Quiet changes sometimes mean taking big steps. My father and his new wife taught me that lesson.
One evening in July, my father locked up his home of 53 years for the last time, the house my sister and I grew up in, the one our mother filled with her crafts and book group meetings — until she didn’t. About 10 years after we moved out, Mom, in her 50s then, quit her hobbies and nursing job. Her former patients sent her money cards, but if she felt like a graduate, she never talked about next steps. Retiring earlier than planned, our father, Don, cared for our mother, Carolyn, 24/7 in their home for 20 years. He seldom said Alzheimer’s.
She stopped talking altogether, would hum when we’d near her, an eager, revving sound.
For the last 17 months of her life, Mom lived in a nursing home. There, Dad visited her daily, relating these visits on our 9 a.m. phone checks — a ritual that had replaced my spontaneous chats with Mom. To me, each day sounded the same: him praying with her, feeding her pudding through a straw, and on some special days she smiled.
By the time she died, six years ago, I had accepted losing my mother. I would not accept losing my father to his paralyzing grief. Eyeing the Ziploc bag containing Mom’s hairbrush, which he had brought back to the house he still called “ours,” I took his inventory. There was that high-paying job he had rejected because he wouldn’t move; his refusal to get a smartphone or pay a bill online. He was a successful engineer, but could he change to save himself?
On visits, I’d suggest Dad leave Connecticut to live near my family in Virginia, touting the virtues of “moving on.” Dad nodded from his La-Z-Boy chair, the one patched with masking tape. Should he make popcorn and turn on “Downton Abbey,” he would ask me once I had wound down.
No Longer Afraid of Changes
Three years later, my sensitive teenage daughter went into a tailspin and faced rough times. Terrified, I stopped writing, even dreaming, in order to drive her to appointments, meet with teachers, trying and failing to put out fires before they started. Miraculously, we finally found the right kind of help for her and for ourselves, coming together as a family. Miraculously, she embarked on her own path for recovery. By last year, I had every reason to return to my own life — writing, special needs advocacy and hobbies. On the surface, I guess I did, but despite my daughter’s thriving, I stayed stuck in a state of fear.
Last July, when Dad asked us how we felt about him proposing to his girlfriend, I said “good,” but secretly didn’t feel much. Betty, who is in her 60s, is energetic, kind, funny, and, like my dad, methodical. I liked her! I wanted Dad to move on! But I couldn’t really imagine him pulling off a change this big.
By the fall of 2019, I entered a 12-step program, desperate to recover my sense of self. In meetings I felt haunted by my father. We’re different politically, religiously and temperamentally. I’m 55 to his 83. Yet our experiences dovetailed. We had each seen our loved ones changed beyond belief and nothing we did had saved them. Even my daughter’s turnaround humbled me, as I had no power over it. We were like tsunami survivors, washed up on the beach. On the mildest, calmest day, we feared the water.
But he was no longer so afraid. All winter, my father hunkered down, preparing for a move into his new life. Spring brought the pandemic with all its terrible changes. He was not deterred.
“It will be OK,” he kept saying. “One box at a time.”
Time to Move On
Finally curious, in May, Dad and Betty shared their love story, which was about to change, over FaceTime.
In 1982, Betty, who was then married with three children, had joined my parents’ church. She said she had wanted to join their choir, too, but lacked courage “until your mom invited me.” Betty was a gifted soprano. She recalled how my mother sang behind her, harmonizing. “Carolyn had the most beautiful alto voice,” she said.
When my mother’s disease progressed, my parents quit choir. Betty, a school nurse, knew of my mother’s Alzheimer’s and noticed my parents’ relationship.
“I would see them after church at Stop & Shop,” she said. “Your dad had his hand on the cart and his other hand on hers and would steer her around the store.”
Betty said that sometimes my mother would wander at church but “never got frantic.” When she saw my father, she would relax. “There’s a crown waiting for that guy,” Betty remembered thinking.
Betty’s husband, John, died of a heart attack in May 2014, at age 59. Five days later, our mother died.
As a new widower, Don distracted himself with church and golf. As a new widow, Betty relied on her nursing, Zumba exercises and her many friends.
Two years after my mother died, my father said, “Is this all there is? There are only so many books you can read, television shows that you can watch.”
In my 12-step program they talk about “gifts of desperation.” When we get desperate, we get real. Perhaps these tough evenings were my father’s gifts.
In August 2015, a mutual friend invited Don and Betty to lunch. Don felt “sparks” around Betty, but took another year to ask her out. He insisted on driving and paying when going out. The “date factor” made Betty, who savored her new independence, nervous.
“Don invited me to the symphony and all the way home I kept thinking, ‘I got to get out of this,’” she said. A trusted grief counselor suggested Betty try asserting herself instead. So Betty asked Don to see the movie “Sully.” She drove herself and paid. It felt empowering.
They started going to basketball games and church events as friends. Sometimes they watched Hallmark Channel movies at Betty’s house, sharing the couch with a cushion between them. “Social distancing, before its time,” they told me laughing (cheek to cheek on my computer screen).
When Betty told Don they “needed to talk,” he steeled himself for rejection, but decided, “whatever’s best for her is best.” My father’s ability to respect Betty’s separate needs boded well. Instead of breaking up, she opened up. She said her husband John had suffered from depression and anxiety. For years she had tiptoed around his moods. Don “was different,” but she needed him to know where she was coming from.
“It gave me a lot to think about and work on,” my father said.
“The age difference was something to be aware of,” Don, 17 years older, said, “but it didn’t inhibit me. Betty could say ‘no.’” He proposed marriage in August 2019.
“Your dad is very healthy,” she told me. “I was married to someone who only had two and a half years on me — and look what happened anyway.”
This February, they bought a home in a 55-and-up community, choosing a town near their church. “Neutral territory,” Betty said. “Fresh start,” my father said.
In March, Betty’s school and their church closed because of the coronavirus. Don and Betty worked separately to ready their houses for sale. Don’s contained 53 years of stuff. Betty sorted through 16 years of family life. At the same time, Goodwill had closed; adult children, potential helpers, were hands off because of the pandemic.
Betty showed her house first, pandemic-style. “Before you leave for a showing,” she said, “you turn on all lights so that no one touches switches, leave all doors open so nobody has to touch knobs.”
In April, they bought their rings. They never planned a honeymoon trip, so they had no trip to cancel when their wedding plans were pushed from May to July.
Faith in God helps the couple handle risks and stress. My father took out a home-equity loan to buy their new house before their old ones sold. “I’ve never been in debt,” he said. “When I was younger, I had to have the T’s crossed and the I’s dotted. But at this age, whatever time I’ve left, I have to use.”
Betty agreed. “I tell other women, don’t be terrified to put yourself out there. My life is so much fuller now.”
The two former perfectionists accepted the limitations of a pandemic wedding: few guests and masks. “When you’re young it’s all about the day. When you’re old it’s about your life,” Betty said.
A New Life
Busy in his new life, since the wedding my dad only calls occasionally. My daughter, 18, has taken charge of her school, work and life plans.
I’ve been with the same man for nearly 40 years (since we were teenagers) and counting; have lived in the same house for 12; I do community work and my program; I write; but have no grand career plans to speak of. Someone observing my life might think I’m stuck, staying put in middle age while others push forward. I feel differently. Each time I encourage my daughter instead of worry for her, write instead of daydream and listen — to my father, my husband, my friends, myself — instead of judging, I feel freed.
Behind every love story is one of quiet changes; behind every quiet change a love story. My father and Betty taught me that.