My Phantom Son-in-Law

Most days I manage to hold him at bay, that son-in-law I once imagined I’d have. It’s pointless to indulge in thoughts of what might have been if life had gone as planned. But sometimes, when I least expect it, he kicks down the door to my inner sanctum and wreaks a little havoc. His most recent visit was last Easter Sunday.

man walking away across wooden planks ghost

Let’s face it, when your perfect baby is born, it’s only natural to have a set of expectations of how life is going to play out. When we finally resigned ourselves to what remained after Jen’s brain injury, those expectations had to be dealt with. One by one, they were tenderly wrapped up and packed away in an inviolably private place which, I’ve learned, doesn’t have a key. I can’t keep them permanently contained, try as I may.

A couple of years ago, a friend sent me her list of ten Personal Principles which inspired me to come up with my own. It’s quite the exercise, really, to sit quietly and come up with the top ten tenets which help guide you through life. And indulging myself in thoughts of my phantom son-in-law is in direct violation of Personal Principle #2: Exercise Mental Discipline.

I really let my guard down that Easter Sunday and let him waltz right in while I was setting the table for dinner. Fitting he should appear in the dining room where that empty sixth chair serves as reminder of a missing family member.  I remember wondering what his name is. And who he married instead of Jen. What does he look like? Does his mother-in-law appreciate him?

And then I imagined the grandchildren he would have given me. Oh yes, I was really on a roll that day. I should be hiding Easter eggs, I thought, and filling baskets with jelly beans and garishly-colored marshmallow peeps. I should be placing chocolate bunnies at place settings and presenting a lamb cake to squeals of delight. I should have been an Oma, I would have been awesome. And my beloved husband….well, we’ll just stop right here.

We all have one, I think. A Phantom Son-in-Law of some incarnation. He is the metaphor for life’s Plan A – the one we thought we’d lead when first embarking into the great unknown of our future.

One of my wisest friends once counseled me that the secret to contentment in life is how well we cope with Plan B. Truer words were never spoken.

Dealing with Plan B – however it manifests itself – can be achieved fairly happily if I stick to Personal Principle #2. I didn’t have to indulge myself in reincarnating the phantom that day. I could have derailed that train of thought, but I chose not to because I selfishly wanted to conduct my own personal pity party. It’s kind of like scratching poison ivy – you know you shouldn’t, but it feels so excruciatingly good – until you pay the heavy price for that brief lapse in self-control. Emotional rashes leave scars too.

Exercising mental discipline means not allowing myself to go there. I keep the Phantom and his kids in that attic and when they begin to stir, I make the almost physical effort to push them away, sometimes violently. This works for me; I don’t know that it would for everybody. We all have to find our own way of puzzling out a peaceful co-habitation with our specters, I guess.

I want to write here occasionally about my Personal Principles, but it’s tricky for me. I would despise it if I came off as preachy or looking for sympathy. Believe me, I am so far from having all the answers, it’s ridiculous. Nor is sympathy a motivation; I have so much to be thankful for. Just the act of writing things down in this format helps me gain clarity, so if nothing else, I’ll consider being able to do so a glimmer of life’s silver.

How about you? Have you ever considered developing a list of ten Personal Principles? Do you have a method of coping with life’s inevitable Plan B? Does your Phantom Son-in-Law kick down the door occasionally too?

Thanks for reading,


About Silver in the Barn

Life in a 1915 farmhouse in Central Virginia. And the odd thought or two.
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137 Responses to My Phantom Son-in-Law

  1. Dear Barbara,
    One of the main reasons I enjoy and appreciate your blog posts is your tone, attitude, and approach. Always warm and thoughtful, and especially balanced and non-self-pitying when you choose to speak about your daughter and your thoughts and feelings around her. You have quickly become a valued role model for me.
    The idea of identifying a list of 10 Personal Principles by which I want to live my life is appealing to me, and I will be giving that serious thought. Thank you for the suggestion.


    • Oh, Elizabeth, how very kind of you. As you know, i do not want my blog to become a repository of bleak and unhappy thoughts because that isn’t me or my life. Maybe the ratio of posts like this one to the others is a good reflection of my own life, now that I think about it. It is a huge relief to read that you feel my words are non-self-pitying….so tricky when writing about tough personal subjects…the fear is others will see it as a cry for attention which it isn’t (anymore than any blog post is!) I hope you do give the 10 PPs a shot – it really forces you to examine what’s what in your life and as I’ve said before, the mere act of writing them down gives them a bit of sticking power. Many thanks for such a validating comment.


  2. We all have dashed dreams, don’t we? It’s OK to mourn the loss. Really, it is.

    This is a beautifully penned piece that needed writing.


  3. ceci says:

    Wish I had thought of Principle One……I’m adopting it immediately.



  4. elmediat says:

    Our second child, our 21 year old daughter, is a Downs person. Our eldest, our son, is suffering some health set backs and working his way through those particular challenges. Life takes you places whether you wish to or not. There are times when you feel like you are dragging yourself along, while everyone around you thinks you are so strong. My blogs are my sanctuary.

    Creating, communicating & sharing are great coping tools.

    My wife has started a puppeteer theatre group for special needs citizens in our small community.
    Here is the link if you are interested.


    • Hello and thank you for leaving this message. You are so right about blogs being a sanctuary and your observation about feeling like you are dragging yourself along while others image you are strong is so true! Little do they know, right? Your wife’s puppeteer theatre group is FANTASTIC!! I just love to see the things that extraordinary people come up with in this life. Thank you!


  5. So beautiful and heartbreaking all at once, Barbara, a masterpiece. It evokes so much emotion. We all have phantoms. You address yours so very well. Thank you. Van


  6. Giant hugs, Barbara. Love to you, and Roger, and Jen.I can identify with the exact feelings you describe and understand the huge effort it takes to not let oneself go there- especially at holidays. You express so much beauty and grace in your life, your writing, and in the love you share with all of those whose lives touch yours. Thank you for this post. Your honesty allows us reading it to be a bit more gentle with ourselves- and also a bit tougher to honor your example.


  7. shoreacres says:

    I just read your post about trying kindness first. It resonated with me, as it’s clearly a first-cousin to something I do almost reflexively now: putting the best construction on things. If someone behaves obnoxiously, perhaps they’re carrying a hurt. If someone seems standoffish, it may be fear at work. If a new situation seems unbearable, perhaps there’s a new coping technique that will help. And so on.

    What I can’t understand is why I responded somewhat negatively to the thought of living by “principles.” As I thought about it, I realized that “principles” often seem more like a list of rules than anything else. One the other hand, there are obvious values that shape and guide my life from day to day: perseverance, honesty, independence, among others. Maybe, in the end, those words are just shorthand for principles, and I’ve never thought about expanding them!

    Oh. Adaptability. That’s another one I find important. i think that’s what you call Plan B!


    • Hello Linda and thank you for this thoughtful comment. I would have reacted somewhat negatively to the thought of living by “principles” too were it not for how much I think of the friend who sent me her list and got me rolling on this subject. Just the act of sitting down and attempting to device ten key….tenets, principles, codes….turned out to be a real challenge for me because I have always tried to behave as one should instinctively or as you say reflexively. Behaving kindly, however, is not reflexive. I have to work at it and I’ve found that having written it down and given it some thought has helped me. The process is exactly as you describe for me too: putting the best construction on things. I like that very much. It’s the thought process I go through when the internal steam is building in the check-out line for whatever reason. Let it go. Be kind. Calm down. Ommmmm. Hey, whatever works, right?


  8. reocochran says:

    This was a sweet and wistful post, Barb. Your phantom son in law and being an Oma made my eyes get teary. This is not your Plan A, but you have adapted well to Plan B, I believe.
    I am sure you love the life your daughter has, trying not to project your own expectations. I hope for my own son in law, someday. But, my daughter is quite content with her first ex still a good “weekend father” to Skyler and her present man living with her. We have the wedding gown, the flower girl’s dress, my Mom’s dress and two bridesmaids dresses, but the man withdrew the offer, in time for the invitations not to be sent.
    I like the idea of letting us in on your personal principles and then starting a conversation about adding others’ ideas and expanding on their ideas. I need to go back to where you posted about these… You are one who would NEVER come off, in my opinion, as ‘preachy,’ Barb!


    • You mean your daughter’s current boyfriend withdrew his offer to marry her? Yikes, in any case. Well, better a ruined engagement than an unhappy marriage, we all know. Thanks for reassuring me about the preachy fear, Robin. It’s helpful to me to hear that from you!


  9. cat9984 says:

    I am way too undisciplined to create principles and live by them. I commend you for doing so. Every once in a while I wonder what my life would have been if my bipolar disorder had been diagnosed early enough to have not destroyed my career as a consultant. At least the kids wouldn’t be struggling to pay for college.


    • Oh, Cat, I am undisciplined too. That’s why I need a list to help keep my thoughts in order. I’m so sorry you’ve had to struggle with bipolar disorder and its aftermath. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing for kids to struggle to pay their tuition. So often I’ve seen kids handed their education on a silver platter and they don’t seem to value it at all. I know what you mean and I’m not diminishing their struggle, but it may make them stronger people in the long run. Hope I haven’t stepped over the line in offering this opinion.


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