A week before Valentine’s Day, my husband is driving to see my father just north of Los Angeles. Three thousand miles from home, blown tire on a rainy freeway (“Southern California owes me one”), romance is the last thing on his mind. After an afternoon with my father, he will drive to San Diego, drop the car and head to the kick-off of a convention of sullen mortgage bankers and lawyers (those still employed, for now). I talk with him as he drives, reading directions from an online map as he makes his way back to the airport to exchange the rental car. His afternoon in L.A. is an add on to a work trip—and it’s the most romantic thing anyone has ever done for me.
My Dad is in his 80s and I am in my 30s (for a little while longer)—he was in his mid-40s when I was born, not an uncommon age for new fathers in our downtown NYC neighborhood. Pushing strollers, graying hair matching silver Blackberries, seemingly worldly and, from a distance, less nervous than a new parent should be. Stepping out from a Paul Smith ad, they appear well-off, accomplished—as if a baby were phase seven of a long ago written, precisely edited business plan.
What those babies will realize later is that their parents will become old before time has stretched far enough through their own lives to cause them to think seriously (barring tragedy) about aging and mortality. They may be starting families of their own, their careers gaining momentum. Winding down is the last thing on their minds.
Winding down doesn’t seem to be on my Dad’s mind either. He still rides his bike, circling the construction of a new shopping center near his house “to supervise.” He is an engineer, worked on the space program and tried to teach me math backwards from calculus when I was 10. He makes beautiful furniture in the woodworking shop that his loving, patient girlfriend (what do you call the person who lives with your father when he’s in his 80s?) allowed to be constructed next to the lemon trees on what used to be a lawn in her backyard.
Dating back to a trip to Mammoth last summer though, he has had trouble breathing. The night he arrived in the mountains, he awoke desperate for air. A man who is unfailingly calm and calls temperatures below zero “a little chilly” later described waking up in pain, feeling as if he were drowning. By early this year, six months later, he couldn’t walk 30 feet without sitting down to catch his breath.
He saw a doctor or two, but got few answers. He turned to the Internet, self-diagnosing central sleep apnea—a condition about which relatively little seems to be known. He spent a night in a sleep lab, was prescribed an inhaler by a pulmonologist and acted as though the answer were minor and just around the corner.
One day last week, I called at noon and he’d just gotten up. He’d been afraid to go to sleep the night before, afraid of not breathing. The fear in his voice (quickly denied) was so unfamiliar to me as to be nearly unrecognizable at first. Our family is far from Cleaver-esque—I am the daughter of the much-younger second wife, my parents divorced when I was nine, and I have three half-sisters that I am still getting to know. Still, this fear came from the fundamentally stable and calm presence in my world over the last three-plus decades. The man who, despite his background in science and other things nerdy, encouraged me to study history and philosophy so that I’d have a broader sense of the world—and then helped pay for law school when my degree lead to a dead end, at least as it relates to paid employment. The man who drove with me to start law school back East, far from Southern California where I’d lived my entire life—and stopped at the flower store on campus to leave me with a credit before heading home. I was to get flowers if things got hard. I was far from home, knew no one when I started and I came to hate law school. Things got hard a lot.
A dear friend (someone I wouldn’t know were it not for law school, same goes for my husband—dead ends have upsides) called her father, a retired surgeon in South Carolina. In his deep drawl, he stressed that my Dad needed a chest X-ray–now. (As the doctor gave this sage advice over the phone, I pictured my most memorable encounter with this man: An afternoon of drunken Pictionary, punctuated by the discovery of a shotgun in his bathroom).
I called my Dad that night, intent on convincing him to charge the emergency room, demanding a chest X-ray. Like the fear I didn’t recognize in his voice days earlier, he heard something unfamiliar in me—at least rarely seen in the adult version of me. I blubbered and begged, reminding him between sobs that I was usually rational and reasoned—inarticulately asking him to do this for me, if not for him.
He had the X-ray at the hospital on his own terms the next day, was admitted that afternoon and had three liters of fluid extracted from his right lung the following day (it looked like beer, he said). The next day, without an answer as to what caused a pool to form in his lung, he left the hospital. It is still unclear to me whether he was discharged, or discharged himself.
One day later, my husband is across the country, retracing the route toward my father’s house in the replacement rental car. My inner control freak is in full bloom as I berate myself for not being there myself—so far as I can tell, the result of denial, lack of sleep and an ingrained habit that one of us always stays home with our crazy dog when the other needs to be out of town.
As my husband drove down the 210 Freeway, I emphasized core points and desired outcomes (second opinions, careful follow-up—I am paralyzed with the fear that my father will pursue neither, as has been his long-term habit), but mid-conversation, it hits me. I stop, turn from the outline open in the document on my computer (“Dad—how to convince”) and relax (a little). I realize consciously for the first time (when things are good, these thoughts seem slow to jump to mind) that I am married to someone I trust with even the most delicate and consequential moments in my life. Someone who will, without fuss or fanfare, fly across country to try to accomplish on my behalf the thing I want most in the world at the moment—to address carefully and skillfully (and less emotionally, and therefore more effectively than I am able) the fear that has taken to waking me up at night.
I love the pails of roses that crowd the sidewalks mid-February. I love the Empire State Building lit up in pink, red and white. I’m a sap who was married in Florence wearing a big floppy hat, followed by a walk through the Uffizi, bouquet still in hand. This year though, I will happily pass on the flowers. I will replay that moment on the freeway and I will remember the flowers from the campus store during law school. All the roses in the city couldn’t come close.
– Heidi Leonard