Last month, my mom’s heart finally gave up a long, hard fight and she died.
The day began dramatically, my mom waking my dad up at 5 A.M., in the grips of a heart attack. My dad rushed her to the emergency room in Flagstaff, Arizona where she quickly received a stent. For a time, it appeared she would be okay. But that afternoon, her blood pressure dropped dangerously low.
A second catheterization procedure proved ineffective and my dad – knowing her wish to end nearly 20 years of chronic physical pain – declined to put her on life support. For the next hour, he talked to her, prayed with her, read to her, and told her how much she was loved as she slipped away quietly and quickly.
By the time she finally died, I’d already booked a flight from L.A. to Phoenix, obeying my own sense of dread that the situation was dire. Some would say my dad should have consented to some artificial medical interventions in order to keep my mom alive long enough for my brother and me to arrive.
While it’s true that my grief was exaggerated by the knowledge that I was only 18 hours away from being by her side, when I consider the intimacy shared between them – husband, wife, man, woman, lovers, friends – during those final, precious minutes, I harbor no resentment toward my dad for his decision. You see, my mom’s passing ended a beautiful, mysterious and complicated love story between my parents.
They met in the summer of 1966 in Seattle after a mutual friend set them up on a blind date. My dad was a brilliant engineer with a friendly smile and an easy, approachable manner – traits that distinguished him in his field among his fellow engineers and took him far in his career. After growing up in the Midwest with a kind, but morally rigid father, my dad sought to unfetter himself from his father’s expectations and spread his wings. He got his Master’s degree in engineering, joined the Peace Corps, moved to the west coast, and never looked back.
My mom was a bright, independent, strong woman – an impish and slightly irreverent blond with a big smile and a loud laugh – who liked to push the limits of convention. As a cheerleader in high school, all four feet and nine inches of her would shoot free-throws on the basketball court during half time in front of all the students. She was a fan of Title Nine and bemoaned the athletic opportunities she never had as a young girl growing up in the fifties and early sixties.
Her attitudes about gender equality were ahead of her time. Before meeting my dad, she never thought much about getting married. Her own father had been neither kind, nor good and she placed herself in the role of protector to her two sisters.
My parents’ chemistry was immediate and mutual. They were like-minded in many ways: slightly wounded, but determined to be happy, with a shared love of the outdoors and a high value for play. In her later years, my mom’s biggest regret was that she had long since grown too frail to do the things she and my father enjoyed most: fishing, skiing, hiking, biking, playing golf.
Thirty years later, in 1997, my mom underwent an orthopedic surgery on her elbow that set off what would become nineteen years of chronic pain, fibromyalgia, environmental illness, and a host of other autoimmune-adjacent diseases that are considered medically suspect, or a first-class ticket to martyrdom, depending on who you ask. Soon after, my parents’ lives began to spiral into a seemingly endless series of events that further compromised my mom’s poor health.
There were many, many burdens to be carried. There were the constant moves – they bought and sold more than eight homes and rented another 10 or more in search of the perfect, stimuli-free environment. They met with a carousel of doctors, repeating the same story to the same bemused expression, over and over again, ad nauseum. My dad endured countless pitying, disbelieving looks from those who questioned her symptoms and her sanity.
They eventually became isolated from the few friends who cared enough to stay in touch. Or, at least tried to. My parents were notoriously difficult to reach. Most of my conversations with them started with the same two questions: how are you and where are you.
My dad even made her allergy shots – a task that required a wide network of support from botanists and arborists, and math that was so complex, my dad needed a nuclear scientist to confirm his calculations.
As my mom’s illness grew progressively worse, my parents became more and more like one person: He, totally absorbed in her pain and suffering, desperate to find a solution, pinning his hopes on the house/treatment/physician/miracle that was always just outside his grasp, but that would fix everything. She, clinging to him for help, grateful to suffer in his presence un-judged, but resentful of her need, her weakness, the loss of her independence, strength, and vitality.
In the last few years, my parents became practically indistinguishable. Her pain was his. His worry was hers. If you offended her, he came to her defense. She could complain about him to me, but God help me if I agreed with her. He lost all objectivity when it came to her illness and its strange and unpredictable symptoms, looking only to serve and never to question. She would dictate texts, emails, letters to me and he would transcribe them, signing her name at the end.
My relationship with my parents’ interdependency – their united front – was a paradox. On the one hand, I admired their absolute dedication to one another. But on the other hand, I felt excluded from it, an uninvited guest. My mom, in her darkest moments, was combative and verbally abusive. Although intending to be compassionate, my dad unwittingly enabled her self-pity and self-destructive choices. Their preoccupation with my mom’s health and the lifestyle choices they made to perpetuate that preoccupation was sometimes difficult to understand.
Still, throughout it all, at the center of their union, there was great love. Flawed, broken, and at times, destructive love – but still love.
Culturally, we criticize dependency. As a society, we resolve not to rely upon another person, to remain separate, distinctive, self-reliant. We praise ourselves for our autonomy even while we file for divorce. Her husband cheated? She should dump him. She has an addiction? He should cut bait and find a more suitable mate.
In a world in which we value our own happiness above all things – above our spouses, our families, and even our children – we often condemn service to others, self-sacrifice, and anything that costs us comfort and pleasure.
Not many men would have stayed with my mother during her illness and yet he remained steadfast and faithful to her until the very end, supporting her totally – in word, and in deed. He was not completely blind to her flaws, nor numb to her angry, abusive outbursts. But he was devoted.
“In sickness and in health, ’till death do us part.” It was a promise made and kept. If he ever doubted it, I’ll never know.
Marriage is a tall order. To take a vow and make a legally-binding promise to love another person in all of love’s forms – Eros, Philia, Storge, Agape love – is no small thing. To do it at all is a great accomplishment. To do it well is a miracle.
Next July, my parents would have celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Flaws notwithstanding, my parents marriage was a great love story, a beacon of light in our dark and self-absorbed world.
What is a perfect marriage? How do we define it? Can we recognize it when we see it? What does it mean to serve a mate? What does it look like for partners to lean on each other in a healthy way, complementing – not losing – our individuality along the way? Can two people live a lifetime together in marriage without developing destructive patterns and co-dependencies? If so, how? Who will teach us?
I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. But I believe at least this much is true: a healthy marriage should enrich and serve the people at the center of it, as well as the people around it. A partnership marked by a halo of joy that edifies my children, friends, family members, and community is perhaps a good place to set the bar – even if I fail to reach it in my own marriage.
I don’t know how my dad will move forward or what his grief will look like. Choosing to love someone as sincerely and deeply as my dad loved my mom is a tremendous risk. I have so much respect and admiration for his courage in the face of that risk and his grace in the midst of his now painful and devastating loss. I am grieving alongside him, mourning the death of my mom. But his grief must be so much greater than mine. I hope he will heal and embrace whatever comes next.
My parents’ love story has come to an end. But mine is just beginning. I have not always understood their marriage, and some of their decisions came at a painful cost to me, my brother, and our families. But they did the best they could, after all, and they did well.
I am proud of the legacy of love my parents have left for me and for their grandkids, flaws and all. Learning from this legacy, and growing because of it, I can both honor and further fortify their love.
Perhaps my husband and I will even set a new standard for the next generation – my parents’ legacy as our foundation. Because true love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.