Joan Wickersham

Love, advanced

By Joan Wickersham
March 18, 2010

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AT THE age of 80, after 15 years of widowhood, my mother fell in love with a man she met in her assisted-living place. Sometimes, when I mentioned this to people, they would say, “Oh wow — isn’t that adorable?’

No. It wasn’t. My mother and her friend were not cute. They were two adults conducting a complicated adult romance. Their bodies were frail — she used a walker and he a cane. But their minds were sharp, and their feelings were intense.

It was a happy, but also stormy, relationship. She would call me and talk about how wonderful he was. Then she would call and tell me he’d acted like a jerk; she was late for a meal and instead of waiting for her so they could eat together as they usually did, he sat at a table with three other women and when my mother arrived there was no room for her.

“I’m going to break up with him,’’ she said. “I deserve better than this.’’ We talked for a while; she calmed down, and then she laughed. “Can you believe this?’’ she said. “It’s just like high school.’’

Partly she meant that it was juvenile. She was 80, and she was trying to figure out if a boy really liked her. But partly she meant that she had not expected to be hit hard by love at this point in her life — to feel so giddy, so raw, so turned on, so uncertain.

She’d believed in the myth that love among older people is wise, mature, asexual — that all the wild oats of youth eventually get boiled down into some bland porridge called “companionship.’’ My mother and her friend certainly valued companionship. They played bridge and Scrabble together, listened to music, talked about their lives and their families. But my mother also got an aide to take her to the mall in her wheelchair, so that she could buy a negligee. “Can you believe it?’’ she said again, when she told me.

The relationship started to deteriorate when my mother’s health worsened. She had a neurological disease that eventually paralyzed her from the waist down and largely blinded her. Her friend told me he didn’t know if he could deal with this. He had lost his wife 40 years ago and had never gotten over the pain of her illness and death. I was sorry for him, but sorrier for my mother. Her condition necessitated a move out of the assisted-living place and into the nursing home next door. She hated it, but insisted on staying there to be close to him. Only he hardly ever came to see her.

“He’s a jerk,’’ she would say yet again; but then a day or two later she’d read me a poem she had written for him. Watching her light up when he did call and suffer when he didn’t, I thought of the people who’d said “Oh, that’s adorable.’’ I’m not sure why we infantilize older people when it comes to love and sex. Maybe we’re scared of the idea of frail bodies and strong passions. We want to tame old age, make it diminutive and cozy. We don’t want to think, “Someday that’ll be me.’’ Maybe we don’t really understand until we get there that love can always come, at any age; that it can be exciting and frustrating, wild, comforting, painful and magnificent.

A few days after my mother died, we held a memorial service in a friend’s large living room. People got up and spoke about my mother. A pianist played pieces she had loved. In the middle of one of these musical interludes, there was a commotion in the hallway. The service was almost over; who would show up now?Leaning on his cane and supported by his daughter, my mother’s friend walked very slowly into the room and sat down. His health had deteriorated, too. He could barely walk, and clearly it had been a huge effort for him to get out to attend the service. He’d showed up late. But he was there.

Joan Wickersham is author of “The Suicide Index.’’ Her column appears regularly in the Globe.

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