The last time I saw my dad on the mainland was when he and my stepmom were taking a cruise to Alaska from Seattle. My husband and kids and I drove up to spend some time with them before their ship left. Traversing the hilly downtown streets, it was obvious that my dad's Parkinson's was progressing, as that disease does. While my young children zigzagged up and down the sidewalks—peeling off to climb sculptures, steps, and planters—my dad shuffled behind, using their side trips to rest and catch his breath and crack a joke.
My stepmom fretted that he didn't want to use a walker or a wheelchair, which would make the going easier. Though it was difficult to see him struggle against his new physical limitations, I understood why he stubbornly did so: his identity has always been grounded in his body—as a soldier, a police officer, an athlete.
In his pre-Parkinson's life, he was six-foot-one and two hundred pounds. On the days he picked me up from elementary school, fresh off the day shift, he'd unfold himself from his patrol car and loom above us, formidable in his dark blue uniform. The kids—small and weary from a day of jostling for knowledge and power and allegiances—looked up to him, marveled at him, feared him. Later at home, he would change into a t-shirt and be the easygoing father I adored, the one who'd let me draw on his long brown arms and legs when I was bored, the one who'd warm up tomato soup and cocktail wieners and call it dinner. I remember him being playful and relaxed with me, even in those days, when he and my mother were going through a painful divorce.
That afternoon in Seattle, we stopped to rest in my parents' hotel room. My son continued his antics, climbing on and touching everything he could. My husband and I grimaced and scolded, hustling around the small room trying to prevent damage. My dad rested in an armchair, jovially remarking on how many years of trouble we had in front of us.
A couple of weeks ago, my stepmom called to say they were talking to a gerontologist and putting together end-of-life plans. She and I consulted in a strangely businesslike fashion about my dad's do-not-resuscitate requests; she warned me that she needed me to stick to the plan if she, in that future moment, vacillated. I assured her I would hold steady, even as I wondered if I could.
When my dad got on the phone, I asked him how things were going. He made light, as he always does, except when we talked about important things like money, bad weather, and sports. He joked about how my stepmom wasn't letting him eat foods he liked, about how she was a bully, making him stick to his physical therapy regimen. He sounded like the dad of my youth.
Earlier this fall, a friend reminded me that the word inertia didn't mean only what I thought it meant. I'd been thinking about it exclusively as meaning immobile. I'd forgotten the other definition from high school physics class: “the tendency of objects to keep moving in a straight line at constant velocity.” Though either definition describes the life I sometimes live, I'm not sure which should bother me more: being stuck or being on a track, resistant to changing course or speed.
On the phone with my dad, I pushed a little, asking pointedly about the meetings with the gerontologist, and he simply said, “It's hard.” His voice quavered a bit—the Parkinson's? This day? This life? Those two words seemed loaded with weariness and resignation.
Then he quickly reverted to teasing, saying loudly that my stepmom and his gerontologist were ganging up on him. I heard laughter in the background, and he shifted topics, asking about the kids. I mentioned that Emmett was doing well in soccer and basketball; he expressed no surprise, chuckling about my son's activity in Seattle. We laughed. We joked. We were back on track.
TagsConversation, Family, Identity, Oregon Humanities Magazine
1 comments have been posted.
This is beautiful. Thanks for sharing this story.
Kirie Pedersen | January 2016 | Ventura River near Ojai, CA