The Strength For Love

When my mother hit her mid-70s, some of her friends began to move into retirement homes, a shift that she observed with consternation and dread.

“Marlene’s in The Assisted,” she told me in a hush.

“The what?” I asked.

“The As-sist-ed,” she whispered. “You know.”

My mother shortens up words and phrases. The effect is both comedic and efficient. I can typically translate on the spot, my ear having been trained over time. But this was a new term, and it took me an extra beat.

Living?”

“God, yes. If you can call it that.”

Now 84, Mom has lived alone since my father died 26 years ago, at 64. After that, and a decades-long teaching career, she decided that having fun would be her overarching mission, and she was fully capable of pulling it off. She sold the house, moved to the city, wintered at the beach. Not one to relish lunch with the ladies, she dated assorted men, finding her emotional footing on the dance floor, at the theatre, atop a stool at the bar.

Of course, it was difficult to observe the parade of male talent so soon after my father left us. He was my compass, for pretty much all things. His loss was excruciating and is, still. People say the sadness recedes with time, but I think that there is no shaking it. The people are fooling themselves. Anyway, Mom grieved in a black velvet catsuit, and she insisted that we review her prospects — sport-coated real estate men in teensy cars, attorneys and endodontists with cufflinks (and wives, alas), aging finance guys with fleshy necks and pockets of cash. I thought that one suitor, a “printer” and Sinatra fanatic, had Mafia connections. He ate spinach souffle at our childhood dining table, where my surgeon father used to carve the turkey. Mom went with him to “Vegas,” without the “Las.”

I think that at first, she was hoping to fall in love, maybe with someone less serious than my dad, less academic. When the love part didn’t happen, at least there was light and agreeable companionship, not to mention a Tiffany bracelet here or there. But after a few years, she gravitated without realizing toward what felt familiar. A physician who wrote poetry. An unassuming engineer. And at age 65, through a New York Magazine personal ad, Richard.

When they met, he lived in Manhattan and my mom, a few miles north in Riverdale. They’d traipse around the city, consulting the Times’ weekend section rolled up in Richard’s coat pocket, for exhibits, lectures or films. By dinnertime, they’d fall into a restaurant wherever they were, sharing something and talking about the day, politics, the world. After, they’d stop for a slice of cake, sometimes, or chocolate mousse. Cappucino, maybe. Bailey’s Irish Cream. Active and curious, they took trips, to Prague, to the Pacific Northwest, to the Coney Island boardwalk. Richard wore a bow-tie when I first met him. Fourteen years older than my mom, he had not a crease on his snowy skin. His hair was cut like a boy’s, bright white, and turquoise eyes popped from underneath. He gave me an Italian novel. He walked the stairs in his apartment building to keep healthy.

I lived across the country and didn’t regularly see my mother and Richard interact. Over the phone, I’d ask how he was, and Mom would say he was fine. I presumed that she loved him, though she never quite said. Given her history, I couldn’t be sure; maybe he was just another sidekick, albeit an enduring one. After ten years, when he was about 89, Richard moved to Riverdale and rented an apartment in my mom’s building, a few floors below. Each morning, he knocked on her door at 9:30, for breakfast, having walked up the steps. After, they’d go about their days — chess in the Village for him, bridge (“for the brain”) for her — and meet again later on. During the winters, Mom continued to go to Florida, and Richard would visit for several weeks each season. Before he arrived, she found chess players for him, but none could keep up.

By the time he was 95, his daughter worried about a fall and insisted that he no longer live on his own, despite his remarkable health. No one asked for Richard to move in with my mother, and she did not offer, feeling the responsibility too great.

“Richard’s going to The Assisted,” she told me one day over the phone. The word had taken root in my vocabulary. Definition: no place my mother would ever go.

Richard didn’t want to go, either, not a follower of rules and regulations, and Mom was sad for him. I was sad for him.

Every other afternoon, she drove the few blocks to the building and pulled into The Assisted’s circular drive, where Richard was waiting. She helped him into the passenger seat, took his walker and hoisted it into the trunk. When they got where they were going, she hauled it out and stretched it open. She did it twice more on the return. On the days that she didn’t spend with Richard, she typically stayed home or did a local errand. The friends who were still living on their own, all widows, had mostly moved away, and the bus to Manhattan took a discouraging two hours sometimes, unlike the brisk trip 20 years earlier. My spry and zippy 80 year old mother had become somewhat of a shut-in. In Florida, she rarely puttered at home, and the two months in the winter had stretched to five. She thrived there, physically and socially, and she was simply happier. Though we wouldn’t see her as often, my brother and I encouraged her to live there full-time, sensing that she wanted to but felt bad about it. I had moved back to the city after a long spell and reassured her that I wouldn’t feel abandoned. But we worried that Richard would. She waited to tell him.

“I figured you’d go,” he said.

She packed up and did go, planning to return for a month or two during the summer, this time to Manhattan, where getting around was easier. She researched possibilities for where she’d stay but found drawbacks for each. Richard had another idea.

“You can live here,” he said. “They make arrangements for visitors.”

I imagined the poor man standing in his room in a plaid button-down, one hand on his walker, waiting for a reply from the other end of the phone. I envisioned his sweet face, prepared for the rebuff that would come, a flat-out rejection of what was the most romantic gesture ever extended from a man to a woman on this glorious green earth. A pure and humble offering of all that he had to give and all that he wanted…time with the person he loved.

When Mom told me about the suggestion, I anticipated her response, swift and brutal that it would be. She’d dismiss the idea, saying that it was senseless, no, downright insane to live at The Assisted when she clearly needed no assistance. Of any kind. Preposterous.

“You can’t blame a guy for trying,” I said.

But then, “I’m doing it…June and July,” she said. “There’s a dining room. No bundles.” Mom’s word for grocery bags.

I nearly fell to the floor. When I see elderly couples around town, I am heartbroken that my parents lost each other in middle age. I’ve thought that my mother endured for 25 years without that kind of emotional attachment, without a hand she’d want to hold, a person she’d want to make happy. Though it may not have looked similar, with its separate residences and disconnected families and now a full coastline between them, I realized that the romance was there all along. There was love, the kind that allows for individual needs. The kind that comes later on, after hardship and loss. Last summer at The Assisted, it was in full bloom.

Mom visited again in the fall, and before the coronavirus happened, she had planned to return this summer. She looked forward to afternoons in the garden and dinners in the dining room. She looked forward to simply being with Richard.

One day in March, he called my mother to say hello. He seemed drained, she said. He confused the time, which was uncharacteristic. He told her that he might not be talking with her again, and he hung up, his voice trailing. Shaken, Mom called the desk. No one would provide information since she was not a family member. But from her time there, she remembered the woman in charge of the nursing department — ”she called me a youngster” — and she tracked her down. Betty said that Richard had contracted Covid-19.

He spent several weeks at the VA Hospital and improved enough, incredibly, to go to a rehabilitation center, where he has been for two months. Mom has kept in touch with his daughter, who has included her in phone calls when possible. Sometimes he is lucid; sometimes he is sleepy. He is taken for walks in the hall. Other than that, my mother has few details. He is 99. His daughter is crushed. What is there to ask.

Mom spends her days inside her home, leaving for short walks in the evening. We talk each night, about how to place pick-up orders at the grocery store, what her grandchildren are up to up north, which hobby I’ve concluded would distract her from the isolation. (She has agreed to knit dog sweaters, with pockets. And decorative buttons.) If she hears from Richard and his daughter, which is less often now, she mentions it. Her voice softens. You can hear the smile fall from her face. We know how this will go.

My mother has outlived all of the men who came after my dad, I’m counting five or six, at least. She has not shown her grief, feeling bad for what the men endured, not for herself. She has not asked for help. She has, seemingly, accepted the course of events and marched forward, still surprised by the arc of her life but never regretful or bitter. I can’t imagine, though, that there isn’t a toll, a cumulative heartache of being The One Left, again and again. How much strength do you acquire from loss before you crumple under its weight?

Richard is already gone, as Mom knows she can’t ever see him again. She will get a phone call one day making that certain. That day, she will need the assistance, despite her habit of not requesting it. And we will provide it, as best we can from far away. Meantime, I send her patterns for cable knits in Small, Medium and Large and how-to methods for freezing bananas in their peels. I tell her about the kids’ pursuits, and I tell her about my work, and I tell her that it was okay that she moved to Florida but that she needs to stay inside now, even if she is feeling alone. Even if she is feeling extra alone.

“Horrendous, the Corona,” she says. “But I’m good. All good.”

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