted and the doctor came in to check on him again. I got out of his way and sat on the other side of the room only half listening to what the doctor was saying to Barry.
The love of my life was awake now. His prognosis was guarded but good and as I settled back into the armchair to marvel at his beginning recovery, I remembered the promises I had made to God.