En español | My father is the prototype of the Energizer Bunny in his speedy black Pumas, shirt pocket stuffed with business cards gathered while “networking,” cell phone frequently aglow with a ring tone that hints of romance. Most nights, I can hear him shuffle around in the distant rooms of the house we share, getting ready for another evening out. Church group night? Dinner with his lady friend? The movies? Tapas and wine? I never know. I can’t keep up. All I know is that he leaves the house the same way each time. He turns to the dogs and gives them a stern look as he points to me: “You take good care of her, you hear me?” Then he leaves the house, a trail of fancy cologne in his wake.
My father is 80 years old. And he’s getting remarried in October. He’s lived with me for nearly three years, since my mother passed away. He had been married to her for 51 years and had cared for her steadfastly in the final years of her 17-year battle with breast cancer. He came to live with me just days after the funeral, at a time when both of us were deep in mourning.
Of course, we mourned quite differently. My father, who has never been the brooding sort, never one to indulge a depressive thought, kept to his daily routines: Bible study at dawn, crossword puzzles before breakfast, the sports page and coffee, the barber shop visits, the bank, the afternoon nap, all carried out with characteristic calm.
I, on the other hand, often broke down in private as I tried my best to press through my days at work and my evenings at home. I was so close to my mother I was afraid to move on, afraid to let my mind wander too far from the side of the bed where she took her last breath in my arms. And while I dwelled there, in that sepia-toned inertia, my father found love.
One night, just five months after my mother’s passing, he came home from his church group with an outlandish amount of flowers—gifts from the church ladies, he said. It was Valentine’s Day. As I searched our cabinets for enough vases to hold the many bouquets, I could see he was quite dazzled by the attention. Clearly, the church ladies’ act of generosity had turned an otherwise painful day into a memorable one. I took it as a blessing and thought nothing more of it.
He announced the big news one night over dinner with my brother, my sister, and her three children—our family nucleus. Quite stunned, my 47-year-old sister glanced up at me and quipped: “Does that mean we’re going to have step-brothers?” A hilarious thought at age 50, I agreed.
That night I joined my siblings in giving him our blessing. But as days passed, I felt unsettled and a little nervous. Would he be okay out there in a new world? Since my mother’s death, I had worked hard to maintain a semblance of the quality of life she had given him. Although I was away at work most of the week, I planned meals and shopped strategically. I cooked in my mother’s old pots, attempting to channel her secret recipes. I served Sunday dinners on her favorite tablecloth and kept the pantry full of the same labels she once favored: the canned pimentos, tomato paste, dry beans, rice.
A home-cooked meal is sacred to Cuban men of older generations. This is what I always believed. But when my father fell in love with the church lady, that rule went out the window. She doesn’t cook. And he doesn’t care. He’s happy with take-out, cold leftovers, drive-thru window food, and packaged snacks. And all I can do is stand by, powerless, as he heads into a new home—with a cold kitchen.
“You’re going to be an empty nester,” joked a friend when I told him my father was getting married and moving out.
An empty nester. His words resonated in a way I had not expected. Of course, this is exactly what it must feel like to release one’s charges into the world. It is at once liberating and frightening. The empty nester comparison gave me a kind of roadmap into this new stage of my life. The most successful empty nesters realize they are powerless over the situation. They are stoic and generous. They respect new boundaries. But, most importantly, they move on. Gently, happily, and gratefully, they move on.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Liz Balmaseda admits her first novel, Sweet Mary, isn’t the great American novel. Rather, she says, it’s “a funky, Florida-style ride. On a big, fat Harley.”