winter, when I visited my parents' home, my father stepped outside into the swirling
snow and greeted me with characteristic cheer. "You know Mark Twain's definition
of a woman, don't you?"
I shook my head as he danced me into the
den where my mother-twenty pounds too thin and suffering two herniated discs-lay
on the sofa. "
a beautiful creature with a pain in her back," he
I cringed, but then he knelt and kissed her, and she laughed
too, and when she did, the pain seemed to ease and her eyes-so often vacant now-lit
Back in my childhood, I rebelled wholeheartedly against these parents
who embarrassed me with their adoration for each other, snuggling on the sofa,
ignoring me as I sneaked in, past curfew, earnestly repentant. I'd whisper, "sorry,"
but they didn't care about their daughter's amorous adventures; they were swept
up in their own.
When I write to my mother's twin to tell her about Mom's
condition, I tell her, too, that they still adore each other more than they ever
loved any of their children. She quickly responds, "It's just a different
kind of love." She's being kind, and I decide I will not trouble her now
with my childhood disappointments. My mother is disappearing, right before our
eyes, so why am I pondering the promises of those solemn rabbis who told us we
children were the promise, born for pedestals, stars in our parents' universe?
Other girls basked in parental adulation and adoration. Few, as I remember, endured
their fathers praising to the sky their mothers' perfection.
shopping, staring longingly at cashmere sweaters in Mays Department Store. My
father beamed, and for one moment I believed he was about to place me on a pedestal
where sales ladies would hover, draping cashmere over my shoulders. And then Dad
crooned, "Wouldn't Mom look fabulous in one of those?" and he marched
her in to try it on and reveled in the beauty she was.
She was exquisite,
my mother, and I was-to my shame-daunted not only by her beauty but by the love
my father showered on her. In adulthood I learned to be more generous and grateful
for having this marvelous mother, but back then I polished to a gleam my cold
envy and blamed my father for loving her so boisterously, loquaciously, wantonly.
I hated the sight of the two of them walking around our block, arm in arm, dressed
in matching Hudson's Bay jackets and identical Timberland boots. I blushed when
he sermonized to one of my boyfriends about the vitality and pleasure of true
love. I ducked when Dad planted a passionate kiss on Mom's mouth in the middle
of the Rockefeller Center ice rink. And when I whispered, "there are lips
on your cheek," he proudly raved, "Ah, so there are!"
And then, suddenly, far too early, my mother was stricken with a malady no one
fully comprehends and no one can undo.
Dementia, some call it; others
call it Alzheimer's. They all remind us no one truly knows and there's nothing
to be done.
It's been more than a decade since her memory began to slip
away. We barely noticed it except I sometimes angrily confronted her for forgetting
to do something she had promised she would do. I'd feel that old familiar rush
of self-righteous indignation at these parents whose lives mattered more, apparently,
than did the lives of their children.
Her memory, and with it many of
her abilities, began to evaporate, and as the years passed, the mother I knew
disappeared. I discovered evidence of things I'd never known were happening-kitchen
cabinets stuffed with empty paper towel rolls and drawers crammed with dried up
makeup jars. Each year was worse. Now much of her language is gone, but still
I see in her eyes thoughts hovering, desperately seeking escape.
at her and wonder if she remembers how beautiful she looked in cashmere, if she
remembers cuddling on the couch where now she lies, writhing in pain.
Until this last visit, I could not see or talk to her without feeling that lump
forming inside my throat, without my heart feeling squeezed tight and bruised.
I vowed to give up envy if only my real mother would return.
creature with a pain in the back."
I had cringed when Dad said that,
but when I saw that his adoration, draped though it may be in denial, actually
eased her pain, I understood for the first time what I have to learn from this
crazily optimistic man. He, after all, is the man who remembers his year as a
German POW as a gift that nurtured all the pleasure he takes in life. He is the
man who sees sunshine in a blizzard.
When my mother first faltered, my
father packed up the office where he had joyfully worked, surrounded by colleagues,
for more than 40 years. He moved his work home and taught himself, at age 70,
to be his own secretary, delivery man, typist.
People begged him to seek help, admonished him for being stubborn, for his refusal
to bring in others to spell him, for his refusal ever to leave her side.
All those years, he remained her constant companion.
Despite her illness,
despite her sagging body, heart and soul, my father stays the course, remains
my mother's steadfast lover, for better or for worse. Watching him I begin to
understand the gift offered everyone else by this adorer, this adulator who fell
deeply in love with my mother 50-odd years ago and has the old-fashioned, almost
quaint good grace, to stay right where he was when he fell.
gorgeous, isn't she?" he asks as we stand beside her.
in sudden, shocking pain. "I hurt," she says. "I'm so confused."
He reaches out and touches her face. He kneels down and kisses her cheek. "I
love you," he whispers, and she squeezes his hand, and I see the pain, once
more, diminishing as a wave of comfort washes over her, and over me, too.
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