For some reason, Doris and Roger, my mom and stepfather, are on my mind today. When they met, my mom had been single for a couple of years. Their courtship seemed awfully fast to me, but I could tell that my mom was happy. Anyone could see from her posture that she felt safe and content and comfortable and she started laughing again.
When my mom met him, my stepdad had been a single father for some time. He had three kids with his ex-wife. The first time his then-wife had left him to go home to her family, my stepdad followed and lived with his wife’s parents and woo’d his wife back and then they all lived with her parents, he, his wife, and their kids. Until she left again.
Doris and Roger got married during spring break of my junior year. We moved in to his house with his kids just before the senior prom and my mom worked feverishly on a dress for my stepsister. It was white and simple and stylish. Mom was a good seamstress and my stepsister seemed really excited. Looking back now, I see that it was my mom’s way to try to connect with her stepdaughter and show her that she cared. She wasn’t trying to be over-the-top, she was just doing what she knew how to do in a situation where there was no money for an expensive dress.
The day of the prom came and the time to get ready and my stepsister never showed up. She had gone partying with friends the night before and didn’t come home for a couple of days. My stepsister shrugged it off like it was no big deal, but I could tell my mom was very hurt. Years later when we were cleaning out some cupboards, we opened a box and there was the dress. My mom didn’t say anything as she slowly folded it back into the box and we moved on to the next cupboard.
Then came a day when most of us were graduated and gone and mom and my stepdad lived in the house that suddenly didn’t seem quite so small with only one kid home instead of five, she was diagnosed with melanoma. She and my stepdad had been married for three years at that point and they renewed their commitment to sharing and living life. After another five years, she went to bed and didn’t get up again. We were all helpless to stop the inevitable and we didn’t. She died less than 3 months after their eighth anniversary. We gave her the only thing we could, we cared for her at home.
What I remembered about her today was her laugh. I remembered how she saw beauty in everything and that she loved to garden. She loved iris and peonies. One of the jobs we kids had when our parents were still together was to haul the rabbit manure to mulch the peonies. Like a secret ingredient in a recipe, the manure made those peonies into giants. People pulled over to stop and gawk at them when they toured through our small town.
It’s impossible to think of my mother and not think also of my stepfather. She was happy with him. He wasn’t my dad but at some point, that quit mattering. She was happy and he was her partner. They were close and everyone could see that. He was one of the most faithful and dutiful people I’ve ever met. Even after we turned the living room into a hospital, the first thing my stepfather did when he woke was go to my mother and kiss and hold her. And, at the end of every day, he kissed her goodnight. She worried that she was repulsive to him and he kissed her worries away.
One day, as he sat drinking coffee with my sister and I, he thanked us for caring for our mother and for making it possible for her to stay home. As he cried, he said that his own mother had died in a nursing home. He had been quite young and not involved in the decision-making. He was grateful that he didn’t have to put my mother in a nursing home and frustrated that he had to up every morning and leave her because he needed to go to work so he could keep their insurance benefits. If we hadn’t helped him, he wouldn’t have had another choice.
I learned so much from my mom and stepdad about love and what love really is. I watched them have a second chance at a happy life. And those last eight years of my mom’s life . . . they were some very good years, filled with loving companionship and caring, being at peace with one another, and a deep, deep mutual regard. They deserved those years together and I raise my glass to them today. Cheers, Doris and Roger!