My parents were similar in one way: They both wanted to be “in charge.” From my perspective as an adolescent, they should have had one date and then said to each other, “It was so nice to meet you. I hope you have a wonderful life.” Instead, they were married for over 60 years, til death did them part.
After much reflection, I realize that my book, They Live On: Saying Goodbye to Mom and Dad, is a love story about my parents’ final days – a love story with the all-too-common theme that “you don’t know what you have ’til it’s gone.” It wasn’t until my parents died that I realized that I had never before understood their relationship and most likely had discounted it unfairly.
Here is the story of their last anniversary together, on January 24, as relayed in my book.
She is so sick that he does not recognize her. My sister and I wheel him up to her bedside and still he does not realize that this is his wife.
“Who is this?” he asks. “Where’s the other one?”
My sister and I inappropriately start laughing, out of sheer exhaustion. We quickly gain control and convince Dad that this shell is his wife. He becomes sorrowful and tender. He holds her hand, kisses her, shouts “I love you” in her ear, and tries to feed her. He tenderly touches her face and neck, telling her that she’s beautiful.
“How are you feeling, dear? OK?” He is so used to her being so strong and expects her bravado to re-emerge. She is comatose.
It is their 63rd wedding anniversary.
We sit for a while until he reluctantly agrees to leave, only after being promised he can soon return. She shows no acknowledgement, save for the tear in the corner of her eye, which he dabs with a tissue.
Later that night, I stop to see him and find him crying in bed. Without prompting, he explains, “I didn’t know it was her. I couldn’t believe it.” I tell him I understand.
“I love her,” he says. “I really love that girl.”
I start to tell him more specifics about her medical status, but he stops me. “Don’t,” he says and keeps repeating, “Poor girl. Poor girl.” He knows his 88-year-old “girl” is leaving him, but he doesn’t want to know the gory details.