My mother, 72, had been a widow for three years when she was set up by mutual friends with Hank, a 75-year-old widower whose wife had died a few months before. Hank lived in Boston and she was in New York City, so they'd spent many hours on the phone before they finally met.
On the appointed day, Hank showed up at my mother's Upper East Side building in a baggy suit, carrying a worn satchel like an aging door-to-door salesman. Mom's doorman, a protective fellow named Mickey, rang her on the house phone.
"There is a homeless man who wants to see you. I don't think I should send him up," he said.
Mickey was overruled, and Hank arrived at her door. With his wide girth, unruly white hair, goatee and Western string tie, my mother thought he looked like Colonel Sanders.
She called me at work. "Hank's here," she stage-whispered. "He has no place to stay. Should I let him sleep in the den?"
"Absolutely not!" I said in the disapproving tone I used with my teenage daughter. It had about the same effect. Hank stayed the night and pretty much never left.
'Isn't he wonderful?'
When Mom introduced me to Hank at a New York restaurant, I wasn't prepared for how sweetly childlike and quirky he was. He did magic tricks on the white tablecloth, including turning a broken toothpick into an unbroken one.
My mother patted his arm. "Isn't he wonderful?" she gushed. "And he's an inventor. He invented computer dating!" She pulled a Life magazine clipping from 1941 out of her Saks shopping bag. There was a picture of a 20-year-old Hank and a couple who had met via his invention, College Match. While an undergraduate at Rutgers University, Hank had started a business matching up couples based on questionnaires he created. He hired students to score them by hand. There were, of course, no computers in 1941.
"It's the same idea, though," Mom enthused. "He could have made a fortune!"
I'd rarely seen my mother so proud of anyone in recent years — not me, nor my children, nor my husband, nor my own father. Dad had died feeling he'd failed my mother. Now here was Hank, who'd worked as an engineer for NASA on the Apollo 11 lunar landing but hadn't had a successful career afterward. He was, however, sexually adventurous.
Mending each other's broken places
Unlike Mom, who had been married to the same spouse since the age of 19, Hank had two marriages and many relationships behind him. In addition, he told me he was a follower of Wilhelm Reich, a notorious student of Freud who believed that sex cured mental illness.
Hank was definitely helping Mom get in touch with her wilder side. She made it clear that she expected me to be her relationship confidante, especially about sex. One day at her apartment, she showed me her new purchases — silk camisoles, thong underwear and a leopard bra à la Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate." I was both embarrassed and annoyed. Why did I need to confront my mother's late-blooming sex life?
I recoiled from her questions. "So inappropriate, Mom! TMI [too much information]! How would I know?" At 50 years old, I'd just had a hysterectomy for early-stage uterine cancer. Here I was, in instant menopause with a long scar below my navel. Frankly, I did not want to hear about my mother's sex life. It seemed to me just another example of her lack of boundaries.
My mother set about transforming Hank's appearance into the man she wanted to be seen with, someone she would be proud to introduce to her friends. He already came with a terrific New York pedigree — one of his brothers was a well-known theater producer — so Mom set out to buff him up. She bought him a Paul Stuart suit, sent him to the barber, got him a manicure. She even put him on a diet. The new, improved Hank wore a turtleneck and a black leather blazer. She entered him in a "Seinfeld" cast look-alike contest and he appeared as Jerry Stiller's character on "Live With Regis and Kathie Lee."
As time went on, it became clear that Hank was making my mother happy. They mended each other's broken places, like Hank's magic toothpick trick. They healed each other's loneliness.
A shared familiarity with depression
Hank and my mother shared more than loneliness. Each had a history of religious searching. They had both experienced bouts of depression, and each had spent time in a psychiatric hospital before they met. A few months after they moved in together, Mom called me, distraught.
"Hank won't get out of bed. He stays in his pajamas all day. I want him to get up. He won't talk to me," she said.
Hank was bipolar, and his prescription drug was not working. This, I must admit, gave me pause and then a flood of pity as Hank agreed to check himself into the psychiatric unit of Lenox Hill Hospital, where he underwent electroshock treatment.
My mother went to see Hank every day at the hospital, and I often went with her. I had never seen her so patient and devoted with anyone. Unlike the bucolic campus where Mom had been treated, Lenox Hill's unit was a gritty urban ward and my mother, in her designer clothes and statement jewelry, made quite a contrast. She sat with Hank for hours, holding his hand. "I know what he's going through," she said. "It's terrible. I won't leave him alone here."
Part of me was resentful. She had not been there with my father the night he died in the ER of this same hospital. She had not shown her husband of almost 50 years the same uncritical devotion she was giving Hank. In fact, her constant complaining and ruminating — symptoms of her depression — had made my father's final years unhappy.
But now, this new man had been able to pull her out of that depression. I realized I did not want my mother to lose that spark — even if it meant I had to listen to her talk about sex once in a while.
Everyone deserves love
Spurred by Hank's need for her and my mother's desire to hold onto him, she had changed herself — become more compassionate, more patient, more loving. She no longer phoned me many times a day with a litany of complaints. By playing a role for Hank (in psychological terms, acting "as if") she actually became the ebullient, charismatic and generous woman she had been years before depression had stolen her personality.
I changed, too.
Resentment at the way my mother had treated my dad finally melted away. I acknowledged that his illness and short temper had contributed to their unhappiness in their final years together.
My heart opened to both my mother and Hank. I knew from my efforts to fill her needs when she was depressed that I was not up to the challenge. So, if she could find companionship, even sexual fulfillment, with a man who wasn't my dad, she had my blessing. She was happy, and I was grateful. I realized that Mom had found love, and everyone deserves a second chance at life and love.
For 10 more years, Hank and my mother enjoyed life together. They never married for a variety of financial reasons. As he aged, Hank grew weaker and finally had to use a wheelchair, which my mother uncomplainingly managed to push with all her octogenarian strength. In 2006, when Hank passed away at age 85 (my mother died five years later), one of his brothers took me aside at the funeral and said with a twinkle in his eye, "He loved her 'til the day he died."
And I knew it was true.
Wendy Schuman has held editorial posts as Beliefnet.com and Parents Magazine. This article originally appeared on NextAvenue.org.