My parents will be celebrating 63 years of marriage next month.
That coming milestone made me think. What is it like for two humans to live together for more than six decades, day after day, night after night? What is it like for them to bring up five children, including the most naughty – and unpredictable one – me? What do two humans find in each other, what do they discover in their children, that they can be married through thick and thin, without even the thought that they can live separately ever? Why is it that even when elderly couples face the inevitable physical ravages of age – my father has dementia and my mother suffers from a variety of ailments – they are more concerned about how the grandchildren are doing in school than their own, precise place in the afterlife? Why is it that, looking at the 63 years of matrimony that produced my siblings and me, I begin to long for lifelong companionship although that is a receding probability given that I am in my mid-50s?
Why these whys? The answer is as much about my parents as about me.
I remember Mama teaching me to tie my shoelaces. She succeeded. Years later, she tried to explain to me how to win a girlfriend, miserably. She did not succeed. Men are like shoes, but women are not shoelaces. They cannot be tied to running feet. They have to be worn like pendants near the beating heart. The faster men run, the louder their hearts beat and the higher the pendants rise before they fall back on the heaving chests to which they are tied by the chains of fidelity and the laws of gravity.
Papa, I imagine, has jogged his way through life exactly this way. That is why Mama is still the golden necklace around his (now aching) neck.
He is no New Age Man, I assure you, if that means wearing earrings or nosegays or massaging the feet of the spouse in public. My father is a no-nonsense kind of male. He is the quintessential husband. Husbands exist to put food on the table, crack a few jokes at dinner in the rare instances when they are in a good mood, tell (not ask) the children to go to bed soon, and expect the wives to see them asleep.
That is how the children remember their praetorian fathers and their dutiful mothers. But what children do not see (because they have gone to sleep) is how Mama then rebukes Papa for demanding too much of the children, and in her own feminine charm persuades him to give the best for the kids (like sending an idiot like me for my education to England and the US). Papa holds her hands and draws her closer and promises to be a better father for ever – at least for the next day. Forever is nothing but a succession of uneven days. The Pereira children get to enjoy an outing soon with their new Papa and their old Mama. Then Papa is angry again. It does not matter. Mama will pacify him again. Life will shine on the melting ice cream in the park or beach on Sunday again.
My siblings and I grew up in the shade of our parents’ love. We are very different people today. The murderous nearness of childhood – signified by the querulous sharing a contested bed that weaves siblings biologically together – has vanished into the wilderness of separate lives lived in contented peace. Yet, even when I disagree or quarrel with my siblings (as I wrote earlier, I am the most difficult), two darling presences intervene among us. An old man suffering from dementia and an old woman whose smile turns even more beautiful with age so that her husband recognises her by it, sit among us siblings. Nothing we say or do can supersede their hold on us. They are our parents: We are merely their children.
I call my mother twice a day. It does not matter where I am, what I am doing, how much money I have made that day or what I have not made. What matters is that Mama knows that this son of hers remembers her twice a day, a day which he would not have seen without nine months in her womb when he saw nothing.
When I visit my parents, Papa looks at me as if he has never seen me. Confused, he sometimes imagines that I am his grandson (Yipee! I still look young, and hmmm handsome!). How I wish that I had a son whom I could have passed off as his son, Derwin Sr. Then, I would have gladly settled for being his grandson, Derwin Jr. But that is not to be. I have to be his pretend grandson much as Mama pretends that it is all right for Papa to confuse a few little things here and now. Son or grandson: What does it matter? They are a part of the same lineage, train stations on a single line from Papa and Mama Central to the expanding suburbs of the Pereira family.
Sons love their mothers to a fault (their own fault and their mothers’): Daughters do the same for their fathers. But a time comes when, breaking with all Freudian complexes, Oedipus or Electra, sons begin to love their parents equally. My love for my mother is now expanding into an ameliorative embrace of my father, whom I have had to wait to love till my own age tries to catch up with his. I kiss him on the forehead every time I see him.
But there can be no one like my mother. Her 63 years with my father have given me faith in family.