September 20, 2002

what love looks like

I really don't give my family enough credit. I tend to think that they gave me a
love of books and that that made all the difference but that's not really true.
They taught me a lot about love as well.

My Dad is a product of the
foster system. His foster parents were the only real mother and father figures he
nknew; unfortunately, the system at that time was not to leave a child with a
family for more than a year for fear he would bond with them, as if having a child
grow up with no one to love weren't far worse. (I will spare you the rant about
awfulness of the system then and now, as well as the one about his birth parents.
If you love your child, you either do anything necessary to raise him, or you cut
him loose entirely so other people can become real parents to him. This is not
what they did.) At any rate, he did bond with one set of foster parents, even
running away from other (sometimes abusive) fosterers to go back to them.

They divorced eventually, and he remarried around the time I was
born. I knew him and his new wife as Grandpop Chuck and Grandmom Fay. We weren't
as close to them emotionally as to my mom's parents, and they were closer to her
grandnieces and grandnephews but they lived only a couple of blocks away and we
saw them often. As a little kid, all I knew was that I had two complete sets of
grandparents, plus a couple of extra grandmothers (Chuck's first wife, my dad's
birth mom, with whom he had sort of gingerly reconciled by then, and my mom's
grandmother). That's extraordinary in itself; imagine being a grandmother to the
children of a kid your husband had fostered years before. Fay had no kids of her
own, so my brother and I and her sister's grandchildren were the beneficiaries of
her grandmotherly instincts. That's one sort of love.

Chuck had been
in bad health for as long as I can remember, mostly due to the effects of years of
heavy smoking and a resulting cases of asthma and emphysema. Once when I was 12,
my parents called me at a party and told me to go home with a friend who was there
also. A small plane crash-landed on my grandparent's tiny street and the smoke
from the explosion triggered an asthma attack that sent him to the hospital.

By the time I went off to college at Penn, in the other end of
Philadelphia, Chuck and Fay had moved down the shore (as we say in Philadelphia)
to Atlantic City, to be near her relatives in Margate. During my last couple of
years, I worked for a behavioral geneticist who had his office in HUP, the
university's teaching hospital. In what turned out to be Chuck's last illness he
was med-evaced to HUP, where they tried angioplasties and eventually replaced a
heart valve. That operation killed him. It wasn't the doctors' fault at all; his
system was just too damaged by then to withstand general anesthesia; his kidneys
just stopped working. They performed the operation only because he would have died
almost as soon without it. Since I was on that campus and even in that hospital
every day, I was able to visit him daily. I never once saw him without Grandmom
Fay by his side, and it was then that I realized exactly why they had married each
other. It was impossible to miss.

Now, they must have been in their
fifties when they married, and they were old as far back as I can remember. I know
lots of people that age now who are nearly as young as I am in every way but
chronological age, but they weren't, and I don't think it was just my youthful
perceptions that are clouding my memory. They smoked and ate heavy foods and had
lots of health problems. They were short and dumpy, wrinkled and gray-haired. They
didn't look like Sean Connery and Sophia Loren; they looked like the sort of old
people you don't generally notice. And, it became increasingly clear as I visited
them in that hospital, they were as deeply in love as any couple I have ever met.
The wrinkles and blood pressure and the occasional presence of an oxygen machine
in their house had nothing to do with anything important. They married because
they fell in love and they stayed that way.

And death didn't part
them, though it tried. She was devastated to lose him, but she was also upset that
he had gone on without her. She told me once that they had planned to go together,
holding hands and walking out into the Atlantic Ocean in front of their apartment
until they bacame part of the ocean. Her family had a talent for dying, or maybe
an unwilingness to live alone; two sisters that had lived together for years died
within a month of each other. She manifested the family talent, dying of nothing
but age and grief within a year after he went on before her. I am very glad I paid
her a visit after I graduated college and before I moved far away; I had a feeling
it was something that needed to be done, and it was. It was the last time I saw
her. There are stories of people who die of broken hearts, but apparently it
really happens sometimes. That was when I learned that love really doesn't take
account of age or infirmity; that it can ignore wrinkles and age spots and that
Hollywood was entirely wrong in showing falling in love as a glamorous thing,
restricted to glamorous (or at least young) people.

That's not all.
My dad is not an emotional man. I think he may have misted over slightly at my
wedding, but I have only seen him crying, really crying helplessly, once in my
life and that was when Grandpop Chuck died. They were no blood relation, and I
don't know whether Grandpop Chuck and his first wife got into foster-parenting as
charity, or to earn a bit of money, or just as an act of neighborliness. (They and
my dad's birth parents knew each other and I think had all grown up together.) But
once they did it, they were able to be parents in a real way to a boy who needed
them. Parents aren't born into motherhood and fatherhood when their children
emerge from the womb; they are molded by love and responsibility. Chuck was my
dad's real father in a way that had nothing to do with the name and genes they
didn't share. My parents did OK raising us, and I can't imagine that my dad could
have done that, or could have stayed married to mom for nearly 40 years now,
without being shown what love looks like.

Posted by dichroic at September 20, 2002 04:59 PM
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