Losing Ground, Gaining Altitude

Both my parents are gone now. Their journey homeward was a steady loss of ground for them both but, in the loss of ground, my father gained altitude of a different sort, an ultimate sense of gratitude for the smallest of pleasures. My mother did not.

My dad had short-term memory loss, but kept his clever wit and acceptance of what each new day brought, as long as it had my mother in it. My mother, on the other hand, had Alzheimer’s disease and, though she was 13 years younger, she left first. By the time my father buried her, she’d had bitter battles with everyone but my brother’s dog, Fanny. She left the world with searing screams. My dad adored her through it all. “I think she knows it’s me,” he would say. “When I say ‘kiss, kiss,’ do you see how she puckers her lips?” For months, after she had lost the ability to communicate, he sat by her side, holding her hand and reading the paper, sometimes out loud to her, sometimes in silence.

Theirs was the proverbial storybook romance that became, after she died, the tale my father told, face shining, lips smiling, eyes closed, to anyone who would listen. In Sanskrit, we call this a bhavana, a vision, and it was an image that gave him pleasure. He relived each moment in the retelling. He meditated on that bhavana daily, and practiced tratak with her pictures. Tratak is a gazing meditation, and her years of professional modeling in New York and their 50-plus years together gave him much to gaze upon.

My father didn’t dance with other women and, if you watched him dancing with my mother, even towards the end, when she could barely speak, you knew why. For him, holding her close, cheek to cheek, was a rhapsody of love, a meditation in motion. He couldn’t have that intimate and transcendent connection that took him through the present moment into eternity with anyone but his “beautiful Mary, inside and out.” They were imperfect parents, of course. But watching them dance cast a spell of the unconditional love they felt for each other over me and, in the moment of witnessing, I was swept into their limitless affection.

In the last few years of their lives, before my mother’s Alzheimer’s carved her out and her mobility ceased, I would meet them for their annual trip to Florida, arriving a day or so ahead to set up the condo. At the airport, I could barely fit their four overstuffed suitcases into the rental car. Out of the luggage came rolls of paper towels, big wooden jewelry boxes, multiple bars of soap and tubes of toothpaste, 32-ounce refill bottles of hand soap along with the dispensers, empty containers of roll-on deodorant, and boxes of facial tissue. This traveling pharmacy was expanded when my mother insisted that we stop at a super box store on the way from the airport so she could buy toilet tissue, Diet Coke, and toothpaste. Four more suitcases were due to arrive via UPS within a day or two, and we all hoped they contained some clothes.

As we waited for the promised suitcases, we practiced laughter yoga together each time we discovered something essential, like Dad’s socks, that didn’t get packed. When the suitcases arrived we fell upon them, hoping for the jewels of Dad’s underwear and shorts beneath what we discovered-four rolls of scotch tape, four more refill bottles of hand soap, and old magazines. My mother had packed her own underwear at least, but with all the toiletries, I guess there was no room for my dad’s shorts, tennis clothes, socks or sweatshirts. Until we took him shopping, he hit tennis balls with my mother in his dress pants and shirt. He did find a bathing suit, so he could go down to the pool where every day he left his watch and, every day, we went back to find it. Unfortunately, my mother couldn’t join him for a swim because, although she packed every handbag and pair of shoes she owned, she forgot her swimsuit.

When they walked down to the beach to watch the sunset with their nightly vodka tonics, they joined friends with whom they had played tennis for more than 30 years. They had social strategies they thought covered their memory gaps. “What’s that woman’s name at the other end of the bench?” my dad asked the fellow sitting beside him. “That’s my wife, Jeannette,” the man responded. “Your wife? How did you get so lucky?“ My mother simply called everyone “dear.”

For most of those 30 years, my dad organized the tennis matches—he was the one the guys called to arrange a game when they arrived from Boston or New York or Chicago for a week or three or a month or three. My parents were once top-notch players and much loved in that tennis-minded condo complex, though by then the invitations for games were dwindling. I found myself campaigning for invitations for my mother by watching for side changes and then interrupting doubles matches to remind her former teammates in league tennis that she could still hit. I coached her to leave messages on answering machines, printing a script in bold letters to let her former teammates know she was available as a sub. She longed to be out there playing, but the phone didn’t ring. So, for the first time in my life, I was out on the tennis court hitting balls. Even then, she was a natural player, much better than I.

For several years, they continued to muddle through, enjoying their lives and each other. When he left the condo to check the mail, she worried that something had happened and embraced him in tears on his return. When he went out to play tennis, she reminded him to wear sunscreen, or, when the words escaped her, “put the white stuff on,” she would say, patting his cheeks. In the end, he learned to wear sunscreen without her reminders, to load the dishwasher, and make his own lunch. And in the end they left a legacy of love, a standard that my brothers and I have never quite met, at least not in that single-hearted fifty-year kind of way. Still, it inspires us to remain ever hopeful about what is possible. My brother, in his 57th year, got married again this past fall.

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