To a beloved mother-in-law: ‘It’s my turn to be strong for you’

Before You Go: ‘Thank you for being such a loving matriarch to our family,’ writes Ingrid Littmann-Tai in a letter to her mother-in-law with dementia, her children’s Nai Nai

I remember the first time I greeted you with a kiss.

You and Ye Ye had flown from Toronto to Calgary to spend the weekend with your eldest son. You didn’t realize this visit included his new girlfriend. Back then I addressed you and Ye Ye as Mrs. and Mr. Tai—after all, we had just met.

It was a meeting of two cultures, your reserved Chinese bow versus my French bise on both cheeks. You stood stiffly, unfamiliar with the intimacy of a French hello. I tried to explain this Gallic custom, that my mother was from France and this greeting was customary in our family. You nodded slowly, but I could tell you were uncomfortable with me invading your personal space.

Over 25 years of weekly family dinners, birthday celebrations and holidays together, you got used to my displays of affection. Now I long for the days when we could be in the same room, when I would kiss you on the cheek and you would respond with a big smile and an “Oh, hi” in your lovely, lilting accent. These days, there are no kisses, and fewer warm smiles as we speak with you through Zoom. Your Calgary seniors’ residence is only 15 minutes away from our home, but it feels like we are worlds apart.

After I married your son in 1995—he, much like you, is kind and hardworking and an excellent cook—I felt your presence in our home. You were never intrusive but always just a phone call away for help with the children or a new recipe. When we bought our first home, you happily came over to share your love of gardening and taught me to plant flowers. You could sense when we needed you and you would be there—any time, anywhere.

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Seeing you become a grandmother was seeing you at your best. After raising two sons, you were thrilled your first grandchild was a girl. You called her xiao xing xing (little twinkling star) when she was a baby, saying she was born with a sparkle in her eyes and a glow that would light up any room. She got this from you.

Shortly after I gave birth, you were sitting next to me on the couch, watching me struggle to breastfeed. Tears streamed down my cheeks because my bundle of joy would not latch on. Without hesitation, you grabbed my breast and shoved it into my baby’s mouth. No fooling around. You just got the job done, like you always do.

When an undiagnosed illness hit me years later, you again took charge, booking appointments with Chinese acupuncturists and accompanying me to translate. You whipped up pain-killing recipes of healing herbs, convinced the latest tincture would work.

When I wasn’t feeling well, you scooped up your granddaughters so I could rest. When I picked them up, I’d often find you sitting on a chair with the girls on the floor; they’d be staring up at you with admiration as you taught them Mandarin. Even at a young age they so wanted to be able to speak to you and Ye Ye in your native tongue.

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Over the last five years, the cruelty of dementia has taken away these intimate moments between us. Now, with no in-person visits allowed due to COVID-19, your energetic personality is fading away even faster.

On our weekly family Zoom calls, I can immediately tell when you’re having a bad day; your face is blank, unemotional and unknowing, and the assistant at the care home has to encourage you to interact. On the occasional good days, we are greeted by your welcoming smile that stretches from ear to ear. You light up when your granddaughters excitedly shout, “Hi, Nai Nai!” In those moments, I am reminded that you are still in there, somewhere.

I want to say thank you. Thank you for being such a loving matriarch to our family. Although you can no longer physically visit our home, and sometimes you don’t recognize us, I see your calming influence and playful spirit daily in my husband and daughters—who are quick to laugh, just like their Nai Nai.

When I see your smiling face on the computer screen, I want to lean in and kiss you on your still silky-smooth cheeks. I want to pull you in close and wrap my arms around your frail body. I know you would now accept this greeting warmly, kiss me back and welcome me into your space. I have relied on your strength and love for so many years. Now it’s my turn to be strong for you.

This article appears in print in the May 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Dear Nai Nai…” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

The piece is part of Maclean’s Before You Go series, which collects unique, heartfelt letters from Canadians taking the time to say “Thanks, I love you” to special people in their lives—because we shouldn’t have to wait until it’s too late to tell our loved ones how we really feel. Read more essays here. If you would like to see your own letters or reflections published, send us an email here. For more details about submitting your own, click here.

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