A Different Kind of Happy

My husband gave me a card today.
It said,
Happy Valentine’s Day
Happy Anniversary
Happy Birthday
And every other “happy” that has been different, because of Covid.
The only thing that hasn’t changed through all of this is how happy I am when I am with you.

We were sitting at the table celebrating Mother’s Day and my mother’s birthday. No sooner had my mother opened one of her many cards, and slowly read them, (which she can still do with difficulty), she forgot. She ate a lobster and couldn’t remember. She at a piece of cake, and then another, and another, and by the time she finished the third piece, and the cake was gone, I asked if she liked it and she asked, “liked what?” When we said good-bye, we might as well have been saying hello. The priceless moments of her laughing at a joke, or polishing off that cake, were wrapped in a day that was gone long before we ever arrived.

Something about the card Jim gave me, and life with my mother- which is exactly like the movie, “Fifty First Dates” made me think about time, and how precious it is, and even after more than a year of so many “happy’s,” that took on a new meaning, there is something that is exactly the same-- all we have is now. It’s still hard to remember, until you spend enough time with someone who has no cognizance of “past” and no sense of “future,” and you accept that this is it. There’s nothing more. It’s very pure, and honest and it is the truth. I have learned that love does not reciprocate in the exact way you dole it out. Sometimes it meets us somewhere we least expect to find it. The flowers and balloons and even her family gathered around her would mean no less, just because she had no memory of it. Those of us who were there, loving her, would remember what she could not.

When I left New York last September for Cape Cod, it was my mission to offer my son a safe- haven away from the city of Cambridge, and to be closer to my parents. What I discovered was that none of them really needed me as much as I needed them.

I came alone to a place where I had childhood memories, and where I had been coming to visit my parents for decades. I recognized the few hurried days I spent a few times a year, made me a visitor, not exactly a tourist. No stranger to this place, I was a stranger to staying here for what become many months. I left everything my life in New York was about. I saw no one, no friends not even my brother. I no longer went to an office. I created a schedule that accounted for my professional responsibilities, wore stretch pants and sweaters every day. I rarely wore wear make-up. I didn’t wear jewelry, showered less than I ever had. My hair waited until I felt like dealing with it. I walked in sneakers and hiking boots and dirtied them in the sand and on trails. I swore off the news, and sometimes the hum of the refrigerator was the only sound I heard. I listened to music, whole concertos and symphonies. I looked at stars and couldn’t recognize celestial happenings but tried to learn about them. I saw insane moon rises, large and bright and yellow like I’d never seen. I read more than I have in years. I watched the seasons change again from a home that wasn’t mine. From fall to winter and then to spring again. I was no longer trying to avoid the monster that lurked in every stranger’s breath, or cough, or sneeze. In the Stop and Shop, and Walmart, I looked for the empty aisles, and I kept my distance, but I saw human beings, behind those masks, all of whom had sacrificed something or someone. No longer looking away as I had earlier in the pandemic, I tried to make eye contact, even if they could not see my smile from behind the mask. I helped older people struggling with groceries.

Daniel came for Thanksgiving for what was supposed to be a week and stayed 6 months. Together we watched Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy. We ate dinner and later talked in my big bed. We escaped the mean Cape Cod winter this year, and never needed the plow guy. We were very lucky. We played games like Mrs. Maisel Game of Life, and Three Lies and a Truth, and then the vaccination lottery, losing time and time again, until finally we had all made it through- like a board game where you have done the impossible and finally land at “home.” The first thing Daniel and I did, was to sit outside at a restaurant, and eat pizza. We swore It was the best pizza we ever ate.

I would walk the beach, seeking new arrivals. First the horseshoe crabs, then the scallops, then red seaweed, then the conches and a different kind of spiny crab, and eventually, just rocks and pebbles. I had never braved the beach here in the freezing winter, the wind burned my face, but I walked on. It made me feel alive.

The forsythia bloomed and the crab apple blossoms and azaleas brought pink and purple to the yards along the road to my parents. That was what always happened in the spring here. As far as the trees and bushes were concerned, nothing had changed.
But for me, it has been 14 months since I left my life, and a lot changed.

The conversations my 90-year-old father, Bernie, and I had when I arrived eight months ago, began with end of life wishes and arrangements for him and my mother Barbara. As practical as that was, we’d had those conversations enough. That is not why I was here. We stopped talking politics and life planning, and journeyed our favorite paths, and discovered places neither of us had seen. We dirtied our shoes in cranberry bogs, hiked a few miles on terrain I know people half his age would have struggled with. Bernie is not slow. Walking with him is not like walking with an old man. We watched the herring run, and we visited gardens. He taught me about the estuaries and the threat of the CO-2 which destroys the eco-system. I learned about the rising tides and the bird sanctuaries. He educated me about the town’s politics and his days as a town meeting member. He once volunteered to track the progress of sand pipers in a protected area. He used to volunteer at the service center which provided food and clothing for economically insecure locals. He told me about the discarded flowering plants he rescued from his condo- dumpster, and how he replanted them. With no tolerance for waste, his backyard is now a lush oasis of other people’s “misguided” decisions about beauty.

We have little knowledge of our family, but this didn’t deter my endless questions. Bernie is the last one to know anything about my ancestors and hearing even what little he knew, fascinated me. There was so much I had never asked. There was so much about him and my mother I didn’t know. They had spent a month in Spain, he had nearly died a few times in freak accidents, which I knew nothing about. There was so much more. Where had I been? Living my life, a few hundred miles away.

In three weeks, my car will be packed-up and I’ll back out of the driveway. What felt like an expanse of months, hasn’t been enough. It’s not time I want more of. While I can no longer share conversation with my mother, I can sit with her, I can bear witness, I can comfort her, I can bring her pecan pies I bake and remind her they are her favorite, and meals she has no memory of liking. I can care for her in a way she never would have allowed in the life we used to share.
I’ll miss watching the Hallmark Channel with her. I call it the “channel of the beautiful and their overly white teeth.” Sometimes I point out hot looking men, and she says nothing, and sometimes she just says, “Ya,” and then I look over and she is snoozing next to me. Each time I leave I hug and kiss her goodbye, and sometimes she seems a little unsure, as to why I am doing this, but she will give a tiny kiss on my cheek. I can feel in those moments the words “I love you” she couldn’t say when I wished she could.

When I leave my father, I will cry. When I arrived, there was so much I was going to “do”. Run errands, cook, grocery shopping, pick up prescriptions, give him a break and sit with my mother, drive them to appointments. I did those things sometimes, but that is not what he needed or wanted. We became friends in a world that was too dangerous for either of us to trot around in, where even his gym was a hazard not worth taking on. So, we found each other in those wide-open spaces and paths and trails we meandered, and in the iPhone issues I helped him trouble shoot, and the printer set up that was once easy for him and is now easier for me.

Every single time I left their home, I knew it could be the last. I would ask myself; did I say everything I wanted to say? Do we ever? Did we laugh enough? Yes, yes, we laughed, and we cried, and I said I love you, every phone call, every time I stepped out of his door.

Daniel was eventually returned to his home in Cambridge, still schooling remotely, and will walk for his diploma, in May of ‘22 having earned his bachelor’s. We made it to the other side of washing our food with chlorine bleach, and the months we didn’t leave the house, except for a walk or groceries. His lock down will hopefully remind him that taking walks, cooking meals with me, baking and playing games, and talking were the best kind of normal for the six months we had together.

I am leaving for New York soon. I am headed “home” but I’m not sure what that will feel like when so much of what I thought “mattered” is different now. It is time for me to be re-united with Jim, the doormen, the smell of the sidewalks being hosed down, the familiar sounds and stores and neighbors, and my friends in the city. While I was here finding out who I am, I am certain she, my home of 43 years, my longest relationship, is still finding herself too.

The ocean I see from the living room has been a constant reminder of what does and doesn’t change. I will return my collection of sea gifts, still sandy, to a place on the beach with a note of thanks for the delight they gave me in finding them, and for these months where I melted into someone whose tougher edges were softened like sea glass by the ocean’s tides.

And I wonder, what surprises will Bernie’s garden offer, when I return?

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