Gail Schlachter, My Mother-in-law, Remembered
A couple of weeks ago, my mother-in-law Gail Schlachter passed away. Our family, already burdened with my illness, has been reeling from this unexpected loss. The other day Jacob, who was particularly close with his Grandma Gail, caved under the weight of it all and had a bit of a meltdown near bedtime. I said to him, “Jacob, let’s just go to bed, and wake up tomorrow to a fresh start, a brand new day.” He looked at me with tears in his eyes and replied, with the devastating honesty of a child, “But Mom, it won’t be a fresh day — everything that’s already happened, will still have happened.” And my heart broke just a little more with the pure truth of that. There are some things that simply aren’t fixable, and our loss of Gail is one of them.
In reflecting on Gail these last couple of weeks, what stands out to me is how generous she was with her time, advice and support. We had many long conversations over the 21 years I knew her. In one memorable conversation, I sought her guidance on a possible career path. A former lawyer, I’d been a stay-at-home-mom for about 5 years when I contemplated teaching fitness classes. I felt almost silly broaching the topic with her. Most people thought it sort of absurd that I would pursue this track, given all the time and money I’d spent on my law career. Gail especially valued education and coveted a law degree for herself. I thought for sure she’d discourage me. But, she didn’t flinch when I wanted to walk away from the law and explore other avenues. She even went so far as to help pay for one of my more rigorous certification programs.
What Gail (owner of a few of her own unused graduate degrees) understood, I think, is that people must follow their interests. But, not in an indulgent, selfish way. It most definitely wasn’t about simply being happy, “finding your bliss,” or whatever platitude commencement speakers will be pedaling at graduations across the country in the coming weeks. I once relayed to Gail my concern about my children: “I just want them to be happy,” I said. She gently chided me, “Happy?? … I’m not sure that’s the most important thing.” I paused. And, then quickly realized her wisdom.
All of us who knew Gail knew that she was a happy person. Sometimes she downright bubbled over, giddy with joy. But, what Gail understood – and what she taught me – is that her happiness was not a result of a parent or anyone else paving a smooth path for her. Her happiness came from her sense of satisfaction in overcoming her difficulties, in finding ways to not only help herself, but help others. Struggle is not a bad thing to be avoided, but a critical component of a meaningful life. My job, both for myself, and as a parent guiding Gail’s grandchildren, is to similarly embrace challenges as catalysts to improve ourselves and contribute to the world. Happiness will follow, and be all the sweeter for it. “Happy” is not a goal, it’s a byproduct.
Of course, figuring out one’s path isn’t always easy, or obvious. No one knew this better than Gail. Her incredible success in the library field, in the real estate market, and as a single mother, was pretty different than the one she had imagined for herself initially. But, the women I love and admire for their strength and wisdom did not get that way because things came easy and everything went according to plan.
As I walk my own path, with its own unanticipated difficulties, I reflect on how Gail navigated her own treacherous waters and emerged stronger, a great contributor to so many around her. She held fast to her ideals and served her family, her friends, and perfect strangers as well as she knew how — and that was very, very well. She was a superhero and a beacon for me in many ways, and will continue to be. Her sacred lesson to embrace struggle and leverage it, rather than pursue happiness, will stay with me forever. Her example of strength, of stepping up to handle whatever challenge life throws, however unexpected, shows me that I can, too. I will call on her, and have my children call on her memory. Her wisdom will continue to guide us. Her memory will always be a blessing.