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Friday, April 13, 2007

THE LAST CHAPTER

THE LAST CHAPTER
(Readers Digest)
“I love you, Bob.” “I love you, too, Nancy.” It was 2 a.m. and I was hearing my parents’ voices through the thin wall separating my bedroom from theirs. Their loving reassurances were sweet, touching and surprising.

My parents married on September 14, 1940, after a brief courtship. She was nearing 30 and knew it was time to start a family. The handsome, well-educated man who came by the office where she worked looked like a good bet. He was captivated by her figure, her blue eyes. The romance didn’t last long.
Seeds of difference sprouted almost immediately. She liked to travel; he hated the thought. He loved golf; she did not. He was a Republican, she an ardent Democrat. They fought at the bridge table, at the dinner table, over money, over the perceived failings of their respective in-laws. To make matters worse, they owned a business together, and the everyday frustrations of life at the office came to roost at home.
There was a hope that they would change once they retired, and the furious winds did calm somewhat, but what remained steeled itself into bright, hard bitterness. “I always thought we’d…” my mother would begin, before launching into a precise listing of my father’s faults. The litany was recited so often, I can reel it off by heart today. As he listed, my father would mutter angry threats and curses. It was a miserable duet.
It was the happiest marriage, but as their 60th anniversary approached, my sister and I decided to throw a party. Sixty years was a long time after all; why not try to make the best things? We’d provide the cake, the balloons, the toasts, and they’d abide by one rule: no fighting.
The truce was honoured. We had a wonderful day. In hindsight it was an important celebration because soon after, things began to change for my parents. As debilitating dementia settled in, their marriage is about the only thing they would lose.
It began when their memories started to fade. Added to the frequent house-wide hunts for glasses and car keys were the groceries left behind on the counter, notices of bills left unpaid. Soon my parents couldn’t remember names of friends, then of their grandchildren. Finally they didn’t remember that they had grandchildren.
These cries would have, at one time, set them at each other’s throats, but now they acted as a team, helping each other with searches, consoling each other with “Everyone does that” or “It’s nothing; you’re just tired.” They found new roles- bolstering each other against the fear of loss.
Financial control was the next thing to go. For all their marriage, my parents stubbornly kept separate accounts. Sharing being unthinkable, they devised financial arrangements so elaborate they could trigger war at any time. he, for example, was to pay for anything outside the house, she for whatever went on inside. The who-pays dilemma was so complex for one trip that they finally gave up traveling entirely.
I took over the books. Now no one knew how things got paid; no one saw how the columns that spelled their fortunes compared. Next I hired a housekeeper. Cooking and cleaning, chores my mother had long complained about, were suddenly gone. Finally- on doctors’ orders- we cleared the house of alcohol, the fuel that turned more than one quarrel into a raging fire.
You could say my parents’ lives had been whittled away, that they could no longer engage in the business of living. But at the same time, something that had been buried deep was coming up and taking shape. I saw it when my father came home after a brief hospital stay. We’d tried to explain my father’s absence to my mother, but because of her memory, she could not keep it in her head why he had disappeared. She asked again and again where he was, and again and again we told her. And each day her anxiety grew.
When I finally brought him home, we opened the front door to see my mother sitting on the sofa. As he stepped in to the room, she rose with a cry. I stayed back as he slowly walked towards her and she towards him. As they approached each other on legs rickety with age, her hands fluttered over his face. “Oh there you are,” she said. “There you are.”
I don’t doubt that if my mother and father magically regained their old vigour, they’d be back fighting. But I now see that something came of all those years of shared days- days of sitting at the same table, waking to the same sun, working and raising children together. Even the very fury they lavished on each other was a brick in this unseen creation, a structure that reveals itself increasingly as the world around them falls apart.
In the early morning I once again heard the voices through the wall. “Where are we?” my father asked. “I don’t know,” my mother replied softly. How lucky they are, I thought, to have each other.

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