“Bob is seeing a young woman now,” Dad commented, trying to sound casual.
He didn’t fool me. I knew he was trying to weave his way into a specific conversation he needed to have with me, so I played along.
Bob was a longtime family friend. His wife, Dorothy, had passed away a few years ago, a couple of years before my mother had died. Now, Bob was dating again. He had met a “young woman” of 60-something—I guess to my 85-year-old father, she was just a girl.
“Really?” I prompted, deciding to let him fill in the details I already knew. “How wonderful—I’m sure it’s nice for him to have companionship again after losing Dorothy.”
“I’m not sure his family is excited about it, Bob said they haven’t really accepted the idea of him dating again,” said Dad, turning his head just slightly to glance at me, almost like a nervous schoolboy. “They haven’t been very receptive, I guess.”
“Well, maybe they just need a little time,” I said. “I’m sure it’s an adjustment to think of Bob with anyone but Dorothy.” Just as it would be an adjustment to think of my dad loving anyone but my mother.
“Well, you know, it gets very lonely…I’m sure Bob has been very lonely,” Dad said, stumbling a bit between his reality and Bob’s reality. It was touching to see my dad’s struggle to find his I-need-to-tell-you-something words. Having spent a lifetime working to find just the right words to break news to him, I found this role reversal to be a bit awkward for both of us.
My parents had been married for just over 61 years when my mother died. Dad had survived several confusing years as he watched Mom’s steady decline in the grip of dementia. Now he had been alone for about 18 months. As alone, that is, as a man in an assisted living apartment complex can possibly be. Men are greatly outnumbered by women in retirement communities and whether he realized it or not, dear old Dad was a hot property at the Oklahoma Methodist Manor. My sister and I, noticing the ladies of OMM noticing our father, had always known that this moment, the need for this conversation, would just be a matter of time.
Over the past couple of weeks it had come to my attention that one of Dad’s neighbors seemed to be by his side more often than not. She was a lovely, trim woman who was always beautifully dressed, hair always just so, lipstick in place. She had a twinkle in her soft blue eyes and a gentle southern accent that carried an audible smile when she spoke. It was more than obvious that Ina and Dad had grown quite fond of each other.
Was it initially hard to walk down the hall to find my Dad holding another woman’s hand for a little longer than a friendly moment? Admittedly, yes—it was difficult to pacify the loyalty to my mother that welled up in my heart. But those feelings were quickly, gently soothed as I would stop to watch the young-at-heart couple, just before they noticed me heading their way. The look on my Dad’s face, the tone of his voice, the smile that spread not out of a sense of politeness, but from a place inside his heart, filled me with a new kind of peace. My Dad had been devoted to my mother for six decades. How could I expect him to just abandon that capacity for love now that she was gone?
So I sat with Dad and we talked about Bob, though we both knew we weren’t really talking about Bob at all. “You know Dad, I’m happy for Bob,” I said. “It’s a lucky man who is blessed to find special love twice in his life. I’m sure his family will see that too. They’ll welcome his happiness.”
Dad looked out the window, obviously not able to meet my eyes in that moment. “I’m glad to hear you say that,” he said softly, “It’s no fun to be lonely. It’s so hard.”
“I know, Dad. Everyone deserves to share their days with someone special.”
“Everyone,” I emphasized.
We sat a moment longer in comfortable silence, everything said that needed to be said. Then I saw Ina approaching, and I saw my dad’s face light up.
“Hello, Ms. Ina,” I said to my dad’s 93-year-old girlfriend as I got up from my chair. “Here, take my spot next to Dad.” Ina smiled pleasantly, as she always did, and accepted my place…now also her place…next to my father. As I turned to leave, I kissed my Dad on the cheek and whispered in his ear, “Make sure you kids don’t stay out too late.”
With a chuckle in acceptance of my blessing, two hands clasped openly and golden hued love, secret no more, blossomed.
My father and Ina were an item at the Oklahoma Methodist Manor for the last year of his life. They ate all of their meals together, they spent afternoons holding hands as they sat in their favorite sunny spot by a large window near Dad’s apartment. Every evening, they would watch a little television and then Ina would turn down my father’s bed before retiring to her own apartment for the night. If I happened to be there as she was leaving, she would turn to me to say—and you really have to hear these words spoken in the sweetest southern accent possible—“I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to give your father some sugar right now.” And she would lean down to softly kiss Dad on the lips.