it's complicated

Watching My Parents Bicker Taught Me How to Love

Photo: J.V. Aranda

My 83-year-old father lay unconscious in the ICU, hooked up to a ventilator and countless monitors, about as close to death as a human being can be. And his wife of 46 years — my mother — did what she always did when things didn’t go her way.

She nagged him.

“Seymour, don’t go,” she murmured, pressing up against the bar of his hospital bed. “I’m not ready. Don’t you leave!”

Now, I’m not sure this is precisely what my mother said. She was talking softly, and I was standing at the foot of the bed. The only sounds I could clearly hear were the beeps of high-tech equipment and the improbable crooning of Ricky Martin over the sound system. But I knew she was making demands. I knew, because this was the prime way she always interacted with my father. She told him what to do — and he went to do it.

“Seymour, we need milk.” The next moment I would hear his car starting up. “Seymour, bring down kitchen towels.” My father’s footsteps sounded near the linen closet. Sometimes my mother used a language that only my father, my sister, and I understood: “Seymour, it’s starting to rain,” meant, “Take in the cushions.”

As a teenager, I could not understand why they were even together. How could my mother be happy with my father, when all he did was remind her of the things that needed doing? How could my father be happy with my mother, when his life was a series of attempts to mend whatever was driving her crazy? Was this supposed to be love?

The question replayed in my head, as a young doctor pushed past the curtain encircling our small space and explained with cool professionalism that my father’s hours were, literally, numbered. “That’s his heart rate,” he said, pointing to a monitor displaying descending numbers. “It’ll keep going down until he passes later tonight.”

64 … 62 … 60 …

My mother resumed her murmuring, and I realized that my dad’s stillness must have been excruciating to her, given that he’d spent nearly half a century snapping to attention when she spoke. And this was despite a list of ailments that ultimately included diabetes, melanoma, and leukemia that had been coaxed into fragile remission. Still, my mother refused to cut back on the robust lifestyle she routinely planned for them — theater, movies, travel — until one evening a week earlier, when they were in Fort Lauderdale finishing dinner. My father suddenly collapsed on the sidewalk and was unable to stand or walk without help. My mother arranged a flight home to New York the next morning so he could see his own doctor, but by the time they arrived, he was losing more muscle control, and could barely swallow. She brought him to the hospital, where they were told that after years of battling, my dad’s body had had enough.

My sister and I both lived locally, and we spent much of the next few days at the hospital. We weren’t there, though, when my father stopped breathing. My mother called to tell us my dad was in the ICU. We both left our husbands and children to rush over.

59 … 57 … 54 …

I watched the monitor and thought about my mother, who was no stranger to dashed hopes. A Depression baby constrained by culture and class, she was educated in clerical skills and remained a secretary all her working life. She was often cranky at night, frustrated by her lack of workplace autonomy and earning power. My father, the man, was the breadwinner; my mother was boss only within our home.

52 … 49 … 47 …

The numbers continued downward, and since there was nothing else to do, I placed my hand atop the thin blanket covering my father’s legs and waited for him to die. It would be the first time my mother had asked something of him and he’d failed to respond. I thought what a sad last memory that would be for her.

And then it happened.

43 … 41 … 38 …

37 … 34 … 33 …

33 … 33 … 33 …

33 … 34 … 36 …

I stared at the monitor. Was there a mistake? Could this be happening? Were the numbers going … up?

“Mom?” my sister said.

My mother nodded and continued whispering, and my dad’s heart rate kept rising over the next hour, until it was strong and stable. He would not die that night. A soft pink glow emerged on my mother’s cheeks. My father had come through, after all.

Two days later the ventilator was removed and my father was transferred to a regular room. Ultimately, though, he never fully recovered. Instead, he lingered day after day in semiconsciousness. My mother was rarely anywhere but by his side.

And watching her beside him, I finally understood the truth about my parents’ life together. Marriage is a bargain, a version of Let’s Make a Deal, and in this game, my parents were grand-prize winners. To my father, a mild if somewhat rudderless man, my mother was life’s booking agent, arranging everything he enjoyed or needed. To my mother, a control freak, my dad was the anchor when plans went awry.

I asked myself again: Was this supposed to be love?

Yes, I decided. Love was the thing that made my outgoing mother spend countless hours in a stark hospital room, stroking the hand of my unconscious father. He’d been her rock for all those years, and she was utterly devoted to him, both then and now, when he had nothing more to offer her. That’s when I thought about the give-and-take in my own marriage, how I was always devising big plans — to buy a vacation home, sell our house and move out West, book an impromptu trip to Paris — and my husband was the one to apply the brakes. Yes, his practical side frustrated me, as my impulsive side confounded him. But the truth was, I was free to toss out as many fanciful ideas as I wanted, knowing he’d protect us both by agreeing to the ones that made sense and weeding out the rest.

Our marriage was a bargain, too. And if it worked as well as my parents’ did year after year, we would be lucky indeed.

Late one night six weeks after the ICU, my mother called again from the hospital, this time to say that Dad was gone. My sister and I went to be with her. The next morning, we began making arrangements.

I sometimes wonder what my mother thought about during those long days beside my father. I suppose she remembered happier times. And I imagine she also began to envision the future. She was only 72, strong and healthy. And as it turned out, her subsequent life was rich and adventurous. At 75, she traveled to South Africa. A year later, she visited Vietnam. At 83, she fell in love.

Now I can’t be certain — I wasn’t there. But I suspect at some point while my father was lingering, my mother murmured in his ear again. I think she told him she was ready now. That he could let go.

She must have said it. He wouldn’t have done it otherwise.

Watching My Parents Bicker Taught Me How to Love