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Just a note before we start the show, there’s a brief mention of suicide in this episode.
- archived recording 1
Love now and always.
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Did you fall in love?
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Just tell her I love her.
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Love is stronger than anything.
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For the love.
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And I love you more than anything.
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(SINGING) What is love?
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Here’s to love.
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From “The New York Times,” I’m Anna Martin. This is “Modern Love.” Today’s essay is by Bob Morris. One of the first things I noticed about Bob the second he came into the studio is that he is a talker, which, of course, I love. We talked about his very cool suede jacket, the cottage he recently moved into, the college we’d both gone to. We were just hopping from topic to topic like we’d known each other for a while.
But when we talked about his essay, Bob’s voice changed. He slowed down. He smiled. Bob’s essay is about his father’s final years. He took care of his dad during that time. He visited his dad at his retirement home. They went on long drives together. But then something happened that Bob didn’t expect. His dad fell in love. Here’s Bob reading his essay, “My Father’s Final Romance.”
Not long after my mother died, my father found what he called a “lady friend.” He was 81, and she was a little younger. They met in Palm Beach, Florida, where he was renting an apartment for the winter. For over a year, they had a blast. They went to concerts, had dinners out. My dad often paid with the coupons he carried in his old worn-out wallet. Arlene was a lively widow. She was cultured, bright, and did not play bridge, which meant my father didn’t have to annoy her by bossing her around in duplicate games. She made him so happy that he sounded like a kid when I would call him from New York.
My brother and I had our reservations about this new relationship. But it made us happy to see him with a woman who made him as happy as Mom did, before her long illness. Dad was so fond of Arlene, he cleaned out his cluttered car, a landfill on wheels. His slovenly wardrobe and manners also improved, though he still made calls at the dinner table, scolded liberals, and worked his teeth with a toothpick at inappropriate times. And Arlene was so fond of him, she said, your father has put a shine back into my life that I never thought possible again at my age.
The second summer they were together, he hatched a plan to rent a condo in Vermont for a month of cohabitation. Arlene would fly to New York from Florida to meet him in the assisted living apartment he rented, and they would head up together. The night before their departure, he felt winded. He had an incurable heart condition that was starting to really slow him down. It was too late for a refund for the Vermont condo, so he told her to go alone.
The next morning, she arrived to say hello and goodbye and found him on the bathroom floor with a suicide letter nearby. What my father didn’t know — or perhaps he did — was that he hadn’t taken enough pills to kill him. He was doomed to live. Arlene was as devastated as we were, but soon she returned to Florida, leaving my brother and me to comfort the old man. It seemed like all the attention and Zoloft in the world couldn’t help him. Neither could visits with a buxom physical therapist or my shrill pep talks and serenades on my ukulele. Arlene, on the other hand, just her voice on the phone could bring sunshine back into his life.
One day, while I was taking him and his aide on one of our frequent and not always so pleasurable pleasure drives along Long Island’s Gold Coast, I detected a smile on his face. I asked him why. Arlene was just here, and we had a lovely weekend, he said.
From the backseat, his aide asked, did you tell your son what she said? She asked me to marry her, he told me. My heart practically flew out of my mouth to do a little hora on the dashboard. That’s wonderful that she still loves you so much, I said. I knew, however, he wouldn’t want to go through the legalities of marriage at his stage in life. All I want is to continue keeping company with her, he said.
When I told my lawyer uncle about her proposal, he wondered if it was about money. I didn’t know and didn’t care. Somebody was willing to love my incapacitated, irascible, and uncontrollable father. I loved her for loving him in ways I never could.
In November, Arlene flew up for my niece’s bar mitzvah, but instead of staying with my father at the hotel suite my brother had arranged for them, she stayed with a friend. She had gently suggested that she didn’t want to take care of him for the weekend. He had an aide for that. I could hardly blame her. She had already spent years caring for her own ailing husband. My father longed to spend more time with her, but he knew he had to take what he could get. What else can I do, he said with a sigh.
That winter, he insisted on flying to Palm Beach for two weeks of bridge games and early bird dinners and his 83rd birthday celebration, even though he was using a wheelchair full-time. It was high season, and hotel rooms were scarce. Arlene was delighted he was coming, but she didn’t offer to host him in her spacious apartment. Even with an aide, it would be too much for me, she said.
One night, I went to dinner with him and Arlene in our hotel. They held hands on the table. This feels wonderful. Couldn’t be better, my father cooed. At the end of dinner, while my father was beaming and scooping up the last of the cheesecake they shared, Arlene left to return to her large, empty apartment.
I don’t understand, my brother said on the phone. She proposed to him, so she must love him. Why can’t she put him up in her home? I countered that she was still making him happy, euphoric even. And half an Arlene is better than none, I added. He agreed with me that happiness was the goal. But I kept wondering what I would do in a similar situation. If someone I had known for only a year who didn’t want to marry me became debilitated, would I stick around?
A couple of nights after our dinner with Arlene, I dropped my father off at her apartment for a birthday supper in his honor. I ran off to buy him a present. While he was on the toilet in her bathroom, he found himself unable to stand. Since I wasn’t around, she ended up having to help him up. He was mortified. She took it in stride, but as we ate at her table surrounded by friends, I knew the chasm between them had gotten wider. But I could still see him basking in her affection while she kissed his cheek, then stroked his face before I wheeled him out.
When he died four months later, Arlene emailed about wanting directions and a ride to the cemetery for the service. My brother and I twisted and turned, and ultimately, we said no. We wanted Dad back with Mom in the presence of all who loved them without sharing him with someone new, no matter how good she had made him feel in his last year. We were grief stricken and gave vague and inadequate apologies. I don’t think it was nice of us, let alone fair, but I’ve learned the hard way that the only thing that can fill you with more regret than love is death.
To her credit, Arlene didn’t give up on us. She got in touch several months later. We met for lunch on a clear autumn day in Manhattan. I could have used the occasion to apologize for not letting her pay her last respects to a man she loved. I could have told her that watching the two of them light up together always brightened what was otherwise a very dark time.
Instead, I took a breath and put a question to her that I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about for months — why did you ask my father to marry you? She shook her head. I never did that, she replied. I told him if he were well, I’d want to marry him. Then we finished our lunch, hugged, and went our separate ways.
Thanks for reading your essay, Bob.
And tell me, what was your dad’s name?
Joe Morris. And how many years has it been since he passed away?
It was 2006.
Mm-hmm, OK. So Bob, your essay ends with this really striking final scene, Arlene telling you that you’d fundamentally misunderstood a really important part of her in your dad’s relationship, that what she’d actually said was she would marry your dad if he was well. How did it feel to sit there and hear her say that?
It was like this light came into the room of what really happened, not what had been told to me and that my brother and I had constructed as some sort of case against her, really. And suddenly, it all made sense. We had been told that she proposed marriage to him. She didn’t. I found out much later that my father tried to give her an engagement ring, and she didn’t want that, but they exchanged watches.
There’s a lot of symbolism in exchanging a watch, I feel, though, no? Time?
Time is ticking when you’re 80.
[CHUCKLES]: But also something really beautiful about that. How did hearing that from Arlene that she’d marry your father if he was well, how did that change your view of her?
I’m still a little tortured by the boundaries, in general, that she put up, that I put up after he died. And recently, she called. I haven’t really been in touch. She wanted to talk, and of course, I had to talk to her. And she told me something that sort of ripped a little bit at my heart, which is that she said, Bob, I still have feelings for you. I can’t help it.
Mm. She still has love for you, she meant by that.
Love and I think whatever that year or so was. Maybe it was a year or two, we were, momentarily, family. And the question becomes, what is right in terms of setting up boundaries. I knew she had family of her own. I knew she wasn’t going to be left alone in the world. But honestly, there was a fragility to her voice the other day that made me ask myself again, can I be a part of this woman’s life again, you know?
I think that you’re posing yourself a really difficult question, which is like, what do we owe someone else in this instance?
What do we owe someone who was so intimately a part of our life for a brief period of time? Because those feelings are deeply felt. It’s a really hard question. What do you owe her? What does she owe you?
We both, I think, know our limits.
Mm-hmm. But you said you’re still tortured by those boundaries, and I’m interested in that word because it’s so —
Well, it’s sort of —
— you ask yourself, how much can I give? And if I give beyond what I want to give, is that for the right reasons, or do you even put a qualitative judgment on how much time do I have for somebody or how much emotion do I have for somebody?
Sure. I mean, it’s really interesting, the question of boundaries, because you have boundaries in your relationship with Arlene, and Arlene had boundaries in her relationship with your dad.
And we actually have a sense of Arlene’s boundaries because after your essay was published, Arlene herself wrote a response. And she shared her side of the story and her experience of what happened. And one of the things she said was that she and your dad had this agreement that they wanted their children to take care of them, and not one another. Did your dad ever tell you anything about this agreement that he and Arlene had?
No. Did I ask her at the time, as we were starting to have these issues and resentments and questions? Did my brother? No, because I am a firm believer in happiness. And the most important thing was for my father to feel good. And he felt good. And I think that’s one of the things that I come away with, having been through this with both my parents, is, if you can have a good time with them, and if you can show them a good time, then you’ve done your work.
You didn’t ask her the question because you didn’t want to disrupt this happiness.
That’s the short answer, yes.
This sort of golden time he had with Arlene. So Arlene said she would have married your dad if he was well, which is a huge conditional, right? And it sounds like your dad wanted to indulge in the fantasy that he was well enough. Was that what you think happened?
My father was a man who was an orphan by the time he was 12. And he lived his life skating on the surface of things. He only liked musicals. He had no use for anything overly dramatic or sad. And so whatever he heard, he wasn’t going to parse it. What he heard was love. What he saw was enough love to make him feel romantic. And so that’s what he lived with.
He heard what he needed to hear.
But we take our grace where it comes, don’t we?
What’s something when you look back on this time caring for your father, what’s something that the two of you did together that still stands out?
Well, the main thing we did was sing. (SINGING) I’ll be loving you always with a love that’s true always.
Oh! Did you sing more when he was older, or did you sing throughout your life together?
We did sing throughout our lives, but I tell you something, having a ukulele or having access to the piano in his assisted living place was an absolute lifesaver for us because it made me happy, and then we were sailing off together, singing (SINGING) I hear music, and there’s no one there. I smell blossoms, and the trees are bare.
And all these old songs that were his songs.
I think that’s such a beautiful moment, too, because you’re both enabling each other’s happiness when you’re singing together, which is so —
I love the idea of enabling happiness —
— because it’s supposed to be a negative term.
I know, but —
But no, it was — yeah.
I think that that’s so gorgeous. Bob, thank you so much for your story and for your songs today.
You’re very welcome.
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(SINGING) I smell [INAUDIBLE] everywhere.
[INAUDIBLE] I wonder why. I wonder why.
That’s Bob and his dad, Joe, singing, “I Wonder Why,” on Joe’s 80th birthday. I asked Bob if he’d be comfortable with me reaching out to Arlene. He said yes, and he connected the two of us. So when we come back, my conversation with Arlene.
Arlene, it’s Anna.
Oh, thank you for calling.
I’ve been looking forward to this conversation, Arlene, for weeks, so I’m so excited to be talking to you right now.
That’s very sweet.
Are you still in Florida?
Are you a swimmer? Do you go to the beach?
I am a swimmer. I go to the beach. I played tennis for 75 years.
Oh, my gosh.
And that’s what has me limber and able to walk. Do you know that I’m 95 years old?
You know, I did, but I’m happy you said it because I was stressing out, saying, am I going to have to ask Arlene directly what her age is, and is that rude?
Because my association with Bob’s father was 17 years ago.
17 years ago, whoa, when you were how old?
Well, let’s see, I met him when I was 76. And by the time I was 78, he had passed away.
Gotcha. Well, tell me more about your relationship with Bob’s father, with Joe. How did you meet him?
Well, I met him through a couple we knew. And they had actually met him at a tennis camp.
Oh, my goodness.
So they said, oh, here’s Arlene. She plays tennis. And the first thing he said to me after we shared a few words, he said, well, we lived parallel lives. And it was true. We had so much in common. We married the same year. We had two children each, had a couple of grandchildren. And here we are, both lost our adored mates and really clicked.
At that time in your life when you met Joe, were you looking for a relationship?
Well, I did take off my wedding ring. What does that tell you?
It told me that I must have been ready to meet someone. And I didn’t want a ring to stop them, although if they thought I was a maiden lady, I don’t know if that would have been appealing. However, I don’t think Joe even noticed whether I had a ring on or not.
What about Joe drew you to him?
Joe was a very lively, friendly fellow. So we had a lot of fun together. One of the things we liked to do was sing. My voice was better than it is now. [LAUGHS]
Do you remember a specific time that the two of you sang?
I remember a very specific time. We had to go from the airport in Ft. Lauderdale to where we lived in Palm Beach. And the driver was kind of grunty and not too happy, until Joe started singing, let’s do some popular songs. [LAUGHS]
And the driver joined in. And he said later, I really didn’t want this gig to drive up here and drive back alone. He said, but you made it such fun, I don’t even want to charge you.
Oh! Do you remember what song you sang in the cab that time?
No, darling, it was 17 years ago. I mean, it could have been any of the show tunes. Could have been — we danced all night. I could have danced all night. I mean, he was a very talented guy. I will tell you another thing, because a year before, my husband had passed away. So I had some issues remaining that I didn’t understand. And Joe was very helpful to me. He also knew how to use a cell phone, which had just come into vogue. And he was helpful in that respect.
What do you feel like you brought into his life? What did you give him?
Companionship. and a listening ear because I liked to hear about his exploits. I liked to hear about his wife. There’s this whole bugaboo, you don’t talk about your previous spouses with a new romance. But we talked about our spouses all the time.
Oh, here’s something you would like to hear.
Joe offered me an engagement ring. And I said, well, we’re not going to get married, so I don’t think an engagement ring is the right thing to have. Because to me, an engagement ring, you’re engaged to get married. I said, let’s get each other watches. And that’s what we did. He bought me a beautiful watch, which I really — everybody admired. I bought him a sports watch. So that’s how we handled that.
Was that something that you two had discussed explicitly that marriage was not in the cards for you?
No. The thing was, why I told you that was because later on, as I got to know Joe, I really realized that I loved him. And I said to his aide at that time. I said, oh, if Joe was well, I would marry him.
Mm-hmm, if Joe as well, you would marry him.
Of course, that was misinterpreted by the aide.
Right, the aide misheard you. But you tried to clear that up. After Bob’s essay was published, you actually wrote into “The Times,” and you shared your side of the story. You said that you’d taken care of your first husband as he got sick until he passed away, and that you just didn’t have the stamina to do that again with Joe. Is that right? Is that how you felt?
Joe said that when he got truly ill, he wanted his children to take care of him. And I realized that if I got ill, I wouldn’t put that on Joe. I’d want my children to take over. That was about the size of it, and it’s true. While he was hospitalized up in New York and I was in Florida, and I offered to come up, but he said no. His son was with him and was not needed for me to come up. And I said, well, then, please, I’m giving you a kiss through the phone.
Oh, and then he did die. And I did not go to the funeral. I did go to the grave site, and that was a closure for me. Now I’m living on. What am I going to do? [LAUGHS]
Mm. Having these boundaries in your relationship with Joe, these really explicit, it sounds like, boundaries that you’d hashed out through conversations with him, it set the terms. The terms were very clear, and it sounding like within those clear terms, you were able to have a really beautiful time.
Oh, we didn’t think about it as terms, like you’re putting it. It was just more flexible than that.
But we did have a good time together. And I was glad that I gave him some pleasure in his last years. Also we liked our children. I was crazy about Bob, and the grandchildren of his other son were delightful kids.
It sounds like your relationship with Joe was relatively short, but so meaningful.
Yes, that’s true. And it was a wonderful coda for a good marriage that I had.
Mm, a coda.
It just was like ice cream with the topping on it. You have to understand we were both left without our spouses. And what’s going to happen? It’s the end of the world. No, it wasn’t the end of the world. Here comes this knight in shining armor, and a whole new world begins.
Are you dating someone now?
No. Are you kidding? I’m 95 years old. I’m glad I’m alive.
Oh, by the way, Joe would be 100 this year.
How about that?
Arlene, this has been such a wonderful conversation. Thank you for talking to me.
And I wish I could meet you sometime. You sound like a wonderful girl.
I don’t have any more grandsons available.
But I hope you find a wonderful one, a wonderful guy, whenever you’re ready. And you don’t have to be ready.
And thank you.
If you have a story that you want to share with us, we’d love to hear it. We’re always looking for good stories and new perspectives for the “Modern Love” column, no matter where you come from or who you are. We’re especially interested in stories from writers of color and the LGBTQ community. To find out how to submit your own story to “Modern Love,” go to nytimes.com/modernlovesubmission.
“Modern Love” is produced by Julia Botero, Christina Djossa, and Hans Buetow. It’s edited by Sara Sarasohn. Our executive producer is Jen Poyant. This episode was mixed by Sophia Lanman. Our show was recorded by Maddy Masiello. The “Modern Love” theme music is by Dan Powell. Original music in this episode by Pat McCusker. Digital production by Nell Gallogly. The “Modern Love” column is edited by Daniel Jones. Miya Lee is the editor of Modern Love Projects. I’m Anna Martin. Thanks for listening.