Since 2005, my husband and I have moved four times. In addition to those four moves, I also emptied my parents' home in Connecticut and later moved my father, after my mother's death four years ago this month, to a new apartment fit for one man and a care giver.
It really was the emptying and move from the apartment that my parents lived in for fifty years that was the most daunting and emotionally-wrenching. My parents were pack rats. Not hoarders, but clearly unwilling to part with papers: undated receipts, outdated legal documents and, above all, love letters from my parents to one another. Not just the garden variety written for birthdays and anniversaries, but many exchanged for no reason (apparent to me) and many when my father traveled for business to Europe and India in the 1960's and 1970's. My mother stayed behind with the children. The world was larger back then. Air travel wasn't as de rigueur; the flights were less frequent and international calls were prohibitively costly. Back then, jaunts across the ocean were only for the wealthy or the businessman.
In 2009, after my father was ensconced in his new apartment, I made copies of the letters, some of which were already crumbling on the tissue-like "air mail" stationary; the ballpoint ink fading. I placed the originals inside cellophane sleeves of a scrapbook that I bought at Staples. Fashioned the spine with my mother's name and slipped an 8x10 photo of her into the sleeve on the front of the scrapbook so there was "cover art."
Our apartment is being painted this week. Painting is somewhat like moving as one has to empty cabinets, closets and shelves. I toss what is broken, donate what I will not use and come across items nearly forgotten -- like the scrapbook. It really wasn't that I forgot. It was rather that I tucked it away safely. I also suppose, as a firm believer in the subconscious mind, that during those emotional days back in 2009 when each letter made me catch my breath, a part of me didn't quite process them fully. I was also reluctant to exhume the scrapbook. Revisiting the book, when I am no longer reeling as acutely from my mother's death, I read the lines and in between. Of course, the "in between" is probably subjective with some projection on my part thrown into the mix. Children, of any age, never know their parents' marriage.
The letters are addressed to "dearest" and "darling," both epithets I never heard either of my parents call the other. In one, my mother writes, "My dearest, I fly with you in my sleep" and then "I awake and look at the clock and estimate where you are." In another, my father says, "My Darling, Your letters filled a necessary void and I am deeply grateful for them. Only your presence could have been better." In yet another, perhaps the most compelling one for me as their marriage hit the 32-year mark (mine comes due in September), my father wrote, "I looked at your little face when I left and saw the bride I loved and married 32 years ago. And I said to myself, 'Is it worth the time, money and efforts just for vanity when love exists anyway?'" And in yet another, my mother signs off, "Take care, darling" as she waits for my father to make his way home.
The day before yesterday was four years since my mother died. First thing in the morning, I placed a dripless taper in a silver holder given to me by my mother years before. Last night, my brother, his wife, one of his sons and I had dinner with my father and toasted Mom. Our father is not the same man who wrote those love letters. Call it what you will -- dementia or Alzheimer's. He asks the same questions over and over again within the space of ten minutes. On my last visit with him, he asked, "So, have you spoken to Mommy lately?" And I explained that Mommy died. He said, "Oh, right. Now I remember. She was a wonderful person, you know. I miss her. I miss talking to her." I said that even though she's gone, I talk to her every day -- which is true. I have conversations with her in my head where I answer for her because I'm pretty sure I know how the conversation will go.
The man who penned those letters still wears a shirt and tie and jacket even when he's home all day long. The jacket he wore the other night had a hole in the sleeve -- something neither he nor my mother would have tolerated. She would have insisted he throw it away; he would have insisted that it could be repaired. She would have won the battle and presented him with a new jacket. As I was leaving the other night (my brother cooked and I cleaned up), my father leaned over from his seat on the couch and picked up the framed picture of my mother that sat on the coffee table. "She died, you know," he said. He was matter-of-fact with his statement as he held the picture, and then he sighed deeply and rested his head on my shoulder. "Stephie, Stephie, Stephie," he said.
It is painful to witness my father's altered state although it's been coming on for a decade now. It's been a slow and steady decline that took a significant dive after my mother died. I want to think that there is some sort of peace in his dementia. I want to believe that his mind and memory are now selective, taking him to places filled with sweet memories, allowing him to live in a nearly childlike world where fulfillment of his basic needs is what matters most to keep him content.
I went home that night and turned on CNN. Watched what could be perceived as Armageddon in Boston and Texas if one doesn't cling to some sort of hope. When I left my father's, he was watching something analogous to Dancing with the Stars. Fluff that he never would have watched "before." He would have been tuned in as well to CNN with rapt attention. He would have theorized and argued with the reporters. I wondered: if I showed him the letters, would they resonate with him? I wondered, what happens to love when the mind is gone?
Follow Stephanie Gertler on Twitter: www.twitter.com/StephGertler