In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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For my parents’ forty-seventh wedding anniversary, we make a brunch reservation at a nautical-themed restaurant called Danfords on the northern coast of Long Island. It’s just my mother, my father, and me. My younger brother can’t make it down from Massachusetts. He is the assistant manager of a sporting-goods store, and vacation time is a luxury he can’t often afford. I, on the other hand, live a mere two hours away in New York City, where I earn my living as a marketing consultant. So my brother visits when he can, and I visit less often than I should.
Danfords is a relic of my childhood, from the days before our town permitted chain restaurants. A few years ago the owners renovated with marble and recessed lighting, creating an effect just short of sophisticated. When we are given a table next to a large Filipino family celebrating a birthday, my father becomes agitated, grousing that we specifically requested a view of the harbor. The hostess, who wears a clingy black skirt and too much makeup, looks around like she might be in trouble. I insist that the table is fine.
My parents have spent the entirety of their marriage on Long Island. They met in 1962 — my mother was seventeen; my father, twenty-two — and were married four years later. She had been raised in public housing and was living away from her overbearing parents for the first time. He was beginning a doctorate in physics, a child of America’s postwar middle class, 130 pounds soaking wet.
The brunch buffet at Danfords is the kind where a high-school kid in a paper chef’s hat slices roast beef for you on request. Over my mother’s objections, my father helps himself to an assortment of salty foods: bacon, sausage, and smoked salmon. These are all off-limits according to his cardiologist, who has compared sodium to poison for its effect on my father’s heart. My mother, a lifelong sugar addict, piles her dessert plate with petits fours and chocolate cake. She is now sixty-eight, and he is seventy-three. Neither is in especially good health. My mother has gone legally blind in one eye, her knees are arthritic, and she has a fist-sized mass on her kidney that requires periodic aspiration by needle. In the past decade my father has twice almost died — once from a botched heart-valve replacement, and then again from its complications. In 2012 my parents spent two months at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, waiting to see if the doctors could save my father’s life. After endless speculation and a risky six-hour procedure, the surgeon assured us that the repairs he’d made would keep my father’s heart healthy for another ten years. At the time this information made me unbearably happy, but now it sits in the back of my mind like a terrible ticking clock. My father would be unlikely to survive a third heart repair in his eighties.
After brunch we drive to the beach. Despite the late-February cold, my father wants to take pictures of a boulder out by the shoreline. The sky is a slate color, threatening snow as we pass through the village of Nissequogue. We have periodically driven the scenic route through Nissequogue — a stretch of colonial mansions and farmhouses along the marshy shore — since I was a child. “You never slept as a baby, except in the car,” my mother likes to remind me. “So I’d drive you to the beach and eat my lunch, and that was the only peace I could ever get.”
As my parents have gotten older, their tendency to repeat themselves has grown from habit to compulsion. My father jokes that I know all his stories because I was in them when they first happened. I no longer mention that I’ve heard this before, too.
Nissequogue is close to the hamlet of Saint James, where my parents first lived together in a tiny cottage with their cats. After a torturous doctoral experience, my father gave up physics and took a job with the county, writing environmental policy. My mother became a newspaper reporter. They protested the Vietnam War and were spit on by Teamsters. They listened to Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, and Simon and Garfunkel records. Whenever I hear Simon and Garfunkel, I think of my parents, or some hazy and shimmering incarnation of them I’ve seen only in pictures.
Within a year my parents plan to move to a “continuing-care” retirement community in Maine. It’s kind of like college, but for the end of your life. You start in a house and progressively migrate toward the community’s assisted-living facilities as your independence falters. My parents are relatively young for such a place, but they have promised themselves they will not be a burden to their children.
Moving will be difficult for them. Their house has fallen into a state of disrepair. Every room, every closet, every corner is cluttered. Paint chips fall from the ceiling, and the basement periodically floods. It appears sometimes that my parents have taken up residence amid the wreckage of another family’s life.
Tacked to the door of my childhood bedroom is a picture I put up during my first summer home from college. In the photo I’m standing in a dorm, all baggy jeans and shaving bumps, smirking and heavy-eyed in front of a pile of laundry. When I look at it, I find I’m embarrassed for this younger self who imagined that you could just choose to become the person you wanted to be — an artist, a writer, a husband, a father. The peculiar thing about adulthood is that eventually you discover there is no such thing as adulthood. There are only best guesses and increasingly permanent results.
“Is that Anne and David’s old house?” my mother asks as we drive past a row of hedges and a brick mansion. “Oh, God, someone’s tarted it up with all that trim.”
Anne and David were my parents’ friends and intellectual mentors from back when they campaigned together for Democratic presidential hopeful Eugene McCarthy. Anne was a science writer; David, a molecular chemist. I visited their house as a toddler and still have dreams of it that involve telescopes and astronomical instruments and stars on the ceiling of their kitchen.
“No, theirs is farther up,” my father says. A moment later Anne and David’s former home appears, under new ownership but looking much as it used to.
Recently a number of my parents’ friends have died or become terminally ill. One developed an aggressive form of leukemia. Another is in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s — the point where your body forgets how to swallow. A third succumbed to complications from diabetes. My parents speak of this in halting voices. They become upset, sometimes angry. They make no attempt to hide their feelings.
We are the only people at the beach when we arrive. Snow and sand commingle on the path by the benches, sculpted by the wind, giving the landscape the appearance of a cold but habitable moon. Along the shore is a series of boulders, half submerged in Long Island Sound.
What does it mean to love your parents? When I was younger, I would occasionally imagine their deaths and the enormous pain I expected to feel when I lost them. They would be easily mythologized to co-workers and girlfriends, rendered in the generous terms of nostalgia: the brilliant scientist and his uncommonly perceptive wife, who taught me how to draw, how to drive a stick shift, how to appreciate the music of Ornette Coleman and Brahms.
But here and now my father will start telling me about the time in New Hampshire when I was eight, and I’ll cut him off, saying that I know this one already. And then my mother will say I sound annoyed, and I’ll claim I’m not, even though I am. Or my mother will ask if I’m seeing anyone, and I’ll tell her: “Sorry, you’ll just have to settle for someone else’s grandkids.” No one will speak after that, and in the familiar silence we will each undoubtedly realize that we’ve said both too little and too much.
At the beach I help my father over a sand dune. During his botched heart-valve replacement he had a stroke that affected his left side. For a while the prospect of walking on a beach was entirely out of the question for him.
I stay with my mother while my father scurries toward the first boulder, taking his camera out to photograph the rock’s texture, the lone gull perched on top. She watches him with obvious pride in his agility. Even after forty-seven years they are young in their affection for each other. The endurance of their marriage baffles me, like a very slow magic trick I can’t figure out. What is their secret? I’ve never managed to sustain a relationship for more than three years, and I worry that I’m defective in this regard. I’m too neurotic, too judgmental, too insecure — too something. The empirical evidence is becoming difficult to dispute. So I’ve never asked how they do it, because I’m afraid the answer will be that there is no secret.
“Hurricane Sandy reconfigured this whole beach,” my mother says while my father takes pictures.
I don’t know when my parents first came here, but for me it was a spring afternoon when I was seventeen. Depressed and inept at making friends, I had joined a local theater troupe along with a bunch of other nerds from neighboring high schools. Several of us drove to the beach one day after rehearsal. We swam out to this same rock — me in cargo shorts, narrow chested, my arms like noodles. For a few hours I considered the possibility that someday I might escape from my hometown into whatever future I imagined was waiting for me.
“All these houses are new,” my father notes as he gazes along the shore.
“McMansions,” my mother says with a touch of disappointment.
There is a tear in the shoulder of my mother’s long wool overcoat. The coat previously belonged to her father, and she’s had it relined two or three times. I’m not sure if she knows about the tear, but it doesn’t seem worth pointing out in this moment.
It would be wrong to say that my parents are poor now. More accurately, they are on a fixed income and need to somehow repair the derelict sections of their house, move, set aside the retirement-community fees, and pay for my mother’s dental implants. I have offered to pitch in, but they’ve said no, which is just as well, seeing as how I can barely afford my life in New York. Sometimes I wonder why I still live in the city, with the grime and the high rent and the constant fear of falling behind. I can think of no other reason than that it is the place I’ve lived the longest. Home by attrition.
My parents had children late and now regret taking so long. They’ve implored me to avoid making the same mistake. I suspect they originally believed they would spend their later years close to their family: me, my wife, our children. But at thirty-two I have no wife, no child, no house. (Nor does my brother in Massachusetts, who is struggling to make his car payments.) Instead I have a fancy studio apartment that will be beyond my means the next time the landlord raises the rent. When my parents visit, there is no room for them to stay the night, no dining table to gather around, not even a cat.
They tell me they are proud of the man I’ve become, and I believe them, but sometimes I’m unclear about whom they intend to reassure with that statement. And in this way I suppose their love for me is no less complicated than mine for them.