My dad was still alive when my stepmother, Carla, called to tell me she was thinking of going on a date with another man. "Do you think it would be all right?" she asked. And then she burst into tears.
Since my father's diagnosis with early-onset Alzheimer's, we'd been crying on and off for nearly four years and had become expert at the efficient release of emotion. I rubbed the heel of my hand across my own wet eyes.
"Of course it would be all right." The answer came out quickly because it was true. I knew that the man she visited daily at the Alzheimer's care facility was not the man she had married.
"The timing isn't great," Carla said. "You know that your father is the love of my life, but I'm a partnership person. That's just how I work best."
She and my dad had been a great team. He was an artist and she was an organizer. He colored our mashed potatoes blue and sprinkled sugary dinosaur shapes on our toast while she made sure my brother and I had Social Security numbers and college applications. Carla took such good care of the details that the Alzheimer's was wound tight into Dad's brain long before we realized anything was wrong.
Though I'd had a few long-term relationships, at 30 I had yet to find one that felt as true as the one my Dad shared with Carla. Once we had the diagnosis, I left my new boyfriend, David, in Los Angeles to move back to New Mexico. Because my world had been shaken so hard, I ignored the possibility that David might be "the one" and instead cooked dinners for my family and made sure Dad took his medicine and didn't wander off.
At first, I don't think Carla took my relationship with David very seriously. He was five years my junior and just beginning his career. But he traveled to New Mexico every few weeks, leaving his office in Los Angeles on Friday night and flying back early Monday morning to start work again right from the airport. In between trips, we talked on the phone nearly every day. I cried a lot. David was a good listener. Though he diligently pursued his dream of being a writer, he still made time to be funny and compassionate for me. He was solid and adult in a way that much older men I dated had never been.
I felt selfish for finding love when the man I once knew as my dad was disappearing, and for thinking about my future when my stepmother's own true love was receding into the past. But with every visit to New Mexico — barbecuing burgers, chopping firewood, shoveling snow off the roof — David stitched himself deeper into our lives. Every time he left, I missed him more.
Meanwhile, Dad would ask over and over, "Don't you live in California?"
"No, I live here for now," I answered, again and again.
Alone in my bed, I began to wonder if I'd made the right decision. I loved my dad, and Carla loved my dad, but only one of us was married to him. It was hard to recognize that my love for David didn't diminish the love I felt for my dad, nor was it betraying Carla. After 18 months, I moved back to Los Angeles certain that I'd marry David and start my own family.
We planned the wedding quickly, aware of my father's fleeting ability to walk me down the aisle. On that day in June, I'm not sure Dad knew exactly what was happening, but he was with me as I took the arm of my husband. Happiness and sadness mingled in every breath.
Less than a year later, I was holding a phone to my ear, hearing the sound of hope in Carla's voice, a kind of brightness I thought had all but disappeared. Carla told me about this new man. His name was Eric. He sounded nothing like my father, except that he was kind and funny and respectful.
After I got off the phone that day, I bought Carla a white silk blouse sprinkled with spring flowers. The blouse was romantic. It wasn't something you'd wear to bring in a load of firewood or muck out the horse corral. It was a blouse you wore only because it was pretty and you wanted to be admired.
As I packed up the blouse, I thought about the child I was expecting — Dad's first grandson. I thought about love and timing, and how in our family, we seemed to be blessed with the one and not the other. I thought about how much effort it took to find love and keep it. And I searched through my feelings, trying to detect any residual guilt for my own happiness, or for Carla's. I found none. Carla deserved love. My dad would never have wanted her to be alone.
Dad died a week after my son was born. Eric was at the memorial. He proofread the obituary that Carla and I wrote together. David brought in wood for the fireplace and accepted casseroles and condolences from our friends and neighbors. It was an awkward time, a tangle of change and sorrow and loss, but love was there for the asking, and in that we found solace and joy.
Ward Goodman's memoir, "Leaving Tinkertown," recently was published by the University of New Mexico Press.