Last Sunday, I stood in a small church cemetery amid a circle of relatives. My vibrant octogenarian father, who had collapsed from a massive heart attack in January, was now reduced to a tube of ashes. When it was my turn to sprinkle his remains by my mother’s headstone, I watched gray flecks slip between my fingers, swirl in the spring breeze, and slowly settle into the dirt at my feet.
My stepmother told us Dad had wanted some of his ashes to be spread by the grave of my mother, his first wife, with whom he shared 47 years. She asked us to save her a teaspoon’s worth, which we did. Death, like divorce, has a way of surprising us with the best or the worst in people. Another widow might have refused to part with any portion of her husband’s remains. But my stepmother, who was married to my father for the last thirteen years of his life, honored his wishes, and let us reunite him with my mother.
Over the course of my father’s memorial weekend, friends and family gathered from both coasts to pay him tribute. At the mic near the pulpit, or over wine at the post-service party, people offered glimpses into my dad’s impact on them. He was genteel, articulate, endearingly absent-minded, a decorated WWII veteran, formidable Badminton champion, die-hard Democrat and rooter for the underdog. He pulled quarters out of nephews’ ears, officiated at wedding ceremonies for friends’ children, roused others out of their sadness with an anecdote, or a dash of homespun optimism. He laughed freely and often. And he was a loving husband. Twice.
The last ten years of my parents’ marriage was fueled mainly by devotion. My mother’s triple bypass, from which she never fully recovered, was followed by a massive stroke several years later. Not a week went by that my father didn’t have to triage a mini-stroke, seizure, staph infection, or acute digestive ailment. After four years of caring for Mom at home, my father put her in a nursing facility. The night she died, he sent my sister and me home, and held Mom’s hand as her breathing stopped.
Just one year later, my then 72-year-old dad became engaged to my stepmother, whom he met at a neighbor’s garden party. In many ways the opposite of my mother, Beverly was blonde, glamorous, and a successful businesswoman twelve years my father’s junior. She loved to cook, entertain, and enjoy cocktail hour. She and my father became a sought-after golden-year’s couple. They traveled the globe, hosted dinner parties in their well-appointed home, spent weeknights at the theater or symphony. Friends stopped by at twilight for drinks on their wraparound porch. People lapped up their stories, laughed at their jokes, envied their palpable sexual chemistry.
Although Dad had always been gregarious, with Beverly he became more confident, a full-on raconteur and patriarch. After almost 50 years slightly being eclipsed by my mother, and nearly flattened by a decade of care-taking her, Dad reveled in his second-act metamorphosis. Beverly liked to joke that when she married Dad, she stopped being known as Beverly and became “Phil’s wife.” Their action-packed, non-stop-fun thirteen-year marriage screeched to a halt one evening last January when Dad clutched his chest, his gin-and-tonic sloshing onto the floor. He died moments later in Beverly’s arms, his last words, “Oh, shit.”
With 3000 miles and my endless, all-consuming divorce between us, Dad and I had grown apart the past several years. And then there was this: I felt loyal to my Mom. Fun was a rare commodity for her and Dad. Rarely did they entertain, take weekend jaunts, eat out. They scrimped for college funds and retirement. When my mom, six years my dad’s senior, retired at 67, she suddenly required a triple bypass and overnight seemed to turn into an old woman, with Dad as her caretaker.
Even before her health took a nose-dive, I never saw Mom captivate Dad the way Beverly did. My parents’ relationship was marked by mutual respect, devotion, and fatigue, but not passion. At times, Mom and Dad seemed to lead parallel lives with separate interests, whereas Dad and Beverly could never bear to be apart. When he met Beverly, Dad’s old life faded away and morphed into one I hadn’t dreamed possible. I wondered: had he truly loved Mom? Had he forgotten her?
At the Memorial, I heard stories about the early years of Mom and Dad’s marriage, when they were two young adventurers from the South who headed to New York to make a life. During summer, they would drive down to our extended family’s mountain retreat in their convertible, dazzling cousins, nephews and nieces with their exuberance and tales of life in Manhattan.
Born fourteen years into their marriage, I had never experienced my parents as glamorous or exuberant. Or had I? Had decades of child-rearing and budgeting tamped out a passion they might have shared? Had my memories of Mom’s strokes, seizures and paralysis and Dad’s fear and fatigue eclipsed any recollection of zest between them?
When I stood with my relatives, spreading Dad’s ashes by Mom’s headstone the way he had wanted, a different picture emerged. Whatever his first marriage and been or became, this much was clear: in life and beyond, Dad honored my mom. It was a different love than the one he had for Beverly, but it was no less real or meaningful. Most people struggle to keep one marriage together, but Dad had been a devoted husband twice. His wives changed, but his dedication never wavered.
This is how I will remember him.