For as long as I can remember, I was interested in my parents’ love story. I wanted to know how they met, who liked who first, when my mother knew my father was “the one.” I always felt like that was the real beginning to our family’s story and I enjoyed listening to Mom retell it over and over.
My parents met at a “mixer” on campus at Stonehill College. My mother was an English major there and my father attended a nearby community college. He and his buddies heard that there were “cute girls” at Stonehill and so they decided to crash. Mom said that Dad was wearing a pink button down shirt and she knew right away that he was going to ask her to dance. “How did you know?” I would ask with genuine curiosity. “You just know” is how she would always reply. Mom had funny stories about Dad showing up overdressed for their first date (he wore a suit jacket), or what is was like meeting my grandparents and uncles for the first time (overwhelming). From here on, their love story may have been common, or unremarkable. But, life intervened.
My parents were college students in the late 60’s and during my mother’s sophomore year, there was a war draft. Dad’s number was up. He was going to Vietnam. They didn’t get engaged before Dad left. Mom said that Dad didn’t want to promise something that he couldn’t guarantee. What if something happened? Something did happen. An ordinary love story became extraordinary. My parents learned how to love each other living a world apart.
My favorite stories were about the phone calls. Dad was allowed one phone call each week for three minutes. He would alternate the weeks, calling my mother one week and his mother the next. Mom emphasized that these calls were very important because even though Dad wrote her a letter every day, there was a big lag time in the letters and when she spoke to Dad on the phone, she knew that at that exact moment, everything was ok.
Mom was living in the dorms at the time and did not have a phone in her room, but there was a pay phone in the lobby that he could call. The other women in dorm would know when Mom was expecting a call from Dad and they would all pay attention for the ringing phone. Mom said that when she got on the phone there would be an operator on the line who would ask for $13, which Mom paid by feeding quarters into the phone. The operator stayed on the phone while they talked and after every single phone call, the quarters would come rushing back out when Mom hung up the phone.
After hanging up with Dad, Mom would call Grandma to let her know he was alright. Grandma would do the same for Mom when it was her week to get a call. At the end of every call with Grandma, Dad would say “Tell Diane I say 1 – 4 – 3” the code for “I love you.”
The stories of their time apart always held my attention because it seemed so foreign to imagine my parents not together. They were a couple that spent a lot of time together. Sitting together on the couch at night after work, going out to dinner every week, and holding hands on long car rides. All those letters Dad wrote? Burned in the fireplace. Dad said he didn’t want the reminder of time he had to be away from my mother. Secretly, I was suspicious some of the letters might have been too romantic for his children’s eyes.
When Mom passed away unexpected at the age of 58, my parents had been married for 34 years. I remember sitting with Dad and talking with the funeral director who commented that my parents had such a wonderful, long marriage. Dad’s response? “Not long enough.”
Dad has been living with Alzheimer’s since his late 50’s. Today he is 65. He has no idea what day of the week it is, or if he has eaten breakfast today. But, some memories seem to have superpowers against the build up of amyloid and plaque in his brain.
Two summers ago, my sister was browsing in a souvenir shop with Dad down the Cape. A salesperson was showing Dad the newest bracelet, called the “1-4-3” bracelet. It was a simple silver bracelet with two charms. The first was a circle with a picture of a boat anchor and the second was in the shape of a lighthouse withe numbers 1, 4, and 3 engraved down the front. Dad was adamant that he needed to buy two, one for my sister and one for me. He told my sister that is what he always used to say to my mother and so he wanted us to have them.
Dad doesn’t remember that he gave us the bracelet. But, when I wear it I show it to him and point out the engraving on the lighthouse. He smiles and loves to reminisce about time with Mom. He always ends the conversation by saying “I miss her everyday.”
My parents’ love story lives on today. It lives on in me, my sister and our children. It lives on in Dad. Alzheimer’s has taken away so many of his abilities, but not his ability to love or to remember love. It is as strong and steady as the rays from a lighthouse. A bright spot in the darkness, calling us home.