Howie was insistent: “Dad, I want to get you signed up before you start back.”
“We’ve just buried your mother, for God’s sake!” Howard balked. “I haven’t been a widower two weeks yet!”
They had returned this morning with fresh flowers, just the two of them, yesterday’s handful of mourners already a distant memory.
The cemetery, with its sculpted trees and manicured lawn, was a bright green postage stamp in the wheaten vastness of the Nebraska prairie. One horizon was punctuated by the town’s lone church steeple and, in the nearby railroad yards, stark concrete-tube grain silos. In all other directions the flatness went on forever.
Ellen had wanted to be buried here, in a family plot, close to the Platte River and the sandhill cranes she remembered from early childhood. They had come once, years ago when she was vibrant and coherent, to marvel at the birds — wheeling through early spring skies to glean any kernels that escaped the fall’s harvest, roosting and croaking on river sandbars at night — and to make basic arrangements for them both at the cemetery. It had not seemed so windswept and bleak then.
“Two weeks? More like two years, Dad. Longer, really. Three, at least.”
Which was true. He’d managed to keep her at home for the first few years, although powerless to slow her descent into the grip of the damned disease. The day had finally come when he begged Howie to come to Connecticut for a few days to help with the move to Harmony Acres. They got Ellen into the “memory unit” – a euphemism for no-memory, their son complained – and then moved Howard himself into the adjoining apartment block, walking-distance away.
As she slipped inexorably into the vacuum of Alzheimer’s, he had indeed gradually become, emotionally, a widower. Not a day went by without his spending a few hours with her, every day harder. Near the end, nothing he offered could prompt the least remembrance of friends or family, distant lands visited, theater moments, signal achievements — anything of their rich lives together. He counted it a blessing that she never entirely forgot her husband and her own children – and at the end, a blessing that pneumonia spared her more days or weeks or months or dear God years of blank existence.
Meanwhile, he’d settled into the life of a vibrant retirement community. He made new friends, far from alone in having a spouse in the memory unit or recently snatched away. He steadfastly renewed subscriptions to pairs of tickets to the symphonies, operas, chorales, plays and musicals that had been such a part of their lives. He invited his new friends, both men and women, to keep him company using “Ellen’s ticket.” He always made clear that he considered himself a married man, company for an evening but nothing more.
Now he was headed back to Harmony Acres fully a widower, and Howie wanted him to look around for new companionship through an online dating service, a damnable app on the new smartphone he was still learning.
“Dad, you’re just seventy. Gramps and Gramma lived twenty years beyond that.”
“Doesn’t mean I will.”
“Not a certainty, maybe, but likely; it’s in your DNA.”
“I looked at the website you sent me to. All that stuff about ‘renewed intimacy in your golden years.’ Like they were selling donuts.”
“Well, I guess they’re in business.”
“And when you scroll in a few pages, they’re invasive as hell.”
“You’re one up on me, Dad; I haven’t looked. Tell me what that means.”
“Can’t remember it all offhand. They want me to write down all my hobbies and habits. What I eat. What I wear. Excruciating detail. What I watch on TV. How far I walk every day. And what kind of woman I’m looking for.”
“First of all, I’m not looking for a woman; that’s your idea.”
He paused. His gaze on the freshly-laid, too-bright green sod a few feet away blurred unexpectedly. A light morning breeze was rich with the smell of ripening grain. From the distant rail yard by the grain siloes came the throaty mutter of a Diesel engine and the high-pitched, mourning bleat of its horn.
Finally: “And I never gave your mother a catalog of things she might not like about me. In our day, you found out the faults little by little.”
“In my day, too,” Howie admitted. “After we’d found out the things we liked, I guess.”
“Exactly. This online stuff is selling instant – what? friendship? love? intimacy, whatever that’s supposed to mean?”
“Maybe not instant,” his only son replied. “Just a few shortcuts.”
He felt himself warming to the argument, the incipient tears dried. “Your mother and I didn’t need shortcuts. We dated, began to more than just like each other. And if we’d decided it wasn’t going to be a good match, we’d have looked elsewhere.”
“Mmmm. Seems like you could save some time with this computer matching.”
He looked out at the fields of grain. “Winnowing.”
“Yes,” Howie said. “Getting the chaff out of the way, maybe.”
“You assume I’m looking. Threshing. I might someday. More likely, may never.”
“Dad, Sue’s out on the West Coast; I’m down in DC. We don’t want you to be lonely.”
“Son, your mother was pretty special. Almost fifty years. It’s not like I’ve lost a fork, hurrying to find a replacement so I won’t starve. I have friends. I’m not saying it’s impossible I might discover a special friend, but that would take time to ripen. What I don’t need is . . . .”
“Instant intimacy? I hear you, Dad. Forget the app. Let’s start back.”
The freight train bleated again, hoarse, more distant now, its voice falling. He bowed his head, eyes moist again, fixing the sound in his memory, an element of this Nebraska scene to cherish. Like the cranes, he would someday come back, to be again with Ellen.
“All right,” he said at last. “Let’s go.”
First published in Nightingale & Sparrow Issue 5, Love February 13, 2020