My folks recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. That's right: Sixty years of mutual devotion, regular frustration, occasional spats and a fierce commitment to the greater good. There were no hot air balloon rides or tandem sky jumping stunts. No open bar. Not even a harbor cruise. The auspicious milestone was marked quietly, with a small family gathering at my dad's nursing home.
But in my head, champagne corks went a-popping.
As we all know, your average American marriage these days is not a safe bet for 60 years of two lovers in the same sack. But looking back at my parents' long marriage, I can point to a number of things that fused and strengthened their connection over the years. They shared a common legacy of immigrant families, dedication to family and education, and a certain joie de vivre. Best of all, they were always willing to air their differences (honestly and audibly) -- and then make up, with due affection. Those traits probably helped them weather many tempests.
Oh, and did I mention my 85-year-old father's mistress? I'm quite sure the past 10 years would have been hell for both of them without her. Thank goodness for her ever-present, ever-yielding spirit.
But she's no ordinary mistress. You see, my father suffers from dementia. And over the course of the last decade since his diagnosis, to while away the long, physically inactive hours, he has found a way to fill this void ... with an imaginary mistress.
Her name is Cunégonde (pronounced kuh-nee-gund-uh), derived from the love interest in Voltaire's Candide. And she's beautiful. Imagine my devoted mother's shock (and amusement) when she found out one day that a young and voluptuous paramour had been entertaining her husband with visits -- regular visits, if you ask him. And if you keep his mind engaged along this line of conversation, as my mother so diligently does, they're apparently conjugal visits!
For my dad, his fantasy lover acts in many dramatic roles. She is a playmate, lover, maternal figure, and most of all, as my dad himself explains, a source of solace.
Life in the nursing home can be a lonely existence. But when mom asks what he most appreciates about Cunégonde, Dad quips, "She has beautiful breasts. And she has a good disposition."
Working with him to stay connected, my mother inquires, "Which is more important?"
"You can't have one without the other!" blurts Dad. As they chortle together, it is comic proof that years of dementia have not dimmed the man's appreciation of the good things in life.
To my mother's deep appreciation, Cunégonde, rather than threatening their relationship, is a source of comfort. The mistress, friend, and caregiver provide my father with what my mother cannot: ever-present companionship. Now the very mention of Cunégonde elicits my mother's warm and hearty laugh. And it's that reaction that draws an irreverent smile out of the edge of my dad's, once again beautiful, handsome face.
My father's ability to combat the isolation of dementia by creating an imaginary and omnipresent mate may not be unique to him. Imagination may possibly hold the gifts of comfort and solace as we face the uncertainties of old age.
At least, here at middle age, I like to imagine it so.