My dad died five years ago this weekend; his second wife followed three months later. Their story offers a major lesson about love and loss.
After one year as a widower, my 72-year-old father decided to, again, forgo the willy-nilly wearing of black socks with navy pants; to, on occasion, change the radio station to something other than 24-hour news; to close the bedroom window — at least halfway — on cold, windy nights; and sometimes, without protest, to put on a sport jacket for dinner.
In other words, he remarried.
My sister and I attended his 1990 wedding in Florida, watching the newlyweds, with the hardest part of their lives behind them, commit to survive the rest in secure, comfortable companionship. At least half the guest list was made up of couples who remarried within the last 10 years. They came together, complete with children and grandchildren, assorted in-laws and friends, from the old neighborhood. They brought with them clothes picked out by former spouses, old photos of family vacations and celebrations and sentimental keepsakes of their previous lives.
What they all seemed to have in common was an appreciation for life at its simplest. Without the stress of having to "make it," they were freer to together enjoy the quiet breakfast denied in earlier, more hectic decades. Forgiving irritating habits is an easier task when the majority of your time is spent figuring how best to enjoy the hard-won fruits of life's labors. Their weddings, blessed by grateful children and prenuptial agreements, reaffirm their decision to write a new chapter in what has proved to be a completely unpredictable journey.
The naivete of first love is replaced by a healthy respect for the virtues of being needed. And the "spaces in your togetherness," essential to Kahlil Gibran's vision of a successful marriage, come more naturally to these mature, relative strangers dedicated to preserving the peace and enjoying the rest of their lives.
My weekend in Florida dispelled many myths and revealed unexpected lessons. First, not everyone wished the newlyweds well. My sister and I heard remarks like, "Don't worry, he'll never forget your mother." As if he ever could. Some relatives thought it supportive to say, "I know how hard this is for you," so sympathetically that any good coming from this union was completely negated. "You're one face with your mother," one old friend sniffed, watching my father and his bride dance the first dance.
More positive people came up with "only those from happy marriages remarry so quickly," telling us what we knew to be true — and wanted acknowledged. We laughed as we listened to the men make the same juvenile jokes they made 50 years before, about being "trapped," of "biting the dust" and "giving in." But we noticed the smile on our father's face when one of his cronies spilled wine on the tablecloth and, after a split second's panic, he remembered he didn't have to solve the problem alone. "I have a wife now," he said. "She'll figure out how to get it out."
We found it revealing how each set of children forgave their brand-new stepparent anything but came down hard on their own. ("Dad, stop being obnoxious . . . put down that cigar . . . stop teasing her." And from the bride's children, "Mom, don't be so bossy . . . stop giving orders . . . leave him alone.")
I came home more convinced than ever that the romantic in me, the part that believes love heals, love conquers, love survives, love is all you need, is not sappy and sentimental but realistic and true.
The tough moments — the first time I heard them referred to as Mr. and Mrs., the physical closeness, the realization that my new stepmother, Neysa, might actually do some things better than my mother — were overshadowed by my gut feeling that our sense of loss was a separate issue, and there could be nothing bad or wrong with seeing our father this happy again.
I believe I got some long-distance confirmation of this fact. Just as the justice of the peace was to begin the wedding ceremony, the bride's sister, recently out of the hospital, was chilled and asked the bride if she had something to put over her shoulders. Neysa raced through my father's apartment, opening closets to find something suitable. She came back a few minutes later with a jacket and asked those assembled whom it belonged to and if her sister could borrow it. Out of everything in all of the closets, she had chosen the one piece of my mother's clothing I had saved.
"It's mine," I answered. "Of course, you can wear it." After the initial shock of seeing Neysa holding that wonderfully familiar jacket, still carrying my mother's scent, a strange calm came over me. How perfect, I thought, my mom's here, too. Rather than disturbing, the vibes felt warm and comfortable. She came to remind me that she, more than anyone, wanted to see my dad happy. She came to let me know that, as her child, being positive about this marriage had nothing to do with being disloyal to her. And she came to reaffirm what I've always believed, that the invincible power of love, in its purest and most unselfish state, can never be overestimated.
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