Loco Parentis: Beyond Words

The heart really does have a language all its own.

WHEN SHE WAS FOUR, my daughter Marcy’s favorite TV show was I Love Lucy. While other kids were wriggling to Barney’s theme song, Marcy was sitting stock-still, mesmerized as Lucy worked the ­chocolate-factory assembly line or touted Vitameatavegamin. I was perplexed by her fixation with a ’50s housewife, and a little chagrined. But Dr. Spock said the surest way to cement a child’s infatuation was to fight it. So we watched a lot of Lucy, and then that phase faded, and Marcy moved on to Salute Your Shorts.

But I thought of Lucy last spring, when the house next door was bought by a Hispanic family, a mom and dad and four young kids. The parents aren’t much like Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, except that the dad has a charming accent. The kids are lively and silly, and the dad leads them in after-dinner bike rides in a long line, like ducks. They’re an exotic addition to our block. I’m too shy to ask: So, where are you from? But the neighborhood speculates: Mexico? Puerto Rico? I give them extra tomatoes from my garden. The dad mows the strip of lawn between our houses, even though it’s on my side.

In late summer, a young man moves in next door as well. “My cousin,” the dad, Julio, explains. “He’s come to stay with us a while.” The cousin’s name is Mario. He doesn’t speak a word of English, but he has a wide, shy smile whenever he sees me.

“He’s hot,” I tell Marcy.

She wrinkles her nose: “No he’s not.”

“He looks like Edward James Olmos.”

“Edward James Olmos isn’t hot. He’s old.” Marcy is about to head off to college, and she’s cross and contrarian. As summer wanes, she’s always off visiting friends or at a movie or shopping — anywhere, it seems, but home.

I want to spend more time with her, but life is complicated. My 83-year-old dad is in the hospital, in bad shape. He breaks something, they fix him up, he goes back to his unit at Pine Run, and he breaks something else: his ribs, his hip, his back. He’s just as cross and contrarian as Marcy, but in the long run, she has more to look forward to. It hurts Dad to speak, to move, to eat. Only his beloved Phillies still engage him. I sneak beers into his room, and we watch the games together. I find their stately, measured pace a respite. He finds Charlie Manuel’s bullpen management infuriating.

Dad used to be an educator, a teacher and administrator. He would make us spell “mayonnaise” before he’d pass it to us at the dinner table. Our home overflowed with books and magazines; Dad read poetry to us every night before bed. After he moved to Pine Run, he complained about the library’s large-type books: “These are best-sellers!” he’d say in disbelief. “And they’re terrible! Terrible!”

I became a writer to please him. He and I used to argue about words — he had no use for James Joyce; I didn’t venerate Kipling — but he taught me to love them, their nuances and romance and heritage. I was never thin enough to make him happy, but he was proud of me when it came to words. “See this?” he’d say, showing one of my magazine articles to strangers in the checkout line when we were at the grocery store. “She wrote this. My daughter.” The strangers inevitably thought he was nuts.

Now, we watch TV, mostly in silence.

AS EAGER AS MARCY is to leave for college, she frets about leaving my dad. “I won’t see him until Thanksgiving,” she says worriedly.

“You’ve been to see him every weekend all summer,” I remind her. She’s great with him, coaxing her grandfather to tell old stories, making him laugh with animated accounts of her doings. I’m not sure he’ll make it to Thanksgiving, but I don’t want her to know that. So off she goes to her new life on a leafy green campus, and I distract myself from my worries as I drive to and from visiting Dad by imagining the new friends she’s making, the professors who are challenging her intellect, the boys she’s meeting — boys who aren’t put off by her independence and outspokenness, as so many of the guys in her hometown are.

It’s a shock, then, when, just a week or so after we drop her off, I tease her on the phone — “What about the boys?” — and she says, “There are no boys for me here,” so promptly and matter-of-factly that I think she’s about to tell me she’s gay. Instead she goes on: “All they do is drink and party. They’re pigs. They drink until they throw up. They’re all rich. And they’re all white.”

Youth’s sweeping generalizations annoy me. “They’re not all rich,” I protest. “Sixty-five percent of the students there get financial aid. It says so on the website.”

I hear her exasperation sizzle. “You don’t know. You’re not here.” A pause. “Besides. I’m sort of seeing someone.”

I’m amazed. Thrilled. Perplexed. Which of her crowd from back here at home can it be? Tom, who sometimes works out with her at the Y? He’s so nice, and tall and blond and handsome. Or Zak, who was on the school newspaper with her? Or maybe it’s Nolan, whose sly humor makes me laugh. Then again, she was hanging out a lot in August with her friend Gwen, whom I don’t quite trust. God, what if Gwen hooked her up with some shady friend from the food court at the mall? Or what if they met somebody that weekend when the two of them went to the Shore?

There’s another pause on Marcy’s part, a long one, as I run through the options. Then she says, “It’s Mario. From next door.”

Mario? For the past week, I’ve heard him outside every night after supper, talking on his cell phone, clearly to a girl, his Spanish soft and cajoling. “He doesn’t speak English,” I tell Marcy, dumbfounded.

“My Spanish is getting a lot better.”

And it dawns on me: “My God. He’s on the phone with you?”

“Mm-hmm. I can hear you singing in the yard.”

I feel as if I’m inside a wind tunnel, thoughts and emotions swirling too fast to settle. All I can say is what any mom would say next: “How old is he?”

“He’s 21.” She’s expecting it, sounds a little smug. “And he’s not Mexican or Puerto Rican. He’s from El Salvador. He paints houses with Julio for a living. And Mom, he’s legal. He has his green card.”

I burst into tears.

“Mom?” says Marcy.

“I’m sorry,” I snuffle, and I am. Why am I crying? Because he comes from El Salvador? My grandparents were immigrants; I’m not a snob that way. Because he works with his hands? Julio’s house is much nicer than ours, and he has better cars, too. No. I’m crying because I sent Marcy to college so she’d meet someone different from the boys at her high school. Someone she can talk Big Ideas with, who’ll excite her intellectually. Instead … even though I don’t speak any Spanish, it was my job to go over her vocab words with her last year. She’s more on the level of “My aunt’s umbrella” than of Big Ideas.

What do she and Mario talk about on the phone for hours on end?

What am I going to say to Mario when I see him next?

And why did I never realize it wasn’t Lucy who had Marcy spellbound all those years ago, but Ricky?

what boys I think are handsome: the ones with long, retro-hippie hair. I have a harder time with her type. “Him?” I’ll say, pointing discreetly in a restaurant or at the mall, and she’ll snort: “No way!” “What about him?” “God, no.” I do know that ever since we started playing this game, she’s had a thing for mixed-race boys, Hispanic boys, café-au-lait-skinned boys. Who knows why?

But there’s more to love than physical attraction. And after I found out about Mario, I also found out (don’t make me tell you how) that Marcy’s status on her Facebook page had switched from “single” to “in a relationship.” In a relationship? What kind? How close could they be?

“He was supposed to go and get his driver’s license on Saturday so he could buy a car, so he could come and visit,” Marcy reports in a phone call from school. “But there was some sort of problemo. I’m not really sure what.”

Or: “He wants to take me out to dinner,” on a weekend when she’s home. “I’m not sure where we’re going. He has a car now. I don’t think he has a license yet, though.”

They’re gone a long time. “Where were you?” I demand, when she finally returns.

“At a Spanish restaurant. In Phoenixville. Or King of Prussia. Some relatives of his own it. Or maybe they’re friends.”

The ambiguity, the communication gaps, the uncertainty — it all makes me crazy. Not Marcy. Her first month at college, her cell-phone chats with Mario send our family over our (huge) minutes quota. “It’s hard to wait until nine to call him,” she grouses. “He has to get up so early for work.” She carries a Spanish dictionary everywhere, text-messages him endlessly. “He’s learning English, too,” she says in his defense. “He asks me all the time: ‘How do you say this?’”

Could have fooled me. I see him almost every day, as I’m carrying groceries in the front door, or scooping up dog poop out back, and all we ever say is “Hi.” I search his smile warily. We’ve found out so much about each other through Marcy, yet have nowhere to go with the knowledge.

Here’s what I need to learn to say in conversational Spanish:

You better be good to her.

You better be nice to me.

THE PHILLIES TOY WITH DAD in late August, looking like they’ll make a run for it, then collapsing, then rising from the dead. He watches with the closed-­captioning on; he’s stopped wearing his hearing aids. There isn’t much he wants to hear: not the nurses asking, “What’s your name? Your date of birth?” each time they switch shifts. Not the physical therapist nagging him to do his leg-lifts. Not the doctor, who has no cure for what is ailing him: age.

My house is quiet, too, in Marcy’s absence. Doug and my son Jake speak when necessary; Marcy spoke for the joy of it. Doug used to say, with a nod to Aristotle, that she abhorred a vacuum. Sometimes the silence seems vast. I find myself lingering in the kitchen after the dinner dishes are done, listening, through windows that are still wide open in an autumn of uncanny warmth, to the spaces that punctuate Mario’s garden cell-phone conversations, knowing she is filling them.

This isn’t just a language barrier between him and me. Words are how I make my living. They’re also how I stake my claim with people: I tell funny stories, crack bad puns, spout quick comebacks. Bereft of this, how can I make any sort of impression on Mario? “He’s scared to death of you,” Marcy confides. I want to win him over, but I’m handicapped. And, Joey ­Vento-like, a little resentful: I’m too old to learn Spanish. He came here; let him learn English. My grandparents did.

One weekend, he’s driving out to see Marcy when his car breaks down. He flags a passing motorist, calls Marcy on his cell phone, has her interpret for him: Can the man drive him to the college? No, but he can take him halfway. One of Marcy’s friends has a car; a bunch of them pile in and go to fetch him from the halfway point. The next day, on the phone, my daughter negotiates with taxi drivers and the auto-parts store for him. My blood pressure rises as she calls and recounts this story — what a mess! Such inconvenience! What a load of trouble! But she’s laughing, indulgent, unfazed. And I remember, hazily, that when you’re young, everything is an adventure, especially when you’re with someone you love.

WHEN YOU’RE AS OLD AS DAD, on the other hand, everything’s a pain in the ass. “They should just let you commit suicide when you turn 75,” he says fiercely from his hospital bed, as the Phils battle the Mets on the wall above us.

And, “I’m ready to go,” though he knows it makes me cry. He’s been mother and father both to me and my siblings since our mom died decades ago. He helped us plan our weddings, was there for the births of our babies, walked them up and down the block in strollers to give us a moment’s peace. I know the end is coming, know he isn’t scared of death, because he’s told me so. “I’ve had a wonderful life,” he says.

But I’m not ready yet. There’s too much left to say, though I don’t know how to put it into words. So we sit and watch the Phils, the captions flickering on the screen.

“You should leave,” Dad urges. He worries about me driving in the dark. Driving is what’s been taken from him most recently; after his third fender-bender, the doctor told him to hang up his keys. Before that, it was golf, and before that, bike-riding, and tennis … He’s had a decade of letting go of things; he’s getting good by now.

I pour the rest of his beer into his Styrofoam cup, hold it up to his mouth. He gulps it down, nods with satisfaction. He looks at me. His forehead is surprisingly smooth and unlined; his white hair and beard are a little wild. His eyes are filmy; their color has changed lately from hazel to a bluish brown. “You’ve been a wonderful daughter,” he says then. “No one could ask for anything more.”

This is my chance, maybe my last chance. I know he’s telling me goodbye. I’m trying not to bust out sobbing. I’m embarrassed and pleased and frantic all at the same time. I want to say something eloquent, grandiloquent, something a writer would say. And so I tell him: “Same here.”

Same here? God, how unspeakably lame. How inadequate.

Dad nods, though, and waves me toward the door. He’s at a juncture where love loses out to pain in the equation.

I never see him again.

MARCY, HOME FOR THANKSGIVING, stands in front of the bathroom mirror. She’s readying herself for a date with Mario, fussing with her hair. She is shining, aglow from within, unflustered even when her curls don’t fall the right way.

I watch her in the mirror. I am filled with love for her, and filled with dread. She’s on a threshold, just as Dad was, and all I can do is stand and let her go. In the end, I couldn’t talk with him about the Big Things any more than Marcy can with Mario.

All the same, we knew exactly what we meant to one another. Love isn’t blind. It’s dumb.