In the Dementia Unit, Cupid’s at the Table

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When I was a girl, my friends and I believed in the concept, the imperative, of one true love. I suppose I’d arrived at my worldview honestly; even if the narratives of my upbringing — Maria and Captain Von Trapp, Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Jane Austen’s perfect couplings — hadn’t supported the true love/marriage plot, my parents were a living example of the inevitable right union. They were a higher order of June and Ward from “Leave It to Beaver”: the Cleavers with sex appeal, shared interests, enthusiasm for the other’s pursuits, and at the same time they were helpmates steering the ship. It sometimes seemed that our lovely old suburban house itself held their affection, the house the vessel for their love.

When my father fell to his death in a rock-climbing accident at age 59, my mother plunged into widowhood by going alone to Europe: Her grief was intensely private on a continent she’d never visited. For a month she wandered around Italy, France, Germany. In Berlin she wrote a poem. She’s sitting in a cafe, the light is fading, she remains at the table across from the seated ghost, dear ghost, she calls him. She stays in the suspended moment and then it is dark.

My parents never got to what I think of as the “Ethan Frome part of marriage, which usually involves the woman taking care of the man before she herself falls to pieces. As I’d progressed from the true love narrative of my youth, I’d come to the more practical and yet awed conclusion that marriage wasn’t about two persons joining their souls but rather two persons solemnly promising to be a family, two persons soldiering on in the journey through life and ultimately hauling each other to the grave. Happiness and completeness might be occasional byproducts but were not the point.

After my father’s death, my siblings and I figured my mother might well get married again. It’s a universal truth that if you’ve been happy in marriage once you are more likely to repeat the experiment. My mother, however, seemed to have no interest in finding a companion, although she could easily have snagged one. She was beautiful, witty, kind, urbane and domestic. An extremely good catch.

Time passed. She sold her house, she moved to a retirement community. This is the shrinkage that takes place in the modern story of the very long life: First comes love, then marriage, the baby in the carriage, and after decades, the retirement joint with craft classes, edifying programs, exercise routines, followed by the broken hip, assisted living, and finally, the dementia unit, the lockup.

Large house to one-bedroom apartment to studio apartment until you’re in a small room that has little else in it but a bed. Home is bed. Home is also your mind, as always, only your mind may not retain much of that long life or even what happened five minutes ago. What has surprised me in all that shrinkage isn’t the fact that my mother has again found love — because at 95 she is still pretty, kind and witty — but how she’s found the attachments that seem very like marriages. Love, it turns out, comes on the wings of assigned seating.

She has entered into two significant unions since my father’s death 35 years ago. The first occurred in assisted living, when at mealtimes she had to sit with Violet, full of complaint, and Bud, who grumbled nonstop when he wasn’t singing Gilbert and Sullivan, and Bob, who didn’t speak at all. After some time Bob departed and a man I’ll call Pete Gilbert appeared. Oh, Pete Gilbert, as if floated down from the heavens, a cheerful, insightful man in a soft plaid shirt. He was interested in the world, he loved to read, and he had narrative skills. My mother, for her part, made him laugh. He had immediate affection for her, and soon an abiding tenderness. They did not spend time together away from the dining room table; it wasn’t that kind of thing. The essentials of true marriage had once more changed in my thinking, so that now I knew it actually involved only the enormity that is Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, day after day. That, it still seems to me, is the crux of real companionship, time spent over the grapefruit, the grilled cheese, the tilapia. I take you to be my beloved Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner. Until Assigned Seating says otherwise.

After many fine meals together my mother had to leave Pete for the lockup. By the time he joined her nine months later she’d forgotten their years together, and he was too infirm to actively love her company as he’d once done, although he never forgot the fact of his affection. “This is how it ends,” he said to me, waving weakly at my mother from his new table, across the room from hers.

“He looks familiar,” she said, but meanwhile, she’d had the good luck to be with a new tablemate, Eleanor. Her third marriage, her last, we think. It’s an ancient story, the widows providing companionship, one to the other. And protection. Recently, when Lucille started eating Eleanor’s cupcake, my mother cried, “No, Doodle! That’s Doodle’s cupcake, not yours.” Even though everyone is now Doodle, Eleanor is the significant Doodle. How miraculous, that when so much is lost there is still the possibility of deep friendship; the name is immaterial. The two women have an affinity beyond words, but they also share jokes that sometimes extend for as long as 10 seconds. There is comfort sitting silently side by side, comfort, I’m sure, knowing they are together in the same strange boat.

If Eleanor is the first to die, my mother won’t remember her, although she will most certainly be lonely without knowing exactly what is missing. Dear ghost, whomsoever you were. Which is why we wish that Eleanor and my mother could do a Thelma and Louise. Theirs seems a union so right that there is no point in one going on without the other. But if — when — one of them has to leave alone, let us hope that whoever is left behind will be taken care of again by the providential yenta that is Assigned Seating. Another love, just one more, who will see the remaining friend through Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner — all that daylight, and then home to bed.