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.