There’s an old Jewish joke.
An 80-year-old Florida man calls his adult daughter in Manhattan. “Darling, I’ve got bad news,” he says. “Your mother and I are splitting up.”
Daughter is shocked, “My God, Dad, you’ve been married forever. Don’t do anything rash. I’m flying down tonight, and we’ll work this out.”
“All right, sweetheart, if you think that’s best,” he replies, then turns to his wife and says, “Good news! She’s coming for Passover.”
I love that joke. But it wasn’t so funny when I got that call, and it wasn’t Passover.
I was 53 when my parents divorced. They had been married for 56 years when they decided it just wasn’t working out. I was shocked, but not surprised.
From the start, Mom and Dad were chalk and cheese. Dad was a Brooklyn boy with a great sense of humor, love for adventure, and a short fuse. Mom grew up in Loraine, Ohio, in a proper, joyless home whose family crest read, “It’s just not done that way.”
It wasn’t a happy marriage, but it didn’t seem like a disaster, either. They always presented a united front to my older brother and me, rejoiced together at family occasions, enjoyed their station as pillars of the community.
But in old age, their differences became unbridgeable. Mom became more and more fearful about going new places and doing new things, while Dad was desperate to make the most of his remaining time. They had been living separate lives for years, and when the tension became too great – and my father became sloppy about his affair — they divorced.
They aren’t alone. The number of “grey divorces” in the 65-plus group more than tripled between 1990 and 2010, according to a study by the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Evidently, the kids are grown, lifespans are stretching, and couples feel they no longer want to live unhappily ever after.
When my parents announced their separation, my head exploded.
I look like my mother, but I think like my father. The divorce, I feared, would force me closer to Mom (we don’t really get along) and farther from Dad, whose good opinion still factors into choices I make.
I worried how my mother, who has never been alone, would survive without a husband.
I worried that my father, already attached to a woman just a few years older than I, would cut me out of his new life: It happens.
I fretted that mother’s care was being dumped into my lap; and I obsessed that I wouldn’t know when my father was sick or be invited to his someday funeral.
But mostly, I grew more and more anxious about my own, 13-year marriage.
Mostly, Greg and I are happy. But, we’ve had our struggles. Would he leave me when I was stooped and terrified about breaking a hip? Would I take off when his bad knee held me back from stalking rainbows in a new trout stream?
Was there no time in marriage when I could relax and figure, “We’ve come this far; we’ll surely go the distance?”
My folks have been divorced now for 7 years. Mom lives in a retirement community, and I worry constantly about her state of mental and physical health. Dad remarried, and the new wife begged me to fly to Florida when, at 87, Dad worked himself into exhaustion and briefly landed in the hospital: After all, he’s got a young wife and an old wife to keep in high style.
Greg and I are fine and just celebrated our 20th anniversary. We’re sending our son off to college in the fall, and we had a ball trekking glaciers in Alaska last summer.
Mostly, I thank heaven for our solid marriage. But some days I look at my dear husband and think, “Will he leave me today?”