There is love

The Thinker by Rodin

As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above, Alfie,
I know there’s something much more,
Something even non-believers can believe in.
I believe in love, Alfie.

Alfie
Lyrics by Joss Stone
Sung by Dionne Warwick

The organist was playing something appropriately holy and Catholic, but as my 83-year-old father appeared from the wings of the chapel in suit and tie and a minute later his 77-year-old bride solemnly processed down the aisle, I was hearing Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man instead of the organ. I heard it all: from the blaring trumpets to the rattling bass drums. It is hard to think of a more common man than my father. Yet, if any occasion in his long life deserved a fanfare, this new wedding, sixty years after his first wedding and nearly five years after my mother died, this one qualified. He stood erect and humble, a man still in remarkable health, and with a natural glint of tears in his eyes waited patiently for his bride. His bride Marie gently ascended onto the altar and, at the invitation of the priest, sat next to my father to begin the rite of marriage. Almost immediately, and seemingly instinctively, they were holding hands.

It’s not that “old people” don’t get remarried, it’s just at my father’s age it happens so rarely that when it occurs it is so remarkable that it is almost bizarre. In my father’s case, it was also newsworthy. Someone from the bride’s family thought their story might intrigue The Washington Post. A Post photographer was present, sporting two enormous cameras that rarely had a moment of rest. A golden late summer sun beamed through the chapel’s windows and backlit an interdenominational stained glass window behind the altar. The room was nearly as radiant as the majestic smile and somewhat stupefied look on my father’s face.

My father and new stepmother
My father and new stepmother

My father and his bride met and fell in love at Riderwood, their retirement community in Silver Spring, Maryland. Residents of retirement communities know and accept death. Death is a daily fact, soullessly articulated by notices on the walls in the common areas. The residents do not know quite what to make with a wedding. The sedate residents of Riderwood mingling on the edges of the chapel seemed very confused by all the children, flowers and the general giddiness. “Goodness, it’s like someone is getting married,” one of them remarked to my wife. “That’s exactly what’s happening,” she told them. “My father-in-law is getting married here today.” This news caused great excitement in this land of walkers, wheelchairs, shuttle buses and residents with oxygen flowing up their noses. “You mean someone who lives here is getting married? Here?”

Yes, it does happen from time to time. When you read about a man in his eighties getting married, he is typically filthy rich and marrying someone half or more his age. Typically, the man is dead within a few years and his bride is locked in legal disputes with his children trying to claim his fortune. However, when your bride is seventy-seven, she is probably not after your money, and you are probably not after her for her youth, as she comes with just as many age spots as you do. Procreation is also out of the question, even with our modern medical advances. Sex is potentially possible if both bride and groom are in good health but it is likely that elderly couples will do much more hand holding than copulating. Who knows what anyone’s motivations are for marrying so late in life? In my father’s case, he married Marie because he loves her.

They love each other in spite of age spots, sagging skin, yellowing teeth and other maladies that come with age. They love each other because, well, they do. There is no accounting for it, but it helps that they are both institutional Catholics, raised large Catholic families, and yet remarkably still find themselves in good health for their age, with good life still ahead of them. They marry perhaps because they have the audacity and impertinence to enjoy whatever time they have left with someone they love.

It is audacious for people their age to look forward to a new life together. It is audacious to revel in the present and in the joy of life, rather than dwell on its inevitable conclusion, which actuarial statistics suggest cannot be too far in their futures. It speaks to their character, their values and their faith that they will not allow age to be a barrier to life or to love. Only the weak worry about an end of life. The blessed, the strong and the true of heart accept what life gives them and challenge life and themselves to fill their cups to the brim. Sometimes, as in the case of my father and his new bride, nature rewards them with rich years and a well-deserved new love late in life.

My father marries well. I have had four opportunities to meet my stepmother’s extended family. In some ways it feels like I have known them all my life and it is only now that I can associate these familiar voices and faces. When someone you know gets married, you often pick up immediate vibes from their relations on the future state of their marriage. There were no warning flags here, just warm, curious and interesting people with generous hearts and deep humanity. My hope is that long after my father and his bride have met their maker, my stepmother’s family will still be in our lives. For a marriage means new beginnings not just for the bride and groom, but also for all their relations, if they are smart enough to make the most of them.

With our parents off on a honeymoon (final destination: Switzerland) we hosted the remainder of our new extended family for a picnic in a park in suburban Maryland. My stepmother’s grandchildren drew on colored chalk on the concrete floor. Burgers and kielbasa (the latter acknowledging my mother’s unseen presence) grilled over a charcoal flame. Mostly we did not need the nametags we now wore. When our parents called us on the cell phone, we yelled Bon Voyage to them. We laughed. We ate. We enjoyed each other. We connected. We felt their love. We radiated in their spirit, and hopefully they in ours.

It is odd that their late-in-life marriage would bring happiness not just to them, but also upon us happy but often overwhelmed offspring and grandchildren with the joy of new connections. In the process, they bring new growth, vitality, energy to all of us.

Love cannot be defined. You only know it when you feel it. There is love.

The shock

The Thinker by Rodin

So I am sitting in a conference room in Lakewood, Colorado. My laptop is purring away and I am enmeshed in the business of making money. But since I have internet, I have GMail open in a tab in my browser window. When I checked it periodically, it was full of the usual drivel, which are mostly various political campaigns and organizations grubbing for money or asking me to sign a web petition.

This time the subject of the email nearly gave me a heart attack. In big capital letters my father was announcing he was getting married.

I have nothing against marriage, being married nearly a quarter of a century myself. What you do not expect is that your father, after fifty-five years of marriage and who will turn eighty-four this autumn would be getting remarried. While certainly not immoral or illegal, it feels deeply unnatural. It’s like snow falling in Miami. If something bizarre like this ever happens to you, you will probably react a lot like I did. You sort of sit around dazed for a while not comprehending the news and wondering if this is some sort of late April Fools joke.

Once the initial shock wore off, I found that I was overcome with a mixture of feelings. There was a vague sort of happiness for my father. After all, who doesn’t want their parent to be happy, particularly in old age? There was also a touch of concern. Just how well does he really know this woman anyhow? Then there was my selfish side manifesting itself. If he dies married to her, will she inherit everything? Would his estate eventually end up with her children and grandchildren? There was also a touch of anger: how dare this woman come between me and my father! Maybe he would be happier being married, but the chances are his marriage would perturb our close relationship. Would she control him to the point that my relationship with Dad became wholly superficial? There was also amazement: why on earth would anyone want the hassle of getting remarried at his age? Does he want to be sexually active in his eighties? I had never broached the subject, of course, but I sort of assumed at age eighty plus, even if the desire was there, the ability to perform probably wasn’t. And there was a certain amount of relief. When it is his time to leave this planet, I won’t necessarily need to be at his side for days or weeks at a time watching him slip further and further into the void. His new wife will have the bulk of the duty.

That my father wanted to get married again was not in itself a surprise. My mother was hardly resting in her urn in the cemetery five years ago before he was checking out the many available widows at his retirement community. In fact, within months of my mother’s death, he had proposed to a woman a floor below him. She liked my father, but she just wanted to be friends. So friends they were. Yet I suspect that much of my Dad’s interest in her was the wan hope that friendship might eventually yield love. Of course, it never did.

Years passed and he finally figured out that he was wasting time. Otherwise, he seemed very happy. Unlike me, he is naturally affable and sociable. In a retirement community of thousands, it seemed he knew everyone’s name. So I wasn’t too surprised when he started dating Marie. Maybe I should have put two and two together when over the winter he took her to California to meet his sister, but I didn’t. I finally met her a few weeks ago, but I assumed she was just a girlfriend, some arm candy. She seemed nice enough, but I hardly had a chance to form more than a superficial impression of her. And now my Dad and this Marie woman are going to get married! They are scouting for a new apartment in their retirement community. I am warned there will soon be furniture to excess. Maybe this is as close as I will get to my share of his inheritance.

In truth, my father has been undergoing a late life renaissance for a number of years. Overall, I have been impressed with his ability to squeeze so much joy from this time of life. He was also fortunate to be a reasonably healthy and mobile male in a community where the men his age had mostly died off. If they had not died off, they were on their last legs. Still, I figured when I am his age, I might be principally dwelling on death. Instead, he is reveling in life in his retirement community, joining clubs, ushering at church, and even taking up square dancing. The square dancing thing took me for a jag. I come from a family of Dilberts with no hand eye coordination, but here he was with a Square Dancing for Dummies book, a weekly practice session and soon he was dancing with the dames.

I keep wondering, how will he surprise me next? Will he take up smoking, even though he never put a cigarette to his mouth? Will he start drinking, although the closest he came to drinking was sipping communion wine? Marie is apparently Irish. The good news is that means (unsurprisingly) that she is Catholic, still an important criteria for a spouse for my devout Catholic father. The bad news is that the Irish in general have a propensity for booze. So there might be plenty of alcohol at their wedding, date TBA. And he will probably be dancing for joy whilst my siblings and I are likely to be hanging on the sidelines and queuing up for carrots at the vegetable tray.

And then there’s his wife to be, my future (and the word is so hard to say aloud) stepmother. Here I am at age 53 and the last thing I expected to happen to me at my ripe age is in a new relationship with a stepmother. Should I call her Mom? I don’t think Marie would expect me to, and I hope she does not because Marie is probably all I will be able to muster. Thus far “Mom” has been reserved only for my biological mother (may she rest in peace) and my mother-in-law. I call my mother-in-law “Mom” only because I know she likes to hear it and she thinks of me as her son, somehow. I haven’t the heart to tell her I don’t think of her as my mother, never have and never will. However, I am pragmatic enough to realize that calling her “Mom” does do a lot for maintaining a harmonious relationship with her.

Stepmother?

For the most part my siblings have not weighed in on this impending nuptial. I suspect most realize what I do: there nothing we can do about it anyhow and if we tried to interfere it would only generate bad karma. So if it makes Dad happy in his golden years, why not give him our blessing? So I will, but not without stifling some of my negative feelings.

I am not the only relative feeling some shock. My niece posted yesterday on Facebook, “My grandpa is ENGAGED?!?!?!?!” Exactly! It’s like the earth decided to rotate from west to east all of a sudden. Whether this remarriage is ultimately good, bad or indifferent, my boat is being rocked. I don’t have to like it, but I have the feeling I best get used to the turbulence.

In memoriam

The Thinker by Rodin

Death is an unpleasant fact. At a certain age, it becomes a fact that is harder and harder to put out of mind. When you are seventy-something and living in a retirement community it can become pervasive.

Such is the case at Riderwood, a retirement community in suburban Maryland where my widower father lives. The man who sat with you at dinner last night might be in the hospital the next, in the nursing home a week later, and dead a month later. On the other hand, they might die suddenly of a stroke. As if you needed any reminder of life’s fragility in this age group, death notices are prominently published in the lobby. You can check out their names as you get your mail.

I spent most of my day yesterday with my father in his retirement community. Mostly we hung around Riderwood. I joined him on his daily exercise. During allergy season, this means an indoor walk between the campuses’s many buildings. If you know the stairwell system you can walk a loop continuously indoors for the better part of a mile. This is possible due to the many enclosed elevated walkways between buildings.

With no interruptions, it would be a brisk walk of twenty minutes or so. However, it was hard to us to walk for more than a couple minutes before stopping. My father is extremely sociable and he seems to know half of the community’s thousands of residents. When he sees someone, most of the time he wants to find out how he or she is doing. The said answer usually is, “Could be better”. Very often, we learn that someone’s spouse or friend is ill.

Illness and death comes with this territory. The successful master of retirement living at Riderwood has to roll with death’s punches. You are in a compulsory boxing match with death. You need to keep your wits about you so you can avoid the punch, for there will be another one tomorrow. Invariably though you know that your body will betray you. In that event, Riderwood is prepared for your decline. When you can no longer navigate inside your own apartment, there is a campus assisted living facility. Next to it is a nursing home, where my mother spent the final five months of her life.

Most Riderwood residents understand that they are living on borrowed time. Their apartment may be their latest home, but their final days will likely be spent awkwardly in assisted living, then precariously in the nursing home. There, likely quite gradually, death will take them. This is actually the good news. Since the nursing home is local, your Riderwood friends can come to visit you. It is not as good news to spend them in a nearby hospital, surrounded hopefully by family, but likely bereft of the companionship of many of your many Riderwood friends.

Once or twice a year, Riderwood holds a memorial service for those who have died. Since my mother passed away last November, she was on the list of residents to be memorialized. My father asked me if I would attend the memorial service with him. He dressed for the occasion in his darkest suit. My mother would have been proud.

Outside the chapel were the pictures of many of those who had died. I found a picture of my mother when she was about my age. Inside the chapel, an organ played solemnly. My father and I took our seats on the right side of the chapel, which was reserved for families of the deceased. We looked at the names in the order of service. My father checked the names of the residents he had come to know. As the names were read, I realized that a number of spouses must have died within a few months of each other. Morris Questal must have went first. His wife Julia was not too far behind him.

The service was non-denominational but certainly had a theistic theme. “Oh God, our helping ages past, Our hope in years to come, Be thou our guard while life shall last, And our eternal hope”, we sang. The Riderwood Balladeers, a sometimes off-key men’s chorus of seventy-plus Riderwood residents sang Gentle Annie by Stephen Foster, Think of Me and Sevenfold Amen.

Altogether one hundred and six names were read aloud. They represented the residents who had died between October 2005 and April 2006. As my mother passed away November 10th, she was thirteenth on the list. After each name was spoken aloud, a bell was rung. If a family member was present, you raised your hand. An usher passed you a white rose. For about a third of the name read, no one family member was present to receive the rose.

One of the residents (Jane K. Myers) wrote a poem, which she read. It said in part:

Do not grieve because you miss us.
Listen, and you’ll know we are near.
We still meet you in your dreams.
And make mischief in your rooms.
We will whisper in your heart
And tickle you inside your brain.
Love entwines us all your days

I found myself a bit choked up, although I tried not to be. My mother may be gone nearly seven months, but the grief was still nearer than I thought. In some respects, my attendance was an act of courage. I can understand why my sister and wife passed on attending this service.

After the service, we wended my way from the chapel to my father’s apartment. My father held the fragile white rose in his hand. “I was glad you could come and represent the family,” he said. “You have done your duty.”

“Dad,” I said gently, “I came to honor my mother, and her life, and to support you. I was my privilege to be with you tonight.”

“What should I do with the flower?” he asked somewhat pensively.

“You could take it and put it on Mom’s grave,” I suggested.

“Yes, but the wind might carry it away.”

“You have Mom’s picture on the dining room table. Why not put the flower in a small vase and place it next to her picture.”

I gave him a final supportive hug, and then exited down the fire escape toward my car. It had been a long day.

Driving with Dad

The Thinker by Rodin

With my mother in serious decline, my family’s focus has been on her. My mother is now in a nursing home. She still has some expectations that she will eventually be released from the nursing home and will be sleeping in her regular bed again. The sad reality is that barring a miracle the nursing home is where she will remain, unhappily and crankily, until death takes her.

We still visit regularly with mother of course. But I am beginning to turn more of my attention to my father. The sad fact is that there is not much else I can do for my mother. I can provide occasional company, tell her I love her, and push her around in her wheelchair to meals and physical therapy. I bring her flowers on occasion and tell her stories of life around our house. But it is difficult to visit her more than once a week and the more her mind goes the more challenging the visits become.

Although my father now effectively lives alone, managing my mother’s care is still a full time job. Not surprisingly, the last couple of years have been very stressful. He no longer has to immediately fulfill my mother’s demands. There is staff in the nursing home to do most of this, just at a more sedate pace. Providing somewhat distant tender loving care is a challenge of itself. In addition, the finances of nursing home living are challenging.

Each day is a cycle with few variations. As my mother’s mind deteriorates, the woman he loves becomes less recognizable. We sense that our father is fraying around the edges. So I’ve decided it is as important to provide support for him as it is to support my mother. My mother may be unhappy, but she gets the physical care that she needs. My father needs distraction. He needs to get away from his situation. He needs respite.

The good news is that he now lives near Washington, D.C. He is a native Washingtonian. The bad news is that it that he is tethered to his retirement community and cannot usually get away for more than a few hours at a time. My father is a sociable creature, but he is still developing friends at their retirement community. It can be a bit chancy for him to get away by himself. While he can still drive, the Washington traffic is relentless and unforgiving. We are worried that the split second response times needed by drivers around here may be beyond him at this point. Too many day trips are probably chancy.

My goal is once or twice a month to get him out of the apartment and engage his mind in something unrelated to fretting over my mother. What could we do with a couple hours? It turned out that what my father really wanted to do was see old haunts.

He grew up in a row house in Northeast Washington. Of course, over the years he has revisited Washington many times. He has even been inside his old house, now passed on to new owners. He has seen graves of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and distant relations. He has visited old schools and neighborhoods. Yet one thing he had not done was retrace some of his many youthful bike rides. With his ADC Atlas of the Washington area, me in the driver’s seat, and my Dad in the passenger seat we set forth in my car on a hot July afternoon.

It was a rambling little adventure on Maryland and DC roads, mostly inside the Beltway. It turned out that being in the passenger’s seat was ideal for him. He did not have to concentrate on driving. Instead, he had the pleasure of looking out the window. While it was hot and muggy outside, it was cool and comfortable inside my car.

We looked in vain for an entrance to the Mormon Temple in Kensington, which is easily seen from the Capital Beltway. We got lost a few times. He changed his mind frequently about where he wanted to end up next. Eventually we were in DC and heading down Beach Drive. Here, along Rock Creek Park, was an area he knew intimately from his boyhood days. There used to be a horse stable around this corner. Was it still there? Yes, it still was! There used to be a monastery here. We pass an old building. Could this have been a monastery? He was not sure but it was fun to speculate. We traveled at minimum speeds down Beach Drive under the canopy of tall trees. We made frequent stops so he could look out the window. “Seeing this brings tears to my eyes,” he told me. He said he was at a nostalgic age. While much has changed about Washington, much is still the same. Many of the houses that were new and opulent to his boyhood eyes are still there and kept in good shape. He knew the most surprising things. “John Rockefeller used to live in this house.”

We ended up at a Starbucks at Four Corners in Silver Spring. We laughed as I tried to explain the concept of Starbucks to this man from the World War Two generation: fancy overpriced coffees and sweets. My Dad is more the type to drive through the McDonald’s drive-thru and make sure his coffee came with a senior citizen discount. Neither of us are big coffee drinkers. So despite it being a hot day we ordered hot chocolate and noshed a brownie while watching the traffic on Colesville Road pass by.

Mission accomplished. For a few hours, my father was a happy creature again. The woman I know as my mother recedes from my present. Perhaps consequently I am increasingly grateful that my father is still around and in full possession of his faculties. I am indeed fortunate for the first time in nearly thirty years to have my father living near me again. I will try not to dwell too much on how many good years he has left, but to savor in the time we have together. It may be that our drives around DC will, in the end, be far more meaningful to me than to him. Someday perhaps I will make the drive down Beach Drive alone. I may stop at a place where my Dad and I stopped, and I will be the one with tears in my eyes.