From The New York Times, I’m Anna Martin. This is Modern Love.
When my grandfather was near the end of his life, there were days I’d come home and we’d just sit on the couch together. Occasionally, he’d eat Cheetos. He loved them, and he called them “shrimps” because that’s what he thought they looked like.
Often, he would fall asleep. It’s important to just sit next to someone you love, to refill their bowl with shrimps — to be there because soon the other person might not be. This week’s essay is about that type of care — showing up, being present, in this case, after a very painful history together. It’s written by Nora Johnson and read by Suzanne Toren.
One of the things old people do is visit other old people in hospitals. It sounds dreary, and it is dreary, but it has its benefits. If you can learn to read the gauges and dials, you will, next time you are a patient, be able to find out how close to death you are (nobody else will tell you) by keeping an eye on your vitals: blood pressure, ejection fraction. And you can secretly rejoice that it’s not you in the bed. Not yet.
These days I’m making weekly visits to an old man, a doctor I once knew, in a rehab facility. Though the word rehab brings to mind drugs and alcohol, it’s also for broken hips, twisted backs, strokes and so forth. This old man, in his late 80s, recently had a mild stroke. And he has some bladder problem and a nasty cough, but he can still walk and talk.
He always had the gift of gab, though some of his jokes are pretty antique now. And then there are the stories going back to the Navy during World War II and Yale in the 1940s, tailgate picnics before the Harvard game. So this is another reason to visit your ancient ailing peers. There’s a nice wash of nostalgia to things that would put younger people to sleep.
I like hearing all this stuff even though I’ve heard it all before and lived it. I’m not sure the doctor recognizes me. When I walk in, he gives me a sharp look, then greets me with an uncertain smile. He doesn’t say my name because he doesn’t know what it is. He’s asked me twice rather delicately and I’ve told him but he forgets. I feel he’s fishing around in his imperfect memory trying to place me.
He’s forgotten that he was married to me for 10 years. He has asked me a couple of times how I know Justin, our son in Texas. Probably, he thinks I’m just a nice lady who wanders in off the street from time to time to talk to him. We had the worst marriage in the history of human relations. Dysfunctional doesn’t even begin to describe it.
If he really remembered all the bad parts, particularly the horrible divorce, our present fragile friendship might shatter. We maintained contact over the years. With our two sons, there have been graduations, a wedding, christenings and also problems, of course. I’d say we skated nicely through it all. Conferred with the shrinks, wept at the graduations, danced at the wedding.
I’m a believer in good post-divorce relations. It’s the least you can do for those shattered kids. We even got through the suicide of our other son, John. Held on to each other, cried, blamed ourselves for everything, another kind of horror. But that was before the stroke. Now, he’s wandering through strange country.
He was a psychiatrist and he peppers me with questions. What do I do all day? What am I reading? How is my health? What do I do for exercise? He’s a skinny old man in a sweatsuit with wild white hair and some fragments of white beard. But the wide blue eyes are still there. And in my head is a ghostly image of 50 years ago.
It all comes back. The four-star restaurants snorkeling off Jamaica, eggnog parties at Christmas. We had pots of money until we didn’t. The children brought us down to earth. My two daughters from my previous marriage and the two sons we had together, we didn’t all fit in our apartment and moved to a big house in Westchester. From there on, everything deteriorated.
It would be too easy, too cruel and ultimately too boring to document the so-called dynamics. The fights, the abuse, the police visits and the terrible divorce. Let me close the curtain on all that. I’ll skip to afterward. When I moved out with four wounded children and when I saw myself in a mirror and was shocked at how I looked, lines and shadows and darkness, I was 42 but looked 72.
Slowly, I returned to my age.
“Why do you go visit him?” a friend asked. “How can you?”
“I do it for Justin,” I said. He is supposed to be in charge of things but lives 1,500 miles away. “And out of general humanity.”
“You’re too forgiving,” my friend says. “Think what he did to you.”
His elderly girlfriend visits him daily but she has a few memory problems of her own. He doesn’t like the idea that she is deteriorating. This unwillingness may be partly the stroke but he has always had trouble with reality.
The Caribbean resorts, the flying lessons, the plunging bank account.
It’s true. Reality is unglamorous and often grubby. His soul is romantic and he is a city cat. It was a mistake to expect him to change light bulbs and mow the lawn. Perhaps, even to be a husband and father.
Ever the charming host, he wants to provide me with a little amusement. So we set out to see the aviary, a couple of floors down. This turns out to be not so simple. He has left his walker in his room and also his slippers. And he’s supposed to have a key and a code number for some number pad to make the elevator work.
For the first time, he freezes and his face becomes that cruel mask from the past, the one that somehow frightened an entire household of people.
“Come on,” he says to the nurses, “I’ve been going down in this elevator every day. Give me the key. Give me the code number.” His voice is soft but the rage is there.
I can read him so well. I may not the code for the elevator but I know his. He likes me, the lady who wanders in off the street and wants to amuse me. But there’s only the aviary and he can’t even take me there. He wishes it were La Grenouille, that I were wearing poochie instead of L.L. Bean. He wishes the cups of cranberry juice were flutes of Veuve Clicquot.
Maybe if I had known the code during those long ago fights, I could have tamped the flames. But I’ve been told often enough that I shouldn’t keep replaying those old scenes.
Instead, I interrupt him in his nurse abuse. “Let’s forget it,” I say, “It’s all too complicated. Let’s go back to the room.”
I start down the hall and he turns and follows me. Then I hear words I’ve almost never heard from him before: “I’m sorry.”
Nora Johnson, the author of this essay, died in 2017 at the age of 84. Her New York Times obituary noted that she published piercing memoirs and novels about families under stress. Nora also wrote another Modern Love essay about finding love when you’re older. And to this day, it remains one of the most read essays in the history of Modern Love. Check it out. There’s a link in the show notes.
Here’s a story from the Vows section of The Times about a couple who just got married and the story of their relationship. It’s about figuring out how to date all over again in your 60s.
Hi, I’m Margaret Eginton Carmichael, and I live in Iowa City, Iowa.
My name is Greg Carmichael, and I live in Iowa City. And I used to live in a neighborhood.
I used to go to a bar.
Fantastic restaurant run by my son called Apres.
Apres, which was across the street from my house.
So my daughter Kit is home from college. We’re maybe now in the spring or summer of 2016, and we decide to go over to Apres to have dinner.
I did notice Meg. She is very striking looking.
And this man came over, and he starts talking to Kit.
Kit is interested in what I did. And I told her that I do research in the interface between air pollution and climate change.
I have, like, zero idea what that means. And afterwards, Kit turns to me and says, well, he’s really boring. And I said, maybe he’s just really shy and we didn’t get the right question.
So probably about two months later, I end up sitting next to Greg because the bar is very crowded. And he starts asking me all these questions, and I’m telling him well, I lived in New York for 20 years and —
She would say she was a professional dancer.
Then he’s asking me like, well, what’s it like to be a dancer? How many hours a day did you dance, and then what happened after that?
Oh, you know, I was in a movie. I had dinner with Mick Jagger.
He asked me all these questions. And I said to him, are you interviewing me? I think he said, I have to go upstairs and babysit my grandson. And that was it.
So a few more months go by, and I see Greg occasionally. And suddenly out of the blue, one night, he walks over to me and he says, Apres’s having a Valentine’s Day dinner? Would you like to go?
And she said yes.
And I’m like, you don’t ask somebody out for a Valentine’s date unless you’re interested in them.
And then for some reason —
He texts me.
When the evening came, I also invited another of my bar friends, my martini drinker.
Pam is coming with us.
And so we ended up three of us at the table.
OK, well, then it’s definitely not a date if he’s invited Pam. And then at the end of dinner, which was delicious, he walked me home. When a guy walks you home, it generally means that he likes you. And then I didn’t hear from him for again for a long time.
So a year later … so several months go by … So later that spring, he invites me to a lecture … There’s an Indian dance performance.
We did go to a movie.
I have this big neighborhood party, and I felt like I had to invite him. And then there was another trip to the movies.
Meg asked me to join her.
He’s still not talking to me much and we’re not touching, but we’re nearly touching.
I really felt closer to her without really knowing what that meant.
And I thought, surely he’ll call. But he didn’t.
We had another long gap in time.
Was it a date? Was it not a date?
And I thought, oh, somehow we keep ending up doing things once in a while, but he doesn’t really want to go out with me.
So that fall, I was sitting at a high top because Greg’s at the bar.
I think we were like the only people in the restaurant.
I haven’t heard from him. I don’t want him to think that I want to talk to him or anything.
I don’t know — the moment just said, I need to get up and go see here and I walked over there and —
I said, hi, Greg and he said, “But what if we break up?”
That was the first thing out of his mouth. That was the first thing out of his mouth. What will happen if we break up?
I talked about those things and my feelings about dating and fear of — I want to date but I’m afraid if we date we’ll lose this.
And I just looked at him and I said, well, I guess we’ll avoid each other’s lockers. And he said, well, what do you mean? And I said, you know like in high school when you break up with somebody and then you just avoid each other’s lockers so you don’t have to say hi or anything. And he said, I never dated in high school.
And at that moment, everything came clear to me. Everything was clear like I just — I understood, he really is the shy, he really doesn’t know what he’s doing. I’m like, whoa.
I put my hand out and grabbed her hand.
I remember looking at it. I remember thinking it through. And I thought, well, OK, I put my hand on his hand. When he gives you a hug, it’s like the biggest, warmest, most open hug you’ve ever gotten. And his hand was like that. And then he put his other hand on me and really that was it. I mean, I fell in love with him the moment I put my hand in his.
It took another couple of months but Margaret and Greg finally went on their first official date. Soon after that, Covid hit. Margaret and Greg say that the lockdown strengthened their relationship and this past February, they got married. The couple still live happily in Iowa City even though Apres has, very sadly, closed.
On the next Modern Love, a story from a woman who thought she knew her mother until a handwritten note changed everything. That’s next time. Modern Love is produced by Julia Botero and Hans Buetow. It’s edited by Sara Sarasohn. This episode was mixed by Dan Powell. The Modern Love theme music is also by Dan Powell. Original music in this episode is by Chelsea Daniel and Hans Buetow.
Digital production by Mahima Chablani and special thanks to Anna Diamond at Audm and Vincent Mallozzi, who first wrote about Margaret and Greg in the Vows column from March 2022. The Modern Love column is edited by Dan Jones and Miya Lee is the editor of Modern Love projects. I’m Anna Martin, thanks for listening.