When my mom was 16 years old, she wore her strawberry blonde hair cropped short, donned herself in flared jeans and form-fitting, brightly-colored shirts. She was a child of the 60’s and 70’s, laughing with her friends and posing next to red convertibles in grainy photographs. When my dad was 17, things weren’t much different, except the curly black hair he kept messy and wild around his head. One day, his green eyes spotted her bright blue ones and something inside of him compelled him toward her.
In my imagination, they were standing outside the high school they attended together, she was hanging with her friends in the lawn and he walked by with his best friend Gale. I have no idea if that’s what actually happened, but what I do know is that he introduced himself. My mother has never been afraid to speak her mind, to look someone squarely in the face and fuck with them just because she has no interest in being taken advantage of or underestimated. And with three older brothers who constantly tormented her, she was no stranger to the nuances of messing with men. So when my dad, no doubt with his silly confidence, told her his name, she glibly introduced herself as Gertrude.
My parents dated for the better part of 10 years before getting married and have spent the last 37 years as husband and wife. My mother, whose real name is not Gertrude, has been a force of energy and laughter throughout their marriage; My dad, who didn’t learn her real name wasn’t Gertrude for several weeks, one of love and romance. I learned very early in life what it meant for a man to be affectionate to his wife, to kiss her and hug her and tickle her. To sing to her, to pull her on his lap, to always genuinely want her around, no matter what hobby or task he was engrossed in. My dad never pushed her, or us kids for that matter, away in annoyance. He took our presence lovingly and he drunk hers in with supreme gratitude.
It had never occurred to me to imagine that other parents were different until I started spending time at friends’ houses. I remember my brothers and I whispering to each other at night about how it was “so weird” that all couples didn’t treat each other the same. We would beam with pride at our fortune and consider ourselves superior because our parents were actually in love and happy. Of course, all of these memories are filtered through the eyes of a young girl, but I can attest that the last statement has always been true- my parents have truly loved each other every step of the way.
I didn’t grow up rich, in fact, I was astutely aware of the ways in which we struggled with money, how we didn’t have quite as much as this family or that one. We didn’t get spoiled at holidays or birthdays with extravagant presents. My parents didn’t surprise each other with vacations or cars. But what we did have was super-soaker fights in the front yard, Sundays roller blading on fresh parking lot black-top, camping trips where we would roast marshmallows and ride our bikes around Mackinac Island. We cuddled up with my mom in bed while she read to us, played games of tag screeching throughout the house, enjoyed movie nights and family dinners.
Throughout it all, I watched my dad sing love songs to my mom, grab her from behind and pull her in close when he walked into the room, and exchange knowing glances with her, as if they shared an amusing secret. My parents were a team unlike any other I’d ever seen. It’s not that they didn’t disagree or struggle, but when it came down to it, they were in life together.
When my older brother had his first sleepover at our house, he was somewhere around 5th or 6th grade. A group of unruly and sarcastic boys filled our house, their sleeping bags and video game consoles strewn across the living room. They spoke in hushed excited whispers as it got darker; they were young and yearning for adventure. Which is why, when my parents suggested they take a walk down our very dark and very quiet dirt road as a way to scare the shit out of themselves, they happily agreed. All of them filtered out of the house and down the road, laughing and scaring themselves in the vacant blackness that surrounded them. Not long after they left, because my younger brother and I were begrudgingly not allowed to hang around them, we watched as my parents laughed and quickly changed their clothes. They dressed themselves in all black and hurriedly rushed out the front door.
My mom and dad quietly crept alongside in the woods, watching as the boys scared themselves with their imaginations. Finally, my parents hurled themselves out of the trees, screaming and running and flailing their arms. My brother and his friends squealed, ran, and climbed up each other’s backs in an attempt to get away from the danger that had just befallen them. And when they finally realized it was just my crazy parents, protested that they had not been scared. My parents laughed and laughed and laughed. I remember them coming back to the house falling over themselves with glee.
These are my greatest memories- not necessarily my 40’s something parents scaring the shit out of a bunch of pre-teen boys, though it is quite amusing, but the memory of them being playful together, of finding small ways to enjoy each other and life. My life is littered with tales like these, like the time my parents dressed up for Halloween and made themselves unrecognizable so that they could screw with my aunts and uncles. Or when they snuck out in the middle of the night to gather some barn wood for a DIY project I was doing and had to jump into a ditch when a car drove by. I remember my mom calling me afterwards, laughing breathlessly as she told me how they had both ridiculously assumed that someone was going to catch them. They met when they were teenagers and somehow managed to keep the excitement of that time alive.
A little less than ten years ago, life shifted in the most unexpected way. My father, the one who was an encyclopedia of facts and figures about baseball, cars, and history, started to forget. At first, it was small things, like where he had placed his glasses or shoes. Then it was bigger things, like what he had done that day. Gradually over time, this thief started to rob more and more away- names, events, where he was, what he was supposed to do next. My father started to become someone else, someone who didn’t sing silly songs in the shower or make quips and dad jokes at the slightest provocation. My family watched, helplessly, as our strong patriarch descended into the depths of confusion. My father was in his 50’s when life came in and started to take things away from him, from all of us.
One good and bad thing about my family is that we haven’t ever been one that addressed conflict easily. When my parents fought, they did so quietly behind closed doors. When we were upset, we would get hugs and reassurances, but there weren’t often conversations about it. So when we started to notice that my dad was forgetting, we made small comments, asked little questions. We pretended like it wasn’t there, because understandably, we desperately wanted it all be a fluke, something that could be fixed. I, and maybe all of us, used avoidance and denial; my dad had always been the one there protecting us, but now we had no way to shield him and it was all way too much.
Today, my dad is not the man he used to be and things continue to get worse, sometimes at an excruciating exponential rate. We all try to remind ourselves that looking back and wishing for what used to be doesn’t change anything, in fact, it just makes us sad and miserable. So we try to embrace what time we do have with who is here now- the dad who asks me how I am, tells me he loves me, and one time, in the middle of Starbucks looked at me and asked “Are you happy? Most people don’t think to ask that, but it’s important.”
My dad doesn’t always recognize us anymore, which is something I am accepting, albeit slowly and painfully. So that means he doesn’t always recognize my mom when she is standing in front of him. But here’s the thing, he always knows that he loves his wife. He will always tell you how great she is, how beautiful she is. Even when he doesn’t remember the last five minutes of his life, he knows without a doubt that he loves her.
If you know me, you know that I have always been a closeted romantic. I was someone who read a lot of Nicholas Sparks’ novels, who was hoping and searching and sometimes even praying for a beautiful love story. I have gobbled up countless tales and movies about the depths of love and commitment, and how despite all obstacles, people have loved each other fiercely.
It’s funny how things in life work out; I have been searching my whole life for the perfect love story. But the reality is those don’t happen over the course of an hour and half or two-hundred pages. They happen over decades, over countless joys and trials, over stumbles and falls, suffering and elation. They happen in quiet moments, in lives that aren’t grand or broadcast to millions of people. They happen in real life.
And I know that because my parents, the quiet mid-western couple with three children who have lived in the same house for over thirty years, are the greatest one I’ve ever known. Even when my Dad forgets, my mom is still there. Even when my Dad forgets, he is still there, loving her with all that he is.