Growing up in a large middle class family in Philadelphia was a serious impediment to obtaining my “own wheels.” My parents not only could not afford a second car for their aging brood, they could not afford the insurance premium increase associated with having an adolescent on the policy. So, I never learned to drive until I was 21. Fortunately, most of my peers shared my predicament, which left us with two options: sponge off the few kids whose parents could afford the luxury or submit to being chauffeured around our parents. I chose to do both.
My friend Kelly had a car and often provided transportation for 10 of us at one time. No one talked about seat belts and car safety in those days. State legislators had just finished raising the drinking age all over the US and were busy resting on their laurels. I am sure it was illegal for that many of us to squeeze into a car but we never once got stopped while the car was in motion. No one ever pulled us over when we did Chinese fire drills or had so many people in the car that arms and legs were poking out of the windows. Then again, with Philly’s violent crime rate I suppose the cops had better things to do. One hot sumer night, we did get stopped when a gang of us was hanging out at a park close to curfew. You should have seen the looks on the cops’ faces when they discovered that a dozen teenagers were sitting on the hoods of two cars literally drinking milk and eating cookies.
The alternative means of transportation available were our fathers. My dad, James, came ready made with a perfect chauffeur name. Sue’s dad’s birth name, Hugh, simply would not do so we dubbed him Edward. Marie’s dad was the most unreliable person on the planet so he never took us anywhere (except once to Great Adventure and he was a hour late to pick me up). Whenever we needed a ride home, Sue or I would call our dads, “James (Edward), please do bring the car around.” I hear that most teenagers find it embarrassing to be driven around by their parents, but it never bothered me in the least.
My Dad came to visit this past weekend to keep my younger brother Keith company on the drive from Philly. My Dad, Keith and Bill spent Friday and Saturday cleaning out the storage room and attending to various other unfinished projects around the house. On Sunday, Bill and Keith took the kids to a water park in nearby Greensboro, leaving my father and I alone. “You and Pop-pop can argue about Obama,” Amelia suggested. It hasn’t taken long for Amelia to figure out how my dad and I like to spend our time together: debating. Well, at least, when I could debate …
Over the last week I have realized that there are two keys to maintaining my sanity. The first is to allow myself to curl into a ball and cry whenever the need strikes, more on that some other time. The second is to get out of the house on a daily basis. The latter presents a real challenge however.
I took Amelia to the orthodontist last week. I made it there but bgean coughing violently upon arrival and puking in the car. She had to check herself in and go through the first part of her appointment without me while I pulled myself together. This is always the risk of leaving the house. Because I never know when and where a bad fit is going to occur, I take the chance of landing on my hands and needs in an aisle somewhere puking and gasping for air. The odds of it happening are greater when I am walking than when I am in my wheelchair; I guess the increased demand on my lungs instigates the fits at times. Unfortunately, I cannot get the wheelchair out of my car alone nor do I have the strength to roll myself for very long. Consequently, I am not a big on making solo trips requiring more than 10 minutes of walking.
There my Dad and I sat Sunday morning, needing something to do. “Can you take my out in the wheelchair,” I asked. He readily agreed and lassoed up Zara, our younger dog. “There’s a nice park over in Chapel Hill with a paved path, we can go there,” I suggested.
Despite having had open heart surgery last year, my father is in excellent health and looks far younger than his nearly 76 years. He is a handsome man, even more handsome than he was in younger days. Like George Clooney or Gary Grant he just grows more and more attractive with time. Despite his petite figure he seems to have escaped a Napoleonic complex. I chuckle at his tiny hands that look like little paws. Closer examination of them reveals that his calm demeanor is a façade; his fingernails are bitten down to nearly the cuticle. He is not ashamed to admit that he sometimes buys sneakers in the women’s department because they fit him better and the selection is wider. But my favorite of his physical features is his hair, which is as pure white as cotton. He went grey very young and was completely white in his 50s. He just wouldn’t seem like my dad without that beautiful hair.
I drove us to the park, which my Dad recognized immediately from the children’s playground days. We used to take them there with their strollers and tricycles. We started down the path, winding first through the playground and rose garden and then through a small neighborhood of cinderblock and shotgun houses. “That’s the one I lived in that burnt down,” I said, pointing at a yellow house a block away. We chatted about the house, the fire, and the sad fact that the roommate that I shared the house with died two years ago in a car accident along with his two-year-old daughter.
The trail first opened in 1995 and linked the eastern side of Chapel Hill to its major north-south artery, then known as Airport Road. Other than the initial part of the trail, where one can here traffic and the barking dogs boarding at a nearby kennel, the trail is peaceful and quiet, containing only the sounds of nature and other trail-lovers. It is truly an oasis with a large variety of trees, vines with leaves as big as my torso, and lots of critters and birds.
On this Sunday morning, my father and I were alone most of the time and chatted comfortably. The debates that long characterized our relationship are now long gone. He knows I no longer have the voice for that and that our words are better spent truly enjoying each other’s company. We talked about the house he and my mother just purchased, how it seemed odd to do so at his age but that he was happy with the decision. He filled me in on all the family news: my Aunt Mary moving back to the city, the plans for my Aunt Dolores’ 80th birthday party, and my niece’s college plans.
At times we talked about my situation. My father is not one for platitudes, “No one can tell you that they know how you feel. They don’t.” He acknowledging my suffering without taking the next step that so many people feel compelled to take. He didn’t tell me, “Don’t give up,” though I know he wants to say it. He holds back his tears, he keeps his voice calm, but I can hear his heart screaming, “Please don’t go.” I don’t think he can bear the idea of losing me.
I have always thought that my dad and I were “two peas in a pod.” We share a profound adoration for the written word. And I inherited my wanderlust from him. When I was young and he realized that I was bright, he constantly engaged me in debates, always taking the opposing point of view. Being a stubborn child I took every challenge and went head to head at every opportunity. He made me a thinker (and a stubborn pain-in-the-ass as well). But the most important thing my father taught me was that displaying one’s emotions is a strength not a weakness, regardless of gender.
At one point in the walk I remarked to him on the irony that he, my 76 year old father, was pushing me, his 39 year old daughter. “I get angry at God sometimes" he confessed, " But mostly I think he just puts us here and then he can’t really fix much of anything.” We continued with our journey. He pointed out a sweetgum tree. “They really should put signs on the trees so people can learn what they are,” he suggested and I agreed. He loves the trees and will spend hours wandering through Pennypack Park, books in hand, trying to identify the different varieties. He asked me about one strange-looking tree along the way. “That’s not the tree you see,” I explained, “It’s the vine covering it. Vines like to live on the trees here.” I thought about the Spanish moss and the wisteria, two of my favorite tree-clinging vines. “It seems like that would be bad for the tree,” my dad observed. “Sometimes I think it’s symbiotic,” they both get something from each other. This concept – that of mutual benefit through shared resources -- seems to happen so easily in the natural environment yet is somehow lost on us humans at times, like we are all still 2 and playing in the sandbox.
We were silent for a little while. “I love you Dad,” I said, voice cracking. He ruffled my hair, expressing everything without saying a word. It’s hard to admit how much you need someone, how much you love them, how much it hurts. There we were, my elderly heartbroken Dad keeping me moving, literally and figuratively, while I feed the hope in his heart that, with help, I can keep embracing the joy that remains available to me and fighting one day at a time to accept this new life that I have for as long as I have it. Symbiosis, indeed.