I don’t see my parents often, and by parents I mean my mother and my stepfather, Denny, of 35 years. They are very private people, and I travel frequently, visiting them as often as I can. In the past several years they have aged considerably in between my visits.
My mother — who had always been firm, strong, straight-backed and untouchable — has become a physically delicate, fragile woman at 84 years of age. Her steps are not so steady, and her conversational speed has slowed.
Denny is no longer the barrel-chested Vietnam Green Beret from my youth. While he maintains a gorgeous shock of thick white hair, underneath he has become more vulnerable. It is also clear during my visits that his drinking has escalated from habit to problem.
While my mother has accepted her declining health with an admirable sense of grace, dignity and self-care, Denny tries to keep up the hard-living habits he has always known.
Not much has seemed to change in their marriage, however. My mother still cooks a nightly dinner, and Denny continues to take care of all household chores. Therefore, I did not expect my mother to announce recently that she was divorcing my stepfather.
Divorce as a Self-Care Issue
“Divorcing? You’re 84 years old, Mom!”
“My age doesn’t matter. He disrespected me.”
“He’s been having an affair. I caught him. I asked him to pack his bags and move out.”
An affair? I struggled with the notion of an octogenarian affair, let alone the complications it must bring about.
While it appears 35 years of marriage ended over one (extremely) bad choice on Denny’s part, my mother’s decision is actually a calculated action in self-care. The tension in their relationship had been building over Denny’s drinking, the increased amount of time and money he spent at the bar, and was then compounded by the growing evidence of his affair.
When Denny did not respond to her calm requests that he make the necessary changes in his behavior, my mother asked him to leave. And so he did. That very day. My mother may be elderly, and her voice may shake, but her will has not weakened.
Parting in Peace
It has been fascinating to observe the ‘conscious uncoupling’ (if I may borrow Gwyneth Paltrow’s phrase) that my parents are modeling. There has been no name calling, punishing actions or ugliness of any kind during the divorce.
My mother helped Denny pack his bags in the same spirit she had packed for him many times in the past. Finances were fairly divided as was everything else, from the furniture to the food in the refrigerator and pantry. Denny will stay with a friend until an apartment opens in the retirement community where my mother now lives. They want to live close to each other so they can continue to care for one another.
I witness this love and kindness between them and must face my own emotions about the end of their marriage.
It’s not so easy for me to uncouple them in my own mind. While Denny isn’t my birth father, he has been the primary father figure in my life. We ran laps together in the early mornings when I was in high school. He walked me down the aisle when I married, whispering, “Left. Right. Left. Right,” in my ear because I was so nervous I was having trouble navigating the staircase. He is the only grandfather my children have known and loved.
Yet, he hurt my mother. I offer my assistance to her — to stay at her place or nearby during this adjustment period and help her in any way.
But my mother does not need my help, and says as much. This is her life to handle as she sees fit, and she is perfectly able to do what needs to be done.
Denny is the paid caretaker of my mother. Initially this arrangement was going to be complicated by him no longer living with her. My mother’s days of teaching dance ended many years ago, as did recently her ability to do laundry or drive to the grocery store.
While she contemplated hiring a stranger to perform these tasks, she realized she didn’t want anyone but Denny to care for her. They reached an amicable arrangement in which Denny continues to visit daily to assist her with whatever she needs, and she sends him home with a warm dinner. She worries he won’t eat otherwise, and she’s probably right.
Denny profoundly regrets his actions and brought his affair to an abrupt end once he realized the implications of what he’d done. My mother holds no animosity for the man she has loved for nearly four decades, yet remains firm in her decision.
“We’ll always be friends,” she explains. “No one can take that away from us.”
“I’m so proud of you, Mom.”
“Because you could have chosen to tolerate the intolerable just to avoid being alone. Instead you cared for yourself and did what you needed to do.”
“I’ve taken care of myself my whole life. Why would I stop now?”