At first I referred to Mark simply as “51.” My therapist had convinced me to get back out there and try dating. I was 44 years old. I felt washed up. “How?” I asked. “Online,” he said. I signed up for Match.com, worked up a not-very-brave, photo-free profile, and started scrolling. The men fell into a couple categories. Guy with sports theme, guy with gun theme. No kids-never married guy. Video game guy. Not much jumped out at me. Eventually, I came across a picture of a skinny man with a broad and genuine smile. Instead of the typical listing of likes and dislikes, he had written a mock interview of himself with Rolling Stone. It was clever, and funny, and it included honest information about his life, his wife’s passing, his love and care for his children. I clicked. We sent a few emails back and forth, then had a slightly awkward first phone call. He asked me out for coffee. Nervous, I drove to the local Starbucks at the mall. I sat and waited. And waited. Nothing. No one. I went back to my car and cried. When I got home, I emailed him. You don’t seem like the kind of person who would do that, I said. A few hours later, I got an email back. He had been in the mountains fishing with his kids the day before. He’d been exhausted and overslept. He was sorry. Could we try again? And a week later, we did. Same coffee shop. Again nervous, I arrived early and walked around the mall. Across the way, I recognized him from his photos. He strolled to the escalator, grabbed both railings, and literally jumped on. Hmm, I thought.
Guarding myself against the fear of a new relationship, I either referred to him as 51 or “White Sneakers,” a jab at how dad-like his attire could be. My household then was a menagerie of people and animals. Alma and Anya were teenagers. Lizzie and her three year old son Toby were renting a room from us. We had dogs, cats, rabbits. A snake. A guinea pig. While the years leading up and including this arrangement had a certain amount of chaos, our home had a feeling of love, warmth, and family. Mark was calm. A rock. “I got this,” he’d say, always ready to help me. He never yelled. He didn’t curse. He was supportive of me spending time with friends. When I took a trip, he would check in but not hover. He was confident in who he was. He was not needy. “I wish I hadn’t done that,” he’d say evenly in reaction to anything he did accidentally. Break a dish, stub a toe. “I wish I hadn’t done that.” And then he’d clean it up, move on.
Mark’s recent scans and testing show that he has treatment-based damage to his brain. He is cancer-free, and for that I am very thankful. The price that was paid for that accomplishment is beginning to come into focus. “It will help me cope to understand what has happened,” I told the doctor on the phone. And so I have learned a slew of new vocabulary this week. Anhedonic. Encephalomalacia. Cerebral ischemia. “It’s like if a road is blown up,” the doctor explained. “That road doesn’t work anymore, but neither do the things that road connected to.” We need to make sure you get the support you need, he said. “Extensive damage.” “It is not reversible.” “It will be dementia-like.” I scribbled down these individual sentences on a notepad, my eyes blurring and my breath quickening. Over time, the path of progression will become clearer.
I joined the “Early Onset Alzheimer’s Support Group” on Facebook. I am doubling down on routines, trying to engage Mark in brain-stimulating activities, exercise, eating right. I do the cost benefit analysis when Mark asks me to drive him to the mall to get Chinese food. Covid, or brain decline? Sitting on the couch, or walking the aisles of stores aimlessly? I am settling in for what could be a long road. Or a longer road, on an already very long journey.
“Wait ’til you hear my last name,” I said at that first coffee. “Wait until you hear mine,” he said back. We pulled out our driver’s licenses to compare. The next date, we went out to dinner. Mark wore an old, poorly fitting sports jacket, but his effort to take the date seriously was sweet. On our third date, we went to see a foreign film. I hadn’t understood the politics of it, and on the drive home Mark explained them. He didn’t poke fun at me. He was not patronizing. His kindness was winning me over.
Early in our dating, Mark always opened the car door for me, a sweet relict of how and when he was raised. Now I am 51 years old. I hold Mark’s hand and walk around to the passenger side of the car. I make sure he gets in safely before taking my seat behind the wheel. I glance over and make sure he’s remembered to put on his seatbelt. I put hand-sanitizer onto his palm. For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, ’til death do us part. Off we go.