“When Frank Met Mary?” is inspired by personal experience and navigating double dementia divorced parents. Hopefully, it offers a humorous perspective of a common issue affecting millions as our parents age. By creating a light-hearted environment, it seemed to help everyone cope with a sad and fraught situation.
Frank and Mary married in 1955. He was a bebop jazz musician, and she was in teacher’s college. They met at a jazz club on 52nd Street, known as Swing Street in New York City. They were deeply attracted to each other, although Frank had concerns.
“Mary, you’re not hip.” Frank would complain.
“Face it, Frank. I’ll never be hip.” Mary would respond.
By the 1960s, the couple ended up in New York area suburbia when Frank’s career shifted to sales and Mary taught kindergarten. Their house became the scene of all night bop jam sessions with the accompanying drinking and smoking wacky weed. In the morning, Mary would flush all the remaining marijuana down the toilet, terrified of getting raided and losing her teaching job.
Along came two daughters, Anna and Laura, four years apart. While Frank would have liked a son, he stuck around for the ride. He treated his eldest, Anna, like she was the son he wanted, and then later, as a surrogate wife once Mary checked out emotionally from the marriage in the late 1960s. Frank often dragged twelve-year-old Anna out for a Chinese dinner after ten pm to talk about his work and life in general.
Frank and Mary’s marriage deteriorated alongside Richard Nixon’s presidency and the 1970s economy. Frank’s gambling, womanising, and untreated bipolar disorder only accelerated the inevitable break-up. Their divorce in 1975, after twenty years of marriage and two daughters, was contentious. Mary was filled with rage over his philandering and gambling away their future at the racetrack.
Frank, usually an elegant dresser, showed up at divorce court in a shabby suit and his psychiatrist’s declaration that he was too unstable to hold a steady job and pay child support. Mary’s attorney, who became her boyfriend, forced teenage Anna to testify that her parents had no carnal relations for the previous two years.
“Why bother? She’s frigid” Frank piped up at the court hearing. The judge ignored him.
Frank blamed daughter Anna for the divorce. “It’s your fault,” but provided no rational reason. He complained bitterly to both daughters about his now failed relationship with Mary.
“I was a kindergarten student for twenty years! Never treated me as a husband. She’s a cold bitch.”
The girls would be subject to an incessant diatribe on Mary’s mental health. “Your mother needs treatment. Get her to therapy.” Frank would insist to his daughters.
Mary was incensed that Frank found love again and married shortly after the divorce. His new wife, Veronica, had just turned thirty and was fifteen years younger than Frank. Anna, at eighteen, hoped a new wife would take the pressure off her. Despite being newly married, Frank continued to berate Anna over the divorce in person and by phone.
In desperation Anna called her new stepmother. “Veronica, can you make Frank stop calling me at work."
It worked for a time, but Frank then continued calling Anna until she moved to Asia in her twenties. At that time, international phone calls were very expensive, so Frank’s calls stopped.
Mary began dating even before the divorce and had a series of relationships. Strangely, they all ended with the guy cheating on her. She survived three cancer battles but carried on with her long-standing resentment against Frank. Mary felt Frank didn’t deserve having a new wife and life.
After Mary’s third battle with cancer and chemo in her early eighties, she underwent a personality change and was clearly entering dementia. Frank faced his own cancer battle in his late eighties. After chemo, radiation, and multiple surgeries with anaesthesia, it tipped him over the edge into dementia as well. Watching both parents sink simultaneously into the alternate reality of dementia was heartbreaking for Anna and Laura. Veronica missed her charismatic, although hard-to-handle, husband of forty-five years. The old Frank was gone.
Both Mary and Frank had been vibrant characters but were now descending into their own worlds and alternate realities. Their former selves, bright and quick-witted, would have been horrified had they been aware they would one day both face such mental decline.
Anna and Laura tried to maintain a fun and entertaining attitude for them and found surprising advantages to their condition. The dark comedy environment they had had as children continued, albeit with a different spin. When Anna announced she was dating a new beau named Joe, Mary was convinced there were wedding bells in the future.
“I’m not going to your wedding!” She announced, “I threw away all my mother-of-the-bride dresses after your last wedding to the bipolar angry Italian and your sister to that other horn player, what’s-his-name.”
This was not entirely unreasonable as Mary and Frank had had two daughters and six sons-in-law over four decades. That didn’t even count Anna’s common-law marriage to a socialist playwright from Liverpool. He was older than Frank. Laura had made the snarky comment, “Daddy issues?” to her sister. Anna, in turn, teased Laura about marrying two jazz musicians in succession, “Who has the daddy issues, now?”
Frank continued to deteriorate physically and mentally, displaying processing issues in his late eighties. Wife Veronica became, “that lady.” His daughters were also strangers. Frank grilled Anna on her residence, religion, where she was born, and marital status. He broke into laughter when Anna told him she had been married three times. All the answers to Frank’s questions seemed to amuse him so Anna played along with the idea they had just met.
Frank and Mary continued to play piano with the same skill as before. He played his original compositions, sweeping cocktail piano and 1960s Mancini-like movie themes. She favoured pop music, Broadway, and Christmas tunes in July. Mary often sang during meals and remembered all the lyrics.
There were many positives about Frank and Mary losing their memory. Frank would no longer give unsolicited advice and get angry if his daughters didn’t follow it. There were no more political rants and only small amounts of his pension disappeared at the racetrack. Eventually he couldn’t figure out how to make bets but just enjoyed the racetrack ambience of fellow gambling degenerates and the hot dogs.
Decades post-divorce, Mary had been resentful of her daughters spending any time with Frank and Veronica. For years, Anna and Laura concealed any mention of visits to their father and his wife. Now, they didn’t have to hide visiting them as Mary didn’t remember they existed. Mary held a grudge for over forty years and hated Frank until her dementia took away memories she even had of an ex-husband. Frank also ceased rants over Mary’s mental health and had no recollection of who she was.
After Mary’s married divorce lawyer boyfriend of thirty-five years died, she barely reacted. A few hours after reading his obit in the local newspaper she announced, “I think I’ll call his wife and ask for my house key back.” The decades long affair was there somewhere in her brain.
Mary couldn’t remember having three kinds of cancer and the gruelling treatments. When Anna or Laura pointed out they were her daughters, Mary replied, “Impossible. You’re just making that up.” Yet both Mary and Frank easily recognised actors in old classic movies. “That’s Myrna Loy, Barbara Stanwick, Clark Gable,”
It was a clean slate for Anna, Laura, and Veronica as they became strangers to Frank and Mary who were now 92 and 90 respectively. No longer did the parents push any buttons for the daughters, and all interactions reduced to light conversation. The fights, confrontations, and resentments vanished, replaced with small talk and fleeting recollections of people and places.
A long proponent of healthy eating, Frank was an amateur gourmet chef who banned soft drinks and fast food when his girls were young. One day, they watched him scarf down a McDonalds burger and a large Coke after a chemo infusion. His former self would have been shocked and would have probably said to, “just put a bullet in my head.”
Frank called Laura one day while she was dressing Mary.
“I went to bed with twenty grand in my pocket and when I woke up it was gone!” Frank sounded frantic.
Mary, naked on the bed after a shower and refusing to get dressed, asked who was on the phone. Laura replied, “Frank” and put him on speaker phone as he ranted about the missing money.
“Did you check under the pillow?” Mary asked, and he responded, “Good idea.”
When Veronica overheard this interchange, she had an epiphany. Why not house Frank and Mary together with one caregiver? It would save all of them money as they were both paying for daily helpers.
“What if they kill each other?” asked Laura.
“Do they have the strength? He weighs 115 pounds at six foot two. And sounds like Mary can barely walk.” quipped Veronica while the two daughters shrugged.
At this stage, neither Frank and Mary remembered being married to each other or anyone.
Frank would quiz Veronica at three am, “Are you married?” Then Frank wanted to drive home to his daughters but couldn’t remember their names. He repeated this nightly for a week. Veronica took that as a sign that he should be together again with Mary for their final years.
Veronica had grand plans for her widowhood. It helped her cope with Frank as he declined, became belligerent, and obsessed with his Korean war memories. After Frank’s passing, she planned an around-the-world cruise first, followed by having horses on her property.
Laura and Anna could not begrudge her. If it wasn’t for Veronica, Frank would have been a homeless war vet. They lived on her pension. Frank’s full-time caregiver was a big expense and Veronica wanted something left for herself. Anna and Laura couldn’t begrudge Veronica as she had put in over four decades dealing with Frank. Veronica had also helped the girls out with their educational expenses when Frank couldn’t. And who knows what Frank would have been as a divorced bachelor and no one to rant at? They were more than grateful that Veronica was Frank’s “minder” for decades and dealt with his bipolar behaviour and now PTSD from the Korean war.
Mary had always been frugal but sharing costs would allow her to stretch out her savings and have quality care for another decade if needed.
It seemed like a great idea, but Veronica felt she had to warn her stepdaughters of Frank’s desire for intimacy. What would Mary do or say if Frank tried to have relations?
“Separate bedrooms.” Laura suggested.
“And cameras we can monitor remotely,” piped up Anna.
It made sense to move Frank in with Mary as she lived in the same house that they bought and furnished together sixty years prior. She still had most of the original furniture and the same artwork on the walls. It included a large oil painting of a sad clown painted by Tony. He was Frank’s boyhood heroin addict friend who had tried to destroy his painting with a knife. Frank took the knife out of Tony’s hand after one slice at the top and gave him fifty dollars for the painting.
Frank may feel at home or that he never left. They moved his armoire into the spare room and the wood cabinet he kept his jazz vinyl records. The cabinet still had the round stains of his martini glass. They hung the sad clown painting by Tony, long overdosed, over Frank’s bed.
Anna sent photos of the bedroom set up to Veronica and she thought it was perfect. Veronica was convinced this plan would work so she placed a down payment on the 110-day round-the world cruise. She would wait to finalise her plan when they settled on a caregiver.
They had a short list of two women and a spry sixty-year-old Filipino man named Manoy. Veronica pointed out the women were probably not attractive enough for Frank to be interested in. They weighed the pros and cons, and liked Manoy the best. He seemed to be very easy going and was cheaper than the women. Although they would need a female aide to bathe Mary or do it themselves as Laura and Anna had been for the past few years.
They installed Manoy in Mary’s home so he would get used to the house and her routine. Manoy had physical therapy training and envisioned the couple doing exercises together. He thought it was so romantic that these two divorced people would spend their last days together. He assumed, and no one corrected him, that Mary and Frank wanted this arrangement.
They transported Frank with several suitcases, a CD player, and boxes of jazz recordings to Mary’s house. Their daughters re-introduced Mary her to the ex-husband that she hadn’t seen since the many weddings of thirty plus years before.
“Frank meet Mary” Anna said.
“Mary this is Frank, he’s going to stay in the spare bedroom for a few days.” Laura added.
Mary didn’t react to that news but remarked later, “He looks a little familiar.”
Anna and Laura blanched; would Mary realise she was living with the ex-husband she loathed for decades?
Frank looked at Mary. “I know exactly who YOU are, that broad that stiffed me in Vegas.”
Neither Laura nor Anna knew anything about the Vegas incident and said nothing. Everyone ignored Frank and Manoy changed the subject to food.
Manoy found Frank and Mary mostly entertaining but a lot of work to coordinate their eating and sleeping schedules. While Frank told his Korean war stories, Mary reminisced about her kindergarten students and old lovers. Very soon after the cohabiting, they had one big problem.
Frank insisted on playing the piano and would shoo Mary off the bench.
At first, Mary recognised Frank’s playing. “I’ve heard those chords before,” she noted. Frank tended to play the same chords and tunes for decades. He berated Mary for playing Burt Bacharach music.
“Why are you playing that garbage?” Frank asked and approached the piano to examine the sheet music.
"I like this song. Go home.” Mary suggested.
Manoy sided with Mary as he too liked Burt Bacharach tunes. He had a nice voice and would sing along when she played. Frank admitted Manoy sounded good and suggested he get a job as a hotel lounge singer as a second career.
Anna and Laura were informed about the piano situation. They apologised to Manoy as they had forgotten about Frank's habit of hogging the keyboard. They moved a second piano into another room. That didn’t stop Frank from encroaching on Mary’s piano time. Frank sat next to Mary on the piano bench and banged out his favourite chords.
“See the difference. These are hip chords.” Frank said.
“I don’t want to play hip chords.” Mary insisted. Frank shook his head as Manoy cajoled him to return to his piano in the other room.
The cohabiting arrangement didn’t last long as Frank had a major stroke and died a few days later. Mary didn’t notice Frank was gone or remember he had ever been there. She carried on with her life with Manoy singing Burt Bacharach tunes while she played the piano.
One day Manoy was overcome with emotion after singing a love song and declared, “Frank was wrong. You’re very hip, Mary.”