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My mother has a new boyfriend. She never calls him that; she calls him her “significant other.” Sometimes she forgets the term and says, “My . . . what is it that I call him?” “Significant other,” I say. “Oh yes.”
They have short-term memory loss, and they also have what the gurus tell us is true enlightenment: being in the moment.
My parents were a love match, married 55 years until my father’s death 15 years ago. Like my dad was, Mother’s significant other, John, is a younger man. She’s 102. He’s 91.
They met at her nursing home in Pennsylvania. He had been a psychologist, and she had sung with the Trenton Opera Company before becoming a minister’s wife. I bet John loves that photo of her as a lovely young woman in a low-cut “Carmen” costume.
A week before my mother’s birthday in January, I went to spend a week with her, holding her hand and talking, or not. I found her surrounded by loving caretakers. Her room looks out on a grove of pine trees.
One night at dinner in the big dining hall, John, the S. O., as I call him, whispered to me that he had something special planned for her birthday. My brother, who lives nearby, and I conjectured: jewelry? Roses? An engagement ring?
The day of the party, we pushed her wheelchair into the day room at 1 o’clock. After the staff handed out cupcakes with turquoise icing, my brother made a little speech, and I sang two songs with Dad’s guitar: “You Are My Sunshine” and “Keep on the Sunny Side of Life.” The 40 or so assembled guests from the nursing home looked on.
Time goes slowly in a place like that. Cupcakes on napkins can take a half hour or more to eat. Grand gestures take longer, too. From across the room, John bumped his walker towards Mother. She looked up and smiled. When he stopped, he bent over and went in for a kiss. It was a good ‘un — slow and loving and right on the lips. She beamed like a debutante, and everyone, even the ones who appeared to live in their own secret worlds, clapped.
It’s easy to entertain my friends with my stories about Pol, my centenarian mother. But I do not find this one “feisty” or “cute” or any of those other condescending terms that she hates. It’s a different sort of love that I see — so pure, so down-to-the-essence, so dear. It’s what they are, not what they do. It’s eros, not agape.
Later, Mother confided, “He’s a good kisser.” I think that was their first kiss, but even they might not know if it was. She just knows he’s her S.O., and he knows she’s his.
...Mother confided, 'He’s a good kisser.' I think that was their first kiss, but even they might not know if it was. She just knows he’s her S.O., and he knows she’s his.
Here’s what else they do: They eat meals next to each other most days, and sometimes she wheels her chair into the day room where he has his “office” at a tray table. His business is to read the daily paper. He sometimes touches her arm, and word is that, on New Year’s Eve, they toasted with sparkling cider and danced the Charleston in their chairs.
They do not argue about money, politics or sex, and they don’t speak about their long marriages. They have short-term memory loss, and they also have what the gurus tell us is true enlightenment: being in the moment.
I had lots to think about on an eight-hour drive back to Cambridge, Massachusetts. I’m 65 and have been “fancy free,” that lovely British term, for more than a decade. Is it possible that I envy my 102-year-old mother?
Of course I do.
Author's Postscript: My, mother, Polly Deihl, died three days after her 102nd birthday. I had already written this piece when I received the news.