In grief, sorrow often spreads across one’s body before the precise cause of it becomes apparent. A perfectly fine day turns dark, devoid of light. One has to fight back the desolation, even as the sun mocks such inner clouds.
Yesterday, hours after the gloom settled inside me and April 9, 2014, was almost at an end, for no apparent reason an image popped into my mind. I was sitting next to my mom on April 10, 2013, in her small assisted living studio, looking out over almost-budding treetops brushing against the expanse of spring-blue sky, while she spoke to my silent dad on the phone, an hour away in his smaller shared room in what was euphemistically called a nursing home.
Whenever a special date might be forgotten, my body now sends a reminder.
In the past, April 10 was always something I barely recalled until it was almost too late to wish my parents a happy wedding anniversary. Their wedding was traditional but DIY, done on pennies, meticulously documented in my mom’s journals. It was Jewish but not religious, since my mom had just converted for my dad, yet there was no wedding cake because of Passover. The black-and-white wedding photos are like a time capsule for my dad’s large Eastern-European-Jews immigrant family, many staring seriously at the camera and all now dead, and my mom’s god-forsaken dad and god-fearing stepmother. My parents look genuinely happy in every picture.
I’m not big on weddings or marriage, so April 10 hasn’t meant much to me over the years. I am big on love freely chosen, though, and every day of their lives together, it was clear how much my parents always loved each other. Visibly, tenderly, unflinchingly so.
There was things about their relationship that I wouldn’t have chosen, things that annoyed me as their offspring. There were ways in which their bonds for each other inadvertently put burdens on me, their oldest, their baby-parent, because their own parents didn’t do well at loving them. Yet a box full of daily letters between them — sometimes two or three a day — from the morning after their first date, and for months and months until they married, are pen-and-ink evidence of their connection from the start. It seems probable that it was a connection based on troubled childhoods and their need for a nonjudgmental safety net as adults; that their respective traumas birthed a love between them that was gentle, open, and rarely hurt. It was always good modeling for me of how to love, including when I needed it most in that final year and half of their lives.
They lived miles apart when they initially met, with my mom working for those pennies in Atlanta and my dad doing compulsory army service, for additional pennies, in another town. It was a blind date with a bunch of mutual friends. They all went to a dance. My mom loved dancing; my dad felt awkward doing it. So even as all their friends whirled the night away, they sat talking instead, first at a table in the room with everyone else and then sneaking off for private conversation — and first kisses — in a bathroom.
They never stopped talking. Or kissing.
Even when they couldn’t talk or kiss in person on their last anniversary, April 10, 2013, they managed to share both in abundance over a telephone line.
I shared various April tenths with them, but the last two were when that date began to have meaning to me, too. Visibly, tenderly, poignantly so.
On April 10, 2012, I shared an anniversary dinner with them at a Denny’s restaurant. They went there fairly often and it’s where they wanted to go. They had coupons; always one deciding factor. But they were also tired and didn’t have the energy for something a bit fancier, a bit pricier.
They’d been struggling to care for each other, through increasing bouts of immobility, in their home of many years in East Lansing. A sister and I, visiting to help with some latest ailment, had gone on our own to look at nearby independent living complex, with its tiny apartments, a few days before their wedding anniversary. Our parents had insurance that might cover this move for a while, and besides, it was becoming obvious that some twist of fate would make it impossible for them to remain at home. We didn’t know how soon that twist would arrive — just four months later, when a mosquito bite gave my dad severe West Nile instead of an itch, and my mom’s cancer decided to stick around until it ate away her body. We almost forced them to then accompany us to visit that independent living site, eating dinner there with them, while watching the fear and sorrow fill their eyes. They didn’t even want to think about this transition, away from their life, but we almost forced them to put a deposit down. It was hard to imagine any of us being able to do 24/7 care for them, especially since they didn’t want to leave their community, and none of us lived remotely close at hand.
My sister, in fact, had to go home, two states away, back to her job. I stayed for this anniversary dinner with my parents at Denny’s, where with their usual childlike upbeatness, they oohed and aahed at the delicious meal, chatted away joyfully about all sorts of news and nothings, and pretended that we hadn’t visited that independent living center. They buried their pain, as usual, in looking at bright sides. My two-dollar-menu item tasted particularly bittersweet.
On last year’s anniversary, I tried to make it far better for them. I can’t quite say if I succeeded or failed, but perhaps it was a bit of both. I’d moved to Michigan at that point, to help them live and especially die well. My work is flexible, transportable, and as sister and cousins said, “Parents only die once.” Dying well was really all I could give my dad, now imprisoned forever in a bed and by technologies that drained life rather than supported it. The plan was to drive my mom, weak from a recent hospital stay, the hour to my dad’s warehouse-like nursing facility.
I’d visited my dad the prior day, and saw the depth of suffering of his body yet again. The accumulation of all those looks is, alas, branded into my brain, remembrances not forgotten. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was the depth of suffering in his eyes, knowing that this would be his last anniversary with my mom. But even more, he was suffering from the worry that she wouldn’t be able to drive to see him on that day. He was right. Plans didn’t typically go according to plan back then; she was too sick to travel.
Second “best” here became me arranging for his beyond-the-call-of-duty-or-paycheck “speech” therapist, who taught him how to use an alphabet on paper to “talk,” to hold her personal cell phone up to his ear in one town, while an hour away, in another town, my mom held her first-ever cell phone up to her ear. My mom did all the talking. The speech therapist occasionally chimed in to say that my dad was nodding in affirmation. Had a smile, now always crooked from his condition, on his face. Or that tears were forming around his eyes. He tried to spell out responses, too fast and furious for his speech therapist to follow, so the speech therapist asked him to mostly listen, and passed along his simple spelled-pug replies, like “yes,” “I agree,” and “love.” Many times that word: love.
On my end, I sat in a chair next to my mom, but couldn’t look at her. I had to concentrate on those beautiful treetops, with their faint hints of pale greens and renewal; that gorgeous fresh spring sky and dancing birds, off on flights to find their new babies some food. I listened to her voice, so cheerful, with only a faint hint of breaks, of all the losses inside her. She spoke a love letter, starting with, “There’s nothing that you and I haven’t said to each other; we’ve always been honest and open about our love, and we’ve never stopped loving each other.” I think she ended, after about a half hour, with something like “we’ve had the best of lives together; only love and no regrets.”
My heart ached, with a stronger bittersweetness, with love.
This morning, my sister — the one who insisted in April 2013 that we visit and sign our parents up for that independent living home, where I would move my mom, without my dad, only four months later, after they both began their final journeys toward death — texted me with a reminder of this anniversary I hadn’t forgotten, and now won’t ever forget.
But she reminded me of something I had forgotten this sunny-gray day: “They are together still.”
My parents both donated their bodies to the anatomy program at Michigan State University so as to help medical students learn to help others. They died within months of each other, each asking me, just before they passed, if they could be with the other at that moment of life transitioning to death. My dad got his wish — a wish he so greatly deserved after too many months on his own. My mom had to settle for his spirit, and the love of others like me and that sister of mine around her. Yet they were reunited by a twist of fate. The proximity of their deaths meant a reunion in the same classroom for the next three years, then they’ll join hands-in-ashes on a Vermont commons they both loved, almost as much as they loved each other.
“They are together still.”
Today and its memories, this anniversary, doesn’t feel so bad after all. I’m glad my body had the wisdom to remind me.
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If you’ve run across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com. Share, enjoy, and repost — as long as it’s free as in “free beer” and “freedom.”
(Blurry photo, by Cindy Milstein, of her parents, from some misty long-ago time.)