My Mother's First Love at Age 93, by Caroline Leavitt
She was never a woman who believed in love—until she finally found it.
Posted October 20, 2016
My mother falls in love for the first time at 93.
She is not a woman who believes in love. Jilted at 19, she marries my father on the rebound, quickly realizing her error. He’s a man who can sulk for days, who yells at her because she has forgotten to compliment his mother on dinner, or because she spends too much money. They rarely touch or speak, and I grow up wanting to be as far away from my father (who yells at me, too) as I possibly can be. I know I don’t want a life like my mother’s, with twin beds separated by a nightstand, with a home fueled by arguments and silence and a cloud of misery. When my mother tries to give me advice about dating, I shut her out. What does she know about love?
When my father has a stroke, at 50, my mother cries. In love myself, I urge her to date. “Now you can find the right person,” I tell her but she shakes her head. “Men, who needs them?” she says. She refuses the men who want to date her (she is still beautiful, and funny and smart, still working as an elementary school teacher), and she doesn’t much care for any of my boyfriends, taking her time warming to them, telling me when my relationships break up, that “that’s the way men are. They never stay. It’s better not to trust them.” For her birthday, I get her a personal ad in Boston Magazine, and the letters fly in from professors and businessmen, all wanting to meet her. “You’re a catch!” I tell her, and she puts all the responses in the trash. “This is very nice of you to do, but I prefer to travel,” she tells me. When I marry, she takes me aside and warns me to always have my own money. “So you can leave,” she says, and when I tell her I never want to leave my new husband Jeff, she smiles knowingly. “You think that now,” she tells me.
My mother continues to teach and travel through her seventies. But then, when she hits her late eighties, things begin to worry me. She’s alone in a house near Boston and the basement floods. The sink stops up. I’m living four hours away from her and I panic about how safe she is on her own. When we come to visit, the house looks dirty. There’s no food and when she drives me to see a new shop she loves, she drives on the sidewalk, which alarms me so much, I lie and tell her we have to go home, that I feel dizzy and need to rest. She can’t really walk anymore, and she tires easily, and when we get home, I weep to Jeff about how worried I am.
It takes us years to convince her to sell her house. Every time I bring it up, she rages at me. “You’re trying to get rid of me,” she rails. She’s 93 when she finally, reluctantly and furiously agrees, but “only because you are making me.” We move her into an independent living place that she can afford. It’s a big, light filled place where she can have her own apartment. There are activities every day and lots of people who want to meet her, but she’s furious and dramatic, insulting me every time I talk to her, telling me what a horrible daughter I’ve been. “You are killing me,” she tells me, and part of me wonders, am I? Is this the right thing to do?
The new place holds a small party for her, but she sits there, shoulders slumped, her mouth a line, refusing to talk. When I try to kiss her goodbye, she turns her head. I cry in the car the whole way home. “You’re doing the right thing,” Jeff tells me.
My mother calls me every day and shouts at me. “I hate this place!” she screams. “Why did you put me here?” The food is like rubber, she insists. The people are rude and impossible. Just yesterday two women were whispering about her, how she doesn’t talk, and she finally drew herself up and said, “I can hear you, you know, and I most certainly do talk,” and then they were quiet. “Is this my stinky life?” she weeps, and I don’t know what to tell her.
And then, one day, four months after she has moved in, she calls me, and her voice is bright, as if it’s filled with bells. She was at dinner when a handsome man sat beside her. He was a younger man, in his 80s, but really smart and kind and warm. “Handsome, too,” she tells me. She decided to make the best of it, to ask him if he was going to the New Year’s Eve Party that night. “No,” he says and my mother jumps in. “Then I’ll have to kiss you at midnight right now,” and she leans over, cups his head in her hands and kisses him on the mouth.
After that, they are inseparable. They are both in independent living, and he calls her every morning, waking her by saying, “Hello, Sunshine.” They eat all three meals together. They hang out in her room and talk for hours, about art and music, and books. They hold hands and watch movies on her television, and he tells her how beautiful she is, how funny, how she lights up the world for him. “I kiss him right in front of everyone,” my mother tells me. “I can’t get enough of kissing him.” When my husband and I come to visit, we wouldn’t think of taking my mother out to dinner, without taking Walter, too. He talks all through the meal, about his trips throughout Europe, about his life, and I see the way he looks at my mother, as if he is drinking her in, as if he’s never seen anyone more wonderful. I begin to see him as family. I begin to love him because he’s making my mom so happy.
My mother begins to talk about love differently. It’s no longer the thing that ruins lives, that traps you. Instead, it’s this wonderful secret she wants to share with everyone. When I come to visit, Walter is there, and sometimes, both their clothes are rumpled. Sometimes, her bra is on the floor! My mother is happy and smiling and radiant. “Love,” she says, in wonder. When my single or divorced friends, in their 50s or 60s, weep to me that they are always going to be alone, that there is no one out there for them, I always tell them about my mother, and they brighten.
My mother and Walter have been together four beautiful years, when I imagine that they might get married. I even write about it in a new novel, hoping to surprise her with it. Then, one day, my mother begins to fall. She can’t remember things. She can’t control her bladder or her bowels. She falls in the shower. Walter tells us that at dinner, she stares at her plate. She doesn’t speak to him or to anyone. Alarmed, Jeff and I ask the independent living place to evaluate her and they tell us she now has dementia. They suggest she move to Assisted Living, where she can have the care she needs. The Assisted Living wing is right down the hall. She can still see Walter. But when I tell her, she screams at me. “I’m not moving!” she cries. “My life is not over!”
It’s Walter who convinces her. He holds her hand, talking gently to her. “It’s all good, Helen,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do. I would do it myself if I were in the same position, and I know I will be one day. I’ll come visit you every day. We’ll still be together. “ My mother visibly calms, and I don’t see the pain or the panic on Walter’s face until he leaves.
My husband and I spend the whole day setting up my mother’s new apartment in Assisted Living, making it familiar to her. The only bad part is when we take her in a wheelchair to her new room, and the other residents in Independent Living stop and watch her, their faces a map of concern, worry and fear because they all know that this could happen to them, too.
“I’m all mixed up!” my mother cries.
My mother’s first visitor in her new room is the aid who will be checking on her every hour to make sure she doesn’t fall. The second visitor is Walter and he’s smiling and joking, not stopping until her mouth curves up.
Walter is still with her all the time. He still wakes her every morning with a “Hello, Sunshine” call. He visits every day. “He’s so wonderful,” my mother tells me. “What would I do without him?”
A few months later, Walter falls. Tumbles in the very elderly can be dangerous because the rush of blood can jumpstart dementia, and he is rushed to the hospital. When my mother calls him at the hospital, he yells at her, something he’s never done, “I’m in physical therapy!” he shouts. My mother is stunned and hurt, but I tell her, that’s what hospitals do: they make you short-tempered, and she calms down. But when Walter comes back, he’s moved from Independent Living to the Alzheimer’s Wing. He looks different, faded, as if someone has taken a gum eraser to him. He shuffles when he walks. He doesn’t speak much. But an aid takes me aside and tells me that when he did speak, yesterday, he said the word, “Helen.”
A week after Walter is back, he falls again, and this time he dies. My sister and I are stunned. “Don’t tell her,” I beg my sister. “Let her think he’s still alive.” I tell the aids not to tell her, and they agree. One day, she tells me that Walter is leaving, that he’s moving back home to be near his kids. “But he’ll come back and visit,” she says. I don’t know when this imaginary conversation took place, but I’m so glad that it did.
My mother is gradually getting worse. She doesn’t recall my son or husband’s name anymore. She sometimes can’t leave her room because she believes that a fire drill is about to happen, though she doesn’t quite know what a fire drill is anymore or what she’s supposed to do if there is one. She wears diapers and doesn’t really eat.
But every day, she mentions Walter. Every day, she calls him the love of her life. My mom remembers the four years they had together. The joy. “I love Walter,” she tells me.
Some days she believes that he is living with his parents now, that he just left yesterday and he kissed her tenderly before he left. Some days she wants to see him, but then she forgets, or she falls asleep. Other days she thinks they went out of on a date the night before, dancing at a theater club, going to a movie, and I never correct her because she’s so happy. Instead, I encourage her to tell me more details. “What did you dance to?” I ask. “What did you wear?” Her face turns radiant. She glows with pure joy, and I’m not about to be the dimmer switch.
My mom will turn 100 next year. She doesn’t talk anymore about having had a stinky life, about all her pains and frustrations. Instead, she talks about love. And when she doesn’t talk, she shows me by the depth of her feeling, the way joy strikes her and she passes it on to me, with a touch or a hug or simply a smile. Love persists. It doesn’t run away when things get difficult. It sustains. And best of all, my mother shows me that love can happen to anyone at any age--even to a woman who always refused to believe in it.
Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times Bestselling author of Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow, as well as nine other novels. Her new novel is the Indie Pick, Cruel Beautiful World. Her essays and stories have appeared in Real Simple, The Millions, and The New York Times. Visit her at @leavittnovelist on Twitter, https://www.facebook.com/carolineleavitt and at Carolineleavitt.com