Another Sunday dinner is over – just the two of us. My 90-year old father shuffles down my hallway, then struggles with his jacket and zipper. He picks up the sack I have stuffed with leftovers for his Monday meal, dons his frayed Dutch cap, reaches for his cane, and gingerly totters to his car, every movement in slow motion. With Mom now in a nursing home, this is the best I can do, trying to make his life more normal.
Each morning he gets up at his independent-living apartment, and makes his way to the social café for the breakfast buffet. Every morning, he has his oatmeal, orange juice and coffee. Then he gets into his car in the underground parking garage, just to drive the thirty yards across the parking lot to the nursing home. Then he finds her, his wife, my mother, somewhere in the hallways. Her soft skin jiggles a little as she smiles at the sight of him. My mother’s crisp white hair bounces as she tries to remember how to back up and sit down in a chair. Then they sit together in one of the lounges, doing nothing in particular. He sits with her until they call her to lunch.
Two people come to help her get up. She leans into the walker, takes baby steps, and creeps to the dining room, her oversized pants pulled a bit too high, belying the plastic padding beneath. She says almost nothing, and nothing she says makes any sense. “That is…” and the rest of the phrase is stuck somewhere inside the crumbling mind. “I’m worried…” and she cannot find the other words. “Sometimes you just…” and the remainder is never uttered. Sometimes I try to help her. “You just what, Mom?” “What is it you are worried about?” But no amount of effort can lasso the elusive, the lost.
Dad rises and escorts her to the dining room, and then leaves to go find some lunch for himself. Mostly, he ends up at the Senior Citizen Center where lunch is only a dollar. Dad has always loved a bargain. But the center is not open on weekends. He hates eating alone and so sometimes he just doesn’t bother. Afterwards, he might stop at Walgreens for one of their many prescriptions, or a stop at Urgent Care to have his Coumadin levels checked. Then, Dad returns to the nursing home.
Once again, he finds my mother, sitting or wandering, or sometimes napping in someone else’s bed. Again, he sits with her, or walks with her up and down the hallway. These rituals last until dinnertime, when the staff again call Mom to eat, and Dad goes back to his apartment to fend for himself and read the newspaper.
Tomorrow will be a carbon copy of this.
Another Valentine’s Day has arrived. This February 14th, Mom is in a hospital bed, coughing for her life with double pneumonia. I’d brought her some chocolate, which normally she loves. But in this condition, she’s hasn’t eaten anything much for days. Dad and I are standing at her bed, and she’s so deeply asleep, we decide not to disturb her.
I know for each of the last 64 years, Dad has written Mom a love poem for Valentine’s Day and also their wedding anniversary in June. I don’t ask what he’s written about, or where this year’s poem is. But suddenly it dawns on me that there are at least 130 poems. Love poems to my mother.
“Dad, where are all the poems you wrote for Mom?” He shrugs his shoulders looking quizzical.
“I gave them to her,” he says with resignation. The thought of more than a hundred love poems either hidden or lost troubles me. We discuss cleaning out her things still at the apartment and trying to find them.
On a subsequent evening, I go to Dad’s apartment to start cleaning. Dad has never lived alone, and his housekeeping is dreadful. So, fist I stop in the little apartment kitchen where I collect used yellowed paper napkins, polystyrene cups, and plates that are encrusted with old food, I deposit them in the trash, amidst his admonitions of “Hey, those could be used again.” Or, “That’s still good, I can eat it tomorrow.” I fear he will accidentally kill himself eating spoiled food on unclean styrofoam. Dad’s entire generation never recovered from the great depression. Wasting anything is a sin. I ignore his rants and I make my way to Mom’s drawers.
First, the four drawers of Mom’s jewelry chest. I pull out the top one, set it on my lap as I sit on the edge of their bed with a large trash can poised nearby. What I find instead of jewelry are lots and lots of rusting hairpins staining the velveteen lining; an assortment of toothpicks; an occasional button or penny; old clothing tags with the price still almost visible; name tags from the “Sun and Fun” RV Resort Park in Sarasota, Florida; used up pencils and a crochet hook. The one gem I find is Dad’s U.S. Navy dog tags from the War. He smiles at the sight of them, as he hasn’t seen them for years.
I do this for each of the four drawers, and I find an occasional single earring back, a broken gaudy pendant, a plastic turquoise necklace. But somewhere stashed in one corner of one of the bottom drawer I find four of the love poems, brittle, torn, and mended with yellowing tape. I stop and read them. One of them is titled “May it Never End.”
I’ve said it very many times,
In many ways throughout the years,
Whether straight or set in rhymes,
Whether in laughter or through tears.
It’s been at night and during days,
So it may not sound very new,
Still I do not know other ways,
To once again say “I love you.”
A couple of hours of this type of searching yields a few more poems, some glued to the inside of an old greeting cards. Some are on a scrap of notebook paper, or an index card. Some are typed on an old Underwood typewriter.
I searched for her throughout the world wide,
Crossing each continent from side to side.
Hoping that somewhere and someday I’d find,
The special girl who’d be loving and kind.
Failing I gave up nevermore to roam
To find my Valentine waiting at home.
A corner of the paper is ripped off on this one, so I don’t know the date, but I am guessing it was soon after the War. We are still only up to twenty poems. Over a hundred more to find.
Scouring her dresser drawers yields a few more poems. These, hidden in an old purse, among a dozen pair of pantyhose all with runs, and among the now sticky decomposing nylon prosthesis Mom was supposed to wear where her left breast used to be. Even back then, she said it was too hot and too uncomfortable. “I’m over 70,” she’d said more than a few times after the cancer surgery. “What do I need two breasts for?” When she wanted a left breast on occasions, she’d stuffed her empty bra cup with tissues, fabric, or a sock.
I think back to the last time, in earlier stages of Alzheimers, that I dressed them up for dancing. Dad had bought tickets to a big ballroom dancing event on the campus where I taught. Dad was in the designer second-hand suit that a friend had given him. This was the nicest most dashing suit Dad ever owned.
Mom wore the frilly pink organza dress, also second hand she’d been given by a friend in the ballroom dancing club. My parents got dressed at my house, and I helped Mom with her pantyhose and the buckles on her silver dancing shoes. I had insisted she wear her prosthesis for this event, and so we had spent some time in front of the bathroom mirror, trying to ensure that the fake breast was aligned with the real one, and not four inches higher. We never got it quite perfect, but close enough. I took a snapshot of them that night, together in front of the closed draperies of my patio slider door, like two excited teens poised for their senior prom.
Following Easter weekend, Mom had rebounded from pneumonia, but with a decreased quality of life. Dad and I decided to move her to a different nursing home where there might be a higher level of care. Where her face used to brighten with the sight of us, there’s was almost no reaction now. Yet, in the midst of her decline, there were mysterious moments of lucidness. I never knew what brought them on, but we both lived for them. The day we were settling her into the new surroundings, she turned and looked at Dad as he was leaving and said, “You know, I have never stopped loving you.”
During all this searching, we’d found a wonderful old photo of Mom. The photo was damaged, but it was of a seventeen-year-old, beautiful dark-eyed woman, hair curled around her face, and printed in an oval of light like the “Breck Girl” on the back of the old McCall’s magazines. My brother Tom visited that weekend. He had taken the photo home, scanned it, doctored it, and sent it by attachment back to me. I printed it and gave it to Dad. A tear slipped out of his left eye.
“She really was beautiful back then,” he said as if he needed to convince me.
Another evening, I stop at Dad’s and continue my search for the poems. Even though I knock before I enter, he’s stretched out on his sofa, a crumbled paper napkin from Subway in his hand. He’s been listening to audio tapes of their old dance music. I tell him I’ve got a little time to do some more cleaning of Mom’s things. That perks him up.
I start cleaning out Mom’s nightstand drawers. This time an entire drawer is devoted to over stretched out headbands in a variety of widths and colors. I find one poem on yellowed typing paper. It’s dated 1986.
To My Wife
Now that life is in its downward journey,
When my day of living lies in the past,
I’ll be happy living in memory,
Because you’ve given me love till the last.
I’ll remember your smile and things you said,
I never forget your traits, both bad and good,
I see you laugh with a toss of your head,
As you teasingly in the doorway stood.
Shadows will flee as I think of your smile,
My thoughts will find cheer in the years we spent,
My dreams will travel along every mile,
Lingering on where together we went.
Though material wealth was not my own,
You brought me richness with the love I’ve known.
Pausing to take it all in, I swipe a tear on my cheek. Then I find a good sweater that shouldn’t be in the drawer. So, I go and hang it in the walk-in closet. Mom’s side of the closet is getting empty, as I have been getting rid of clothing she will never need in a nursing home.
The frilly pink organza dress hangs at the end of the row all by itself. The last time Mom wore it, almost three years ago, was at her Grandson Peter’s wedding. This wedding was elegant, in a fine hotel. Dad dressed in the same dashing suit, and Mom in her pink dress they’d worn to the ballroom dancing gala seven years earlier.
While Mom had absolutely no idea who was getting married, she could tell from the setting it was a wedding, and commented how lovely it all was.
“They tell me you are my grandson,” she’d said re-meeting her grandson Peter at the reception.
“Of course, I am, Grandma,” he’d replied in good humor, giving her a hug.
We were at one of the biggest family events in decades and no one had remembered to bring a camera So, earlier in the day I had gone shopping and bought my first digital camera. Throughout the day, I was desperately reading directions, learning how to use it. Once we got to the reception, I kept it handy at my table.
At one point, the band did a cute number and had all married couples get up to dance. As each segment of the song passed, the bandleader would announce to have all the couples married less than 2 years, 5 years, 10 years, and so on to sit down. As the crowd was mostly young, I could see where this was going.
And so it went. Soon Mom and Dad were alone on the dance floor. All eyes were upon them, the lights were dimmed, with the glittery ball spinning above them made prisms flit around the floor. Dad forgot his aching knees, and led Mom in a waltz. Mom could follow Dad. They smiled and swirled and dazzled the crowd. At the end, the bandleader presented Mom with a nosegay of flowers. She had no idea why someone was giving her flowers but thought they were very lovely. Dad beamed radiantly. I took the picture.
I returned to the nightstand and cleared out the last of the garbage. A few dozen pens that didn’t write. More hairpins, rollers, dirty tissues, rusty paper clips, safety pins, an occasional name tag, receipt, and a brochure. In this session, I only found a single poem in a faded pink satin cosmetic bag.
My love is yours through good and bad
It’s with you when you’re glad or sad.
A truer love will never be,
As everyone can plainly see.
Our love has stood the test of time,
For I am yours and you are mine.
When all the drawers were cleaned out, there were still a hundred poems to go. I wondered where to search next.
Meanwhile, I’ll keep feeding Dad on Sundays. I’ll keep visiting my mother, watching her walk back and forth in the hallways with no destination. Dad will keep sitting in the nursing home with her for hours at a time. Until the next crisis when the next infection appears, or until the coughing resumes and we’ll go through all of this again, not knowing each time if we should be saying our goodbyes. Each time as I’m leaving, I kiss her cheek, and tell her to sleep well, and to remember she has a family who all love her.
Mom passed first in 2006 at age 89. Dad was in poor shape with a heart barely pumping. His doctors had instructed us to take away his car keys. He learned to get around his neighborhood on a scooter. But, he was in agony without her, especially when Valentine’s Day came around. I think he didn’t know how to cope with their special holiday alone. So, he wrote Mom a poem, addressed the envelope to her, but sent it to my home address.
When I took in the mail that afternoon, an envelope addressed to my mother in my father’s handwriting made little sense. I sat down and stared at it for a few moments before I could bring myself to open it. There was just this inside:
You finally left this earth missing me,
To me, you and I shall remain just we.
Dying is a part of living and life,
Through all eternity you’re still my wife.
In all and everything I do each day,
Our togetherness will forever stay.
Dad passed a few months later. I only ever found 29 poems. His final request was that their ashes be mixed together and scattered in Vermont, where their married life had started. Tom and I fulfilled their wish the following summer. My brother read the last poem at our little ceremony. A fitting end to a very long love story.