When my father died in 2013 after 51 years of marriage to my mother, I knew that my mother would eventually find her footing again. What I did not expect was that she would fall in love and that it would be the same giddy, joyful passion that Hollywood thinks belongs only to the young.
Lyn and Hans’ story begins with a car accident.
Lyn was living in an independent community for older adults, driving herself and occasionally, her friends, to their various activities in my father’s old Subaru Forester. Sometimes, she would complain that the car would do “strange” things. My brothers and I were never sure whether it was the car or her driving, and gently encouraged her to take the bus instead. None of us lived near enough to help her get around. One brother lived on the opposite side of Seattle from Lyn’s apartment; the rest of us lived in Maine and California.
But some of Lyn’s activities, including going to church and participating in a women’s organization, required a car. So, on this particular morning, she was driving a friend to a meeting, when Lyn accelerated instead of braking, and her car was struck by another vehicle. Although she was not injured, her friend lost her hearing when the airbags deployed, and Lyn realized then that she no longer had the confidence to drive and gave it up that day.
This decision left her without transportation to the Episcopal church she attended, and so she called her priest, Kate, and asked if there was anyone in her parish who could give her a ride.
Kate sent Hans.
Hans lived with his daughter just a few blocks from Lyn’s apartment, so it was a simple thing for him to swing by and pick her up each Sunday morning.
The first morning, Lyn called me in Maine to tell me that she had met “a nice German gentleman” who was gentle and kind and willing to drive her anytime she needed a ride. Over the ensuing weeks, she revealed more of his story. He had immigrated from Germany as a 16-year-old in the early 1950s. He had enjoyed a career as a college professor and now bought and sold antique watches.
And he was married to a woman named Joan, who lived in a home for people with dementia.
Even across the miles, I could hear the delight in my mother’s voice and almost see the stars in her eyes as she spoke of him, and so I found myself giving her the advice she had given me as a teenager four decades earlier, when I was interested in someone she deemed inappropriate. Guard your heart. He’s not free. It’s best not to think of him as anything other than a friend. Can you get a ride with anyone else?
My two youngest brothers and I exchanged a flurry of worried text messages. What if Hans was a Nazi? He’s about the right age! Mom can’t date a Nazi! He’s using her. He’s lonely and wants a companion. She shouldn’t be dating a married man.
In October 2019, Hans and my mom came to visit us in Maine. Hans needs to stay in the downstairs guest room, she told me. I’ll stay upstairs. One night after dinner at my daughter Abigail’s house in Brunswick, Abigail confided, Mom, I really didn’t want to hear about Nana and Hans’ first kiss! They shouldn’t be dating anyway.
In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic struck my mother’s apartment building, and the management imposed a lockdown. No one was supposed to leave the building, and if they did, they’d have to quarantine in their apartment for two weeks. Within days, the city of Seattle ordered residents to stay at home.
Hans’ daughter Christa immediately invited my mom to come and stay with her and Hans so that she’d be able to see Hans in spite of the lockdown. I’ll be staying in their spare room on the lower level, my mother assured us. Hans is upstairs on the main floor. Lyn packed a suitcase and left her apartment, uncertain of when she’d return.
Christa’s partner Scott, who was dying of bone cancer, also lived with the family. As the pandemic raged and the lockdown dragged on, their lives increasingly became intertwined. They took turns caring for Scott, bringing his meals, and making sure he had companionship and adequate pain relief. Lyn, an avid gardener, began planting flowers in Christa’s backyard. Prior to the lockdown, they had been visiting Joan almost daily in her nursing home, my mother rubbing her feet as Hans read to her, but now their visits took place through the window. On Sundays, they went to “parking lot church,” where Kate, their priest, stood and delivered a homily while the parishioners sat in their cars.
Both Scott’s and Joan’s conditions worsened. Scott’s mother arrived and joined their household to care for him. Christa sent me a picture of her mother, looking frail in her hospital bed, that she had taken through the nursing home window at their Mother’s Day visit.
And I began to understand how this unexpected romance could come to be. My mother, who had navigated 51 years of marriage to a conflicted man who verbally abused her and physically abused his children, was experiencing kindness and peace in a partnership for the first time. Hans’ wife Joan suffered from bipolar disorder and would periodically leave with another man. Hans stayed because he knew she needed care when her medications failed or when she failed to take them. Both Hans and Lyn knew how to navigate rough waters.
Scott died in July, the day Hans turned 85. He waited until after we had finished Dad’s birthday dinner, Christa told me later. But he took the microwave with him. It stopped working right after he died.
Less than a month later, Hans received a call from the nursing home where Joan lived. She had developed a cough and was having difficulty breathing. They sent her to the hospital. Hans drove there right away. A few hours later, Joan, too, was gone.
In early September, Hans and Lyn decided to get married. None of us were surprised. At “parking lot church” that Sunday, they asked Kate to officiate at their wedding. Kate was giddy with delight, as this would be her only wedding in 2020. She shouted her congratulations through her mask and then announced the news to the rest of the parishioners, who honked their horns and flashed their headlights.
My brothers and I texted one another. Do we call Hans our stepfather? He didn’t raise us. How about just calling him ‘Mom’s spouse?’ Christa decided to refer to Lyn as her “bonus” mom.
My mother asked me to write a poem for Christa to read at the ceremony. My son-in-law, a composer married to Abigail, offered to record Abigail singing a piece he had written. Since only 10 people would be allowed in the church, I asked my brother Dave to set up a livestream so that we could watch the wedding in Maine. We sent the link to friends and family.
Over the next few weeks, Lyn called me to discuss her outfit and her flowers, as well as to ask how she could convince Hans that he needed to get rid of half of his stuff, since it would not fit into the new apartment they had chosen. I reminded her, as she had once reminded me, that they would both have to give up some things.
After the rehearsal, my brother Dave called me. Mom looked up from signing the marriage license and asked me what her new name was supposed to be, he said in disbelief. Shouldn’t she have figured this out already? I texted my mother. You get to decide what you want to be called, I told her. You have a choice now.
On December 5, 2020, my family and I sat in our living room in Union, Maine, and watched on our television as Lyn and Hans said their wedding vows through their masks. My brother Dave and his family attended in person, and Dave held her arm as he walked her down the aisle. Lyn’s youngest grandchildren, Lexi and Josh, had decorated her cane with Christmas lights. Christa, remembering her own recent losses, read my poem about late-in-life love. Hans’ son Paul gave a blessing. Abigail’s clear soprano set to her husband John’s composition rang out as they recessed down the aisle.
Lyn Melton-Dahlke and Hans Dahlke just might live happily ever after.