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My Mother-in-Law’s Near-Death Experience Taught Me How to Be a Better Parent

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

By Leah Moore

My mother-in-law was attacked in a Texas death row prison while she was working as a correctional officer. The offender had a razor blade hidden behind his cuffed hands. She lowered her neck into her protective gear, while her partner detained the offender. Her quick response saved her life and left her with a scar that spanned her jawline from her ear to her chin.

On the same night, halfway across the country, I was watching a performance in Greenwich Village with my then-boyfriend (now my husband). He pulled me onto the street to explain why he suddenly needed to fly home to be with his mother. I remember fear. I remember despair. I remember silence.

There was no template in my head for what you say when the man you love tells you that someone tried to murder his mother.

We don’t always know what to say, or what file to pull from our internal Rolodex. But we sharpen our communication skills as we get older, learning from adult models, relying on cultural traditions, or even borrowing from our favorite characters. Sometimes we know exactly what file to pull. Sometimes we pull the wrong one. Sometimes we have no idea what to do but try anyway. Regardless of how we get there, the underlying sentiment is the same: I am sorry you are going through this. I am here.

When my mother-in-law was safely home, I confessed about not knowing what to say. She whispered, “Bless your heart,” and heaped another serving of food onto my plate. She knew I was there for her, and nothing more needed to be said.

Ithought a lot about that episode after the birth of my first child. My husband and I joined the elite club of raising a child we never expected. We learned our oldest daughter had a rare disability called Cri Du Chat. There was no template in my head for what you say when the doctor tells you your child may never learn to walk or talk. There I was again.

But our support system materialized. We received messages of encouragement. We received visits from family. We received recommendations for doctors. It wasn’t about getting it “right.” If we knew what we needed, we would have asked for it, but we were too burdened with medical paperwork and early intervention services to know where to start. So, we allowed our support system to speak to us in their individual love languages: jars of jellybeans, milkshakes, and sequin pillows imprinted with their faces. The message was clear — our community was wonderfully creative — and we weren’t alone.

They showed up as our daughter, Jordan, learned to navigate her walker and communicate with sign language. They showed up during the birth of our twins and held us harder as we visited a brain surgeon and oncologist for each of them. (Turns out, we made beautiful, empathetic children.) And after ten years of learning how to access and embrace the support we were receiving, I not only had enough information for a file, I had enough to fill a book.

So I wrote it. I embraced using my words as comfort and began to tell the stories of my life. Through sharing my writing, I found a community of families also navigating the unexpected.

We may not always have the bandwidth to show up for our loved ones, especially when we are processing our own challenges. The past two years have asked us to flex our empathy muscles. We learned how to comfort one another when we were physically unable to. We attached surgical gloves to recreate hand-holding. We played music through the walls of our apartment. We invited someone to a Zoom meeting — many, many times.

We innovated new ways to say, I’m here, on an international scale. And no matter what situation arises, we have proven we are resilient enough to find our community and to continue showing up.


Leah Witman Moore is a high school English and Theater teacher in New York. She is a mom of three and an advocate for individuals with special needs. She is working to shift the narrative to create more stories centering around individuals with disabilities, through her writing and her blog www.lovingyoubig.com. Her first memoir Loving You Big will be released in August 2021.