My grandparents were married for 55 years.
Growing up, I rarely saw any public displays of affection between them. Yet, their love for each other was indisputable. No, I never heard them call each other “darling,” “honey” or “sweetheart.” In fact, they endearingly referred to each other as “ole fool.” But they were from a different time — a time when girls married their first love and boys asked permission to court their sweetheart. So, I imagine that to them such terms were much too intimate for my young ears.
The first intimate thing I witnessed between them was when I was 21. I had flown back home from university because my grandfather had had a stroke, and I rushed into his hospital room to find my grandmother holding his hand. I was momentarily stunned and embarrassed. But I was also overwhelmed by the love and sadness on my grandmother’s face. Can you hold five decades of love, marriage, births of children, the death of a child, and hopes, and dreams and disappointments? It seemed like she was holding it then in that cold hospital room, ever so tenderly in the warm joining of their palms.
My grandmother always confessed that her marriage was not perfect. None is. But both she and my grandfather were immensely proud that they had held on — for a lifetime.
And she continued to hold on as his circle of life slowly closed. She held on through feedings, sponge baths, and emergency hospital visits. For the next few years she held on to him, sharing his room, talking to him and arguing with him like nothing had changed. But as she sat at his bedside, holding his hand, I could imagine her inner turmoil of wanting him to stay with her, but hating to see him suffer.
My grandfather, now a pale figure in a hospital bed, shared this turmoil. Formerly a strong man with sunbaked skin, he was tired of being helpless and longed for release. But his utmost concern was her well-being — the woman that had been his bride at 17. He had first asked permission to sit with this girl in her mother’s tiny sitting room and similarly sought permission to leave her.
The last thing my grandfather did before he died was to ask his wife, his lifetime partner of over five decades, if he could go.
Gasping for air, he asked her if she would be OK.
Still holding his hand, she sobbed and nodded yes.
Then, she rubbed the gray sprigs of hair on his balding head and with all her love, everlasting love … she let him go.