Saying my parents had a “rocky” relationship doesn’t get it quite right. It’s more like they stood tethered together on cliff’s edge, never able to decide whether they should push each other off or jump together.
When I was in high school, they went through an especially bad spell after a massive fight, probably about finances. It was intolerable. For weeks they wouldn’t even look at each other. I don’t remember a single word passing between them. Dad slept on the living room sofa. One day during this episode, I asked Mom point blank why she didn’t just divorce Dad. Mom told me melodramatically that they were only staying together “for the children.” I was so miserable that I replied, please don’t do me any favors. If you love me, get a divorce NOW, because I can’t live like this.
No one ever listens to me. They stayed together. They patched up that rent in the fabric of their relationship, and they kept the fight/get-along loop going until Dad died, about 40 years into their marriage.
Some time in my 20’s or early 30’s, while Anthony and I were visiting my parents (probably for Christmas), we suffered through the fight half of the loop. During this part of the cycle, each of my parents typically came to me with their complaints. I suppose I’m glad they were open with me, but I really hated listening to them bitch about each other. As Anthony and I were debriefing on it in private, I wondered aloud why they even stayed married when they were always so unhappy together. Wasn’t divorce the only sensible option?
Anthony looked at me with that special bemused look that tells me he’s thinking, how can someone as smart as you be so stupid?
“Don’t you know why, Carla?” he asked me. NO, I replied emphatically, I have no idea why! Anthony responded with a gentle sweetness in his voice I didn’t expect. “Isn’t it obvious they love each other?”
(Have I mentioned yet that Anthony is a perfect human being? Okay, I take that back, but look. My friend Phyllis told me recently that I’m among the approximately 5 percent of women who DON’T think their husbands are assholes. Damn.)
Anthony’s astonishing insight rocked my world. He was right, of course. I never saw my parents – or their fights – the same way again. Mom and Dad were grumpy in love. Instead of only seeing the grousing and bitching anymore, I also started noticing the little giggles and the big laughs. I watched them hang out together like old comfortable dogs, and also exchange sweet little kisses like prepubescent teenagers. I peeked around corners to catch these moments. Thanks to Anthony, I had a chance to spy on their grumpy love affair in its twilight years. It was anything but perfect, but it was enough.
I hope I’ll write someday soon about how they met in Korea, the sweet and curious stories they told me — never talking together, but only in separate and very private conversations with me — about how they wooed one another. Those stories, most of which I heard even as I advocated for divorce, never took root in my heart. I guess I thought of them as fairytales. It didn’t occur to me that my parents were sharing them not so much to inform me of something lost, but to remind themselves of the deep, unbroken roots in their own hearts. Maybe they were also asking me, in some inchoate way, to stop being so cynical about them.
My mom was stoic at Dad’s funeral. I don’t think she shed a single tear. We muddled through, and she even made a few jokes with me. A man came through the receiving line, weeping. I held and comforted him, which was strange in itself. He moved on and I asked Mom who he was to be so upset. Mom leaned over to whisper in my ear with a twinkle in her eye, “He’s just crying like that because he’s having a quadruple bypass next week.” (Dad had the same a few weeks before he died.)
I remember Mom standing next to Dad’s coffin as they prepared to close it. I couldn’t go near his body. I should have been beside her, but I just couldn’t. I didn’t have the courage to feel his cold body; I didn’t think I could stay on my feet. I was weak, but not Mom. She stood firm, silent, still, looking down at Dad’s face for an unendurable length of time. Her hands rested quietly and peacefully on the edge of the coffin. I have no idea what she was thinking.
But my guess is, she was saying goodbye to her devoted lover and best friend of half a century. Simple as that.