an illustration of a wedding

Fifteen Again

When my 78-year-old father called to tell me he was falling in love again after my mother’s death, I didn’t know what to think.

On the day after the 2016 presidential election, my father left a message asking me to call him back as soon as possible. I assumed, for obvious reasons, that he wanted to talk about the election. But he had called for another reason altogether: to tell me that he was in love. Head over heels. “It feels a little like being 15 years old again,” he confessed, a bit sheepishly.

This is not the kind of news you expect from your 78-year-old father. It was especially surprising because my mother—the love of his life and partner of 55 years—had died eight months earlier. Everyone in our family had slotted my dad into the role of grieving widower. 

To make matters even more complicated, the person my grieving widower dad was seeing was an old friend who happened to be a short, Jewish woman named Barbara—just like my mom.

It was a lot to process.

Last summer, my father and the second love of his life were wed, on a sunny day in Maine, surrounded by their children and grandchildren. This was an occasion that none of us expected and, to be perfectly honest, many of us questioned. 

By the end of their vows, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

The proper telling of this story requires a flashback to New Haven, Connecticut, in the early 1960s, where my parents met at Yale’s medical school. Among their circle of friends was another young couple. 

Although my parents eventually moved to California, they remained good friends with this couple. In many ways, the four of them lived parallel lives, working as therapists and raising sons. When I moved to Boston two decades ago, Barbara and her husband put me up while I searched for an apartment.

Nine years ago, the parallels took a grim turn. Within a few months of one another, my mother and Barbara’s husband received cancer diagnoses. He died less than two years later. My mother survived for seven more years but endured two major surgeries and two rounds of chemotherapy.

Throughout these treatments, she remained the emotional epicenter of our family, an indomitable force who adored her grandchildren. Regardless of how sick she felt, my mom lit up at the sight of our kids. She also forged a special relationship with my wife, helping her navigate the pressures of raising three small and rambunctious children.

Throughout all this, my father remained fiercely devoted to my mother. He managed her medical care, took over nearly all the domestic duties, and did everything he could to make sure she remained at home, even as she grew more incapacitated. Our final visit was just a few weeks before her death. My kids asked to sleep in her room on our last night in California. They wanted to be as close to her as they could.

I mention all this to emphasize why the idea of my dad falling in love with another woman came as such a shock to our family. On a certain level, of course, we were all happy for him. What’s the guy supposed to do, we asked ourselves, wait until he’s 90 to find love again? 

On another level, we were kind of freaked out. 

“I guess Dad really has a type,” my twin brother, Mike, joked. This was the line all us kids adopted, to deal with the uncanny likeness between our mom and our dad’s new … what to call her? Girlfriend, we guessed. We worried that Dad might be dodging his grief by throwing himself into the arms of a woman so similar to our mom.

The reaction from my own kids ranged from sweetly perplexed to open defiance. Our youngest, 5-year-old Rosalie, was happy to have a new Grandma Barbara around but also knew that “real Grandma Barbara” had died. Our eldest, Josephine, bluntly announced, “I already have a Grandma Barbara.”

The situation was complicated for the new Barbara and her family, too. She had been a widow for eight years, and her children and grandchildren also struggled, understandably, to adjust to my dad’s sudden prominence in her life. Both halves of the couple were sensitive to these dynamics and did their best to avoid overstepping boundaries. They understood that the children saw their romance as a threat to cherished grandparental attention and that the adults viewed it as a relinquishing of the deceased spouses.

These feelings inevitably spiked when my dad announced, last year, that he and Barbara had gotten engaged.

My older brother, Dave, a Shakespeare buff, jokingly quoted a line from Hamlet: “The funeral bak’d-meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.” The underlying issues were serious, though. How would this affect holidays and traditional family vacations? What about legal issues around end-of-life planning? And the comingling of finances?

I was concerned enough to send my dad a letter, gently observing that he and his fiancée were still living on opposite coasts. “Wouldn’t it make more sense for you crazy kids to move in together before you tie the knot?” I asked.

My dad, who is candid if nothing else, patiently laid out their thinking. First (and most important), they loved each other. Second, they didn’t want to waste time. Third, people of their generation believed in marriage. Fourth, he hoped the formal ceremony would speed the process of integrating their lives, and send the message to us semi-skeptical youngsters that they were, well, serious about this.

After many fraught familial consultations, the date (a Sunday in late July) and venue (the deck of the bride’s summer home in Maine, which overlooked a gorgeous lake) were set.

As part of the effort to meld the families, we all showed up on Friday for a cookout. If anything could help all of us bond, it was vast quantities of food. 

It worked. The grandchildren all immediately connected over gourmet whoopie pies (a Maine specialty) and engaged in an extremely silly poker game.

The adult children were a bit more tentative. But with the help of wine and 17 platters of barbecued chicken, the conversation began to flow. The next day featured a brunch spread with enough smoked salmon to feed the Red Army, followed by swimming, kayak excursions, hikes in the woods, and a journey to the world’s most charmingly cluttered thrift store.

By Sunday, a spirit of genuine camaraderie had taken root. The families gathered on the sunny deck. Rosalie, as flower girl, carefully placed petals on the path leading to the altar, which was covered by a chuppah, the makeshift canopy under which Jewish weddings are conducted. Members of both families read biblical passages and poetry.

When it came time for the couple to deliver their vows, my dad began by acknowledging that this event was only happening “because we each have lost someone we loved.” He went on: “Our partners were vivid, supportive, unforgettable people. There is no way we can have this event today without thinking of them. What a space their loss leaves in our lives.”

A long pause ensued, one filled with much discreet sniffling. 

“At our ripe ages, we have had the joy and fun of something new,” he continued, “the inevitable delight and struggle of two people getting to know each other, but in the context of being friends for 50 years.”

He promised never to question his new bride’s creek-crossing abilities or hiking technique, and concluded with a vow to “try and be the person you so often tell me I am.”

Barbara’s vows were so eloquent and moving that I hesitate to quote them, fearing that I will (again) tear up.

I am not, by nature, a sappy person. I don’t cry at weddings or movies. But the sheer beauty of the ceremony reduced me to a puddle.

We could all see, in that moment, what the writer Graham Greene calls “the heart of the matter”: that these two loved each other, and wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. It brought to mind something my dad had pointed out, which was that both he and his new Barbara had enjoyed long and happy marriages. It was only natural that they would want to find love again.

Every new beginning, after all, arises from the end of something. This can be hard to accept, whether you’re 8 or 80. But the alternative is a life of stasis. That was the most inspiring lesson of the weekend: that even the most profound loss offers us the chance to find something new, if we have the courage to look.

A spirit of loving harmony pervaded the reception meal and the toasts. Nobody really wanted the party to end. And so it moved on to a new phase: the making of music, which was only fitting given that both my dad and Barbara have spent years singing in choruses.

As it happened, it was the grandchildren who led the hootenanny. They played piano and guitar and sang while the newlyweds looked upon them, beaming. 

It called to mind another line of Shakespeare, this one from Twelfth Night. 

“If music be the food of love, play on.”


Steve Almond is the author of New York Times best-sellers Candyfreak and Against Football. His new book, William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life, will be out in June. Email him at stevealmondjoy@gmail.com.

Illustration by Sam Kalda

Originally Published February 2019