This is the paragraph I completed before my mother died:
There’s that scene in The Matrix — the finale, remember? Neo finally comes into his own and sees The Matrix for what it is: a world constructed from ones and zeros. In 1999, this made perfect sense to me. Since I’d gotten my first home computer years earlier, everything I’d learned about programming — remarkably little in hindsight — said that binary was the most basic computing language, the purist form of code. Bits were either one or zero, off or on, yes or no. The world was built on binary.
A few weeks ago, I was all set to devote the second installment of this column to the hot-button issue of misgendering, the rise of gender neutral pronouns, and my own trepidation about the demise of binary thinking. A few days later, I was standing in a room in a hospice care facility in Florida listening to the most determined and stalwart man I have ever known tell me that he no longer knew what to do with himself now that his partner of 56 years was lying lifeless in a bed just a few feet away from us.
One, then zero.
Weary and immeasurably sad, my 82-year-old father leaned into my awkward hug, and just like that, the sturdiest binary unit to which I had ever personally born witness disintegrated.
This column is meant to address how we write about relationships in the digital age. While my parents’ marriage predates the personal computer by more than a decade, their relationship is the only one I can lend any serious thought to at this moment, so that’s what I’m going to do. My mom kept everything I ever wrote that she could get her hands on, from junior high short stories to hip-hop magazine articles about rappers she had never heard of. My dad believes in responsibility above all else, and this is, for better or worse, my job. So, I think they would both pardon my transparency here.
My immediate family has a selective and spotty oral tradition; to be honest, I don’t actually know all that much about my parents’ relationship. Certainly, I lived with them for 17 straight years and a couple of stressful months after college, so I eventually arrived at some conclusions. I know that they grew up just towns away from each other in South Carolina. I know that, after meeting, they migrated to New York separately but ended up both working for wealthy white families on Long Island. I know that when my mother wanted a remodeled porch, she feigned doing it herself knowing that her handy and dutiful husband would complete the task. I know that she was effusive and nurturing and he was stern and protective. I know that, at least while I was young, she made dinner every night—unless it was Sunday’s at KFC or Sizzler and, then, Carvel. I know that he was the bad cop.
But when it comes to their love story, I possess precious few actual details. Supposedly, their courtship consisted of window-shopping around what, in my pretentious New York-bred metropolitanism, I imagine to be a dusty one-horse town. I’m pretty sure I once glimpsed a ring that my father handmade for my mother out of a quarter. And I vaguely remember him saying that, when they first met, he could put his hands around her waist like this—and then he demonstrated by forming a circle with his right and left index fingers and thumbs just about touching.
I would not dare claim that my parents’ relationship was the ideal, or even my ideal. But I believe that, as my five siblings and I watched it span decades, their marriage held some deep, possibly subconscious allure for us. All but one of us has tried our hand at the institution, with varying results. My own binary unit ended officially about a year and a half ago. I never called my parents to tell them I’d gotten a divorce; I let them gradually find out through the Rashomon grapevine that is the rest of my family. I avoided them for many months afterward. I heard a rumor that my dad was pissed. My mom kept pictures of my ex-wife around the house like she might show up for Thanksgiving dinner. I guess I didn’t tell them because I was embarrassed. At the time, they were inching up on five and a half decades, and I tapped out just short of one.
After my mother’s health began an incremental turn for the worse a few months ago, my brother and sisters and I learned—and, on occasion, witnessed—specifics of our parents’ love story. A few weeks back, I watched as my father backed two feet away from my mother’s bed to continue a conversation that he and I were having about the building in which we stood. Though she was not then discernibly conscious, nor would she ever be again, he refused to utter the words “end of life care” anywhere near her while she still breathed. Later, he flashed me a look I remember from childhood when I casually mentioned that B.B. King—my mother’s favorite blues singer—had passed away just days earlier. At their house, my father the octogenarian MacGyver took me around and showed me all the modifications he’d made since her motility had begun to fail. He admitted that, even after she’d been moved to hospice—when not holding vigil by her bedside—he stayed busy at home to keep his mind from going to dark places.
It was around this time that I began to realize that I could appreciate but never really comprehend the full extent of what they had built together, that the space between one and one can be infinite and unfathomable even to those at the immediate periphery. And, while that realization fills me with wonder and admiration, it also makes me hurt for my dad even more, to know that he will now be left alone in that singular cosmos. Though my brother and sisters, my nieces and nephew, his remaining brothers and sisters and their children will call and visit with recollections and—ultimately—cheer, he alone will mourn his wife when he is no longer driving her to the Kingdom Hall, when he is not washing up after their low sodium breakfast, when they are not together worrying about their grandkids’ futures. And, while he will create new routines—my dad has never been a man to sit and wait for anything—who knows how the old ones will haunt him?
For the majority of my 41 years, my father and I have communicated with all the pithiness and warmth of two unfamiliar HAM Radio operators. But, recently, I’ve come to discover that our static and staticky connection was not simply the result of all the mighty quarreling we got into during my modestly rebellious youth. He’s older now. Never fluid, his speech is understandably more halting. But he has taken to reminding me at the start of our more meaningful conversations that he was never good with words. What’s more, he has let me know, as best he can, that he is proud that I am good with words.
And, so, when it came time to arrange services for my mother, and funeral directors began asking my dad repeatedly if he’d like to spend a little extra on a lengthier, more detailed obituary, I panicked a bit on the inside. I was afraid he might expect me, his son the writer, to come up with something publishable about the woman who walked me to school, taught me how to fry an egg, and once sewed me Hammer pants (at my request) but whose death I had not effectively begun to process. My worry was as unfounded as it was selfish. My father did not want some long, elaborate obit for his lifelong partner. He didn’t even want the standard death announcement placed in the local newspaper. No to all of it. He said so ostensibly for reasons pertaining to privacy, but I suspect there was more to it.
My brother and sisters eventually put Ma’s picture on Facebook with the briefest sentiments, and I followed suit because that’s how people share grief these days. We post and receive well wishes and condolences through the ether. This doesn’t preclude crying in the shower, but the process is somehow eased by a kind message from your ex-wife or a note on your wall from your college roommate who remembers meeting your mother freshman year. My mom joined Facebook in her late seventies, but my dad never did. He does not access the world or other people in that way. He is profoundly not digital. I hope that he would not take offense to me broadcasting our family’s collective heartbreak on a website that he has never heard of, but I doubt that he will ever read this. Thinking about love and relationships is my concern and that of my generation. My parents were more do’ers.
[Photo of the author’s parents; via ND]