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Illustration by Drew Shannon

“You know who I truly feel bad for in this situation – Josh,” my mom repeated for the billionth time. By then, I had become used to my mom’s unrelenting praise of Josh. Contrary to the stereotype of the hypercritical mother-in-law/son-in-law relationship, she was truly his biggest fan.

Josh had become one of her heroes. I should know. I used to be one – before my husband replaced me on the pedestal.

At first, I was relieved that they got along so well. But then it got to be a bit annoying. Pretty soon, it was downright irritating. My mom constantly said things like, “That Josh, what can’t he do?” or, more infuriatingly, “I agree with Josh again. I always agree with Josh.”

Thanks, Mom.

The truth is I know that Josh is wonderful. That’s why I married him. But, at that moment, the contrarian in me wanted to tell her Josh’s foibles. Sometimes I do subtly try to remind her that Josh is human. But, mostly, I’ve learned it’s better to just leave it.

“You know, I’m not a bad catch either, Mom.”

“I know, Jen. It’s just... I can’t believe all the things he’s doing. Caring for two babies and working, while also accompanying you to all of your treatments. I just hope he doesn’t burn out.”

“Mom! I’m the one with cancer!” I sighed loudly, knowing that she could sense my eye roll across the 540 kilometres between us. “How is Josh the hero here?”

My mom took to Josh from the first time that he accompanied me to visit her in Toronto. At first, I believed she was just happy I’d found a nice guy who was willing to marry me.

But soon it became clear that there was more to their relationship.

When I started dating Josh, my mom was single and living alone with our shar-pei pug, Moses, in our family home. I was a corporate lawyer, working in Manhattan. I felt guilty that I did not have time to visit her more often during the first few years that I was practicing.

But after I met Josh, we would often go on weekend jaunts to Toronto. On these weekends, Josh often flew to Toronto alone on Friday afternoons and we flew back together on Sunday evenings. I would get the last flight out of LaGuardia, since I couldn’t justify leaving work before the last possible second.

That left Josh with what I thought would be several awkward hours alone with my mom. Josh would offer to walk Moses. Then he would make himself useful around the kitchen. Josh and my mom prepared Shabbat dinner, lit the candles and broke bread together.

By the time I clambered out of my taxi, Josh and my mom were enthralled in a lively conversation about the bureaucracy of the Ontario government or Josh’s deep-rooted family history in New York or the Boer War or anything else that you could think of really. Their voices animated our otherwise quiet house with a warmth it had not possessed since my brother and I left home. It felt like I was crashing an intimate date. I also felt guilty. I wanted to be the one having Friday night dinner with my mom – not my boyfriend.

These evenings gave Josh and my mom the unique opportunity to form their own relationship – something that most mothers-in-law and sons-in-law do not have a chance to do. I believe it was then that they realized they liked each other, regardless of their mutual interest. But that didn’t do anything to quash my bitterness at all the fun they were having without me.

As time went on, their relationship flourished. Not too many women can say that their mother and husband were both in the delivery room – less can say that they didn’t even butt heads. Josh and my mom worked as a team when I was delivering Miles – passing back and forth buckets of ice chips like workers on an assembly line. Their fabulous teamwork made me feel as if I was outside the situation – simply the crazy lady in the corner pushing a baby out.

During my cancer treatment, I often found myself watching Josh and my mom together as if from a distance. The state of being a cancer patient already makes one feel as if they’re behind a glass wall watching the world go on around them. This didn’t make it any better.

I once awoke from a drug-induced chemo nap in the hospital to find them whispering to each other from the brown leather chairs across from where I lay. I pretended I was still asleep.

To my surprise, I heard Josh say, “Yeah, I don’t know. I just have sought approval since I was a kid.”

Josh is the least forthcoming person I know. When we started dating, I used to prepare lists of questions in my head before dates to try and get him to open up. This couldn’t be the same man who I just witnessed pouring out his deepest secrets to his mother-in-law, could it?

Later, Josh confirmed that what I heard was true.

“I hope I didn’t reveal too much to your mom today. She’s just so much like you. I kinda forget when I’m talking to her that she isn’t you. I just really feel comfortable around her.”

“Like me?” I responded.

I flashed back to a rare time when Josh had actually let out his frustration. We were staying with my mom in Toronto and he was trying to work. I kept calling, “Josh, Josh, my computer’s broken!” At the same time my mom was calling, “Josh, Josh, come check out this sauce I made. Do you think I should add some more salt?” All of a sudden, he burst out, “I can’t take this anymore. I can take one of you, but not two of you at the same time!”

It wasn’t that Josh liked my mom better than me. It was that he liked my mom so much because she reminded him of me – and, I was the one who was his favourite person.

I guess it made sense that he would turn to her for friendship at a time when I was (at least) temporarily incapable of giving it to him. And, equally, it made sense for her to turn to him. There was no one in the world who would better understand the depths of her sadness at the spunk being gone from her daughter than him.

So that day on the phone, I caught myself.

“You don’t want Josh to burn out because you’re worried about him or because you’re worried about me?” I asked slowly.

“Of course, I’m worried about you, Jen. I’m your mother. I’m worried about Josh because he takes care of you and my grandbabies. I am eternally grateful to him for that. And that is what makes him a hero in my books.”

Finally, I understood. I had two people in the world who loved me enough to love each other.

Jenny Leon lives in New Jersey.

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