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Valerie Schultz

When my daughters were young, three words struck terror into my heart, especially if they were ever uttered in conjunction with a slumber party invitation. Those words: my mom's boyfriend.

I promised myself that if any friend's mom's boyfriend lived in the house where the sleepover was, my daughters would not be spending the night. I was grimly protective of their innocence of sexual deviance in the world. This was prejudicial on my part: Why would I assume an unknown biological father would not try anything funny with my daughter, but that a mom's boyfriend might? Regardless, if a mom's boyfriend was part of any friend's family picture, I picked my kid up from the party before bedtime.

So it is with appreciation for God's boundless sense of humor that I report the last thing I ever expected to happen: my mother, a widow since my dad died four years ago, safely settled in an assisted living facility, needing help with the most unmentionable of personal tasks due to her Parkinson's disease, has a beau. So I have to say it: This gentleman is my mom's boyfriend.

The staff members who care for the two of them are a bit flummoxed by this blossoming relationship, which they say has never before come up on the assisted living side of the facility where they reside. (I infer from them that the independent living side of this same facility is a regular Peyton Place for geriatric hook-ups.)

My mother and her boyfriend, who is a recent widower, spend a lot of time together at the many daily activities offered. She watches "Jeopardy" and "Wheel of Fortune" in his room every night. They share snacks. They embrace and hold hands, and they kiss goodbye when I pick my mother up for an outing or an errand or a doctor's appointment.

To my dismay, and knowing full well I should be happy for my mother's newfound companionship, I secretly compare this nice old man to my dad, and find him lacking. I discover sad insight into what it must feel like to be a child of divorce.

"What do you think of him?" my mother asks me coyly, like we are eighth-graders together.

"He's nice," I say.

"He asked me to be his girlfriend," she says.

"Well, I'm not going to call him 'Dad'," I say disagreeably.

Then I feel bad. Why would I deny her the joy of having a boyfriend? How old am I? What is my problem? If I say I want my mother to be happy in her golden years, why am I resentful when she is?

My siblings and I moved our mother to this facility specifically for the opportunity for her to socialize and make friends while being cared for in a meticulous environment. I myself encouraged her to reach out to her peers, to seek out the stimulation of her community, to enjoy her life. I should be glad that she has a boyfriend. I should support her romantic relationships the same way I do those of my daughters, and actually of everyone else on the planet. To say that my feelings about my mom and her boyfriend are complicated is an understatement.

And once again: Always an opportunity for new growth in my development as a decent adult, for new acceptance of God's presence in all things, for new depth to my limited compassion.

I find I must stretch myself to be pleasant when my mother wants to talk about her boyfriend, to be kind and ask after his well-being, to include him in family events as though he belongs there at my mother's side. Because like it or not, in this new chapter of my mother's life, he does. He is the man. He's good for her. My mother has always depended on the man in her life to navigate her journey, and now she has found another suitable match.

One of my sisters, sweeter and more understanding than I, has suggested that perhaps our dad, from the afterlife, arranged with God to place this man in our mother's life to ease her through her final years. My mom's boyfriend is, in some ways, eerily similar to our dad, even if I don't want to see it.

My mother's photo regularly appears in the monthly newsletter published at her new digs, often at her boyfriend's side, always smiling and doing something entertaining. She is becoming a fixture there, in a way that she would probably not be in one of her children's spare rooms. It is her home, a home away from any home we ever shared with her, a home where we are visitors.

Ironically, the phrase my mom's boyfriend may become a blessing, rather than the curse I always expected it to be.