This originally appeared in The Globe & Mail, March 31st, 2011.
What I learned about love I learned from my parents. After 56 years of marriage, they woke up each morning and sat side by side, shoulders touching, fingers interlocked.
They would talk about how they slept, what they were going to do today, where they would go for a walk. They'd make their bed together, but my mother was the one in charge. She would tell my father to pull the sheets harder and tuck the blanket in so it wouldn't clump up at the bottom of the bed. You could always bounce a quarter off any bed my mother made.
My father would smile and do her bidding, then he would begin his day: dust the furniture, clean the hardwood floors, wash and dry the breakfast dishes. His role in the household changed when he became the caregiver, where once he was the one who was cared for. When I asked him about it he said it wasn't so bad. When I pressed further he said it was nothing - your mother took care of me for more than 50 years. It's my turn.
My mother was ill for about six years. It started with small things like a fractured wrist and developed into more serious things like shortness of breath. That was followed by heart valve replacement surgery. My father and I thought my mother's health would get better after the surgery. No one promised it. We just expected it like you expect to get up every morning, go to work, get on with the life you've always led.
Eventually she came home. She didn't have much energy or strength. The pride she once had in keeping her home immaculate had been sucked away through one of the tubes she'd been connected to in the hospital. She stopped vacuuming and cleaning because that heavy work was too hard on her heart. My father took over once he figured out how to use the vacuum cleaner.
Her ailments continued to pile up, one on top of the other. As before, each started with a barely noticeable symptom. A persistently trembling hand and heaviness in her step later revealed Parkinson's disease. Each day, she moved a little slower. She complained about forgetting things. The muscles in her throat were shutting down. Recurring pneumonia and congestive heart failure came next. Then it was a fractured hip. She stopped doing laundry, cooking. My father took over.
The man I grew up with was loving and funny and smart and incredibly generous. But he was also stubborn and particular and knew nothing about maintaining a house or doing laundry or boiling water, let alone cooking a meal. All this was done for him just the way he liked it and on his schedule. He was secure in his role as provider.
As my mother's illness progressed, I watched him massage her feet because they were sore and numb, watched him guide her to the bathroom and stay to make sure she didn't fall, watched him pour out her medication on the kitchen table, make her tea, help her sit, supervise her while she swallowed each pill. He would stroke her cheek and say, bravo, like he used to do with me when I was a child and brought home a good report card.
Only when my mother had finished her breakfast and he had her sitting comfortably would he begin to deal with the household chores. They would talk while he worked. His face was thinner, and he seemed to be disappearing into his clothes, but his smile for my mother persisted. She would listen to his chatter, offering suggestions. You missed a spot over there, she'd say. Remember when the kids used to make a mess of this floor? He'd stop and they would break off into a memory.
When I heard them talk like this, I remembered nights as a kid listening to them after I'd gone to bed and was supposed to be asleep. My father would tell her about his day and ask her what she thought about a problem he was having with one of his employees. The housewife whose boardroom was her kitchen and her daily concerns her children would give him advice. I imagined that he was holding her hand as he listened. This was their time to reconnect, air their frustrations, soothe and reassure each other, laugh at themselves.
When she went back into the hospital yet again, my husband and I came to stay with my father. I heard him calling my mother's name in the middle of the night. Then I heard the back door. He had snuck out like a teenager running off to see his girlfriend. Where did you go, I asked him later. I went to see your mother, he said. Make sure she's okay. He looked at me as if I'd asked the silliest question in the world.
They had many difficult times in their relationship - immigrating to a new country, learning a new language and culture, losing money in more than one business, dealing with the follies of their teenaged children - but they took on each challenge together, never considering that there was any other way.
Day by day, month by month, year by year - one step at a time. Theirs was not a fairy-tale life. It was a real life. Until my mother's death earlier this month, my parents looked at each other with the same loving eyes they had in their wedding photo. They held hands when they were out walking or sitting across from each other eating dinner. I imagined this simple touch strengthened their resolve and belief in each other. They were in this together for better or for worse, and nothing, not even illness, was going to change that.
Stella Leventoyannis Harvey lives in Whistler, B.C.
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