In grade school I was horrified to learn that my dad was the same age as my classmates’ grandfathers. I began to obsess about about his imminent death. Grandfathers die, ergo, he would die, probably soon. I started coming home from school, expecting to find the worst. I stood motionless in doorways, monitoring his ribcage when he was sleeping. It was easy to imagine that he was’t breathing. Sometimes I would sneak in to the room to get a better look and examine his face, the deep wrinkles on his cheeks, the slightly angled incisors, visible confirmation I was his daughter.
When I moved out of my childhood home to my own life, every call that went to a voicemail-that-was-not-set-up-yet, inspired an image of him lifeless, ashen, splayed in awkward position on his kitchen floor. More than once I have braced myself, “Ok, this is finally really happening,” and called the police in his small town to go check if he was still alive.
There is a photo of him and me from 1972 laying on a bed covered in a mustard colored bedspread with pompom fringe. I was a few months old. Laying on my side, his head is next to me in profile gazing in to my eyes and the look between us is pure love. It’s a pity the undeveloped synapses didn’t leave me with the memory of that time, it is buried under complicated geological epochs. The years that followed were hard, a few sweet memories might have been a salve for teenage angst. There was chasm of nearly half a century between us. I struggled to win his approval but couldn’t bend myself to his elusive ideal of an obedient preacher’s daughter in the 1930’s.
In the decades that followed, there have been countless arguments and reconciliations. But, the nebulous biological tether that connected us was more forgiving than we were. One Christmas I gave my dad a photo of myself with President Clinton. I knew was not a fan, but I figured when your kid gets to meet a president, that’s a good thing. He was apoplectic and kicked my husband and I out of his house on Christmas eve. We didn’t speak for a year. One day he called me out of the blue as if nothing had happened. It was implied that if I went along with it, we could act as if nothing ever happened. I was so relieved and emotional, my chin trembled but I managed to keep my voice mostly steady. I got my dad back, and the price was pretending he hadn’t been a jerk.
Thankfully, decades of worrying have been for nothing. Today, my dad is 91 and fueled by a rage that cannot be extinguished; rage at his atrophying body, at Obama, but including all democrats, at the cost of living, at his ex-wife my mother, at me for my liberal views. Rage and isolation have made him strong. He lives alone with one eye and a twice healed shattered pelvis that has rendered him the most stereotypical of shufflers.
In the winter, my dad lives on the third floor walk-up of modest condo in sunny Arizona. He believes the stairs keep him fit. He gets coffee every morning at an affluent grocery store in Scottsdale. He brings his own mug and gets a deep discount. He likes to sit and socialize with the other seniors taking advantage of the bargain. They camp out around terracotta tables with a mismatched mugs and talk about recent medical procedures, their families, and politics. Later in the afternoon he takes a nap, listens to Rush Limbaugh, then goes to the VFW for a beer. Dinner is a handful of raw almonds from Costco. I often encourage healthier eating and the reply is “I’ve eaten healthy my whole life, from now on I’m going to eat whatever I want.”
In the summer he lives in Ashton, Idaho, near his farms. He built his house himself with the help of my brother one summer in the 1990’s. Neither of them are expert craftsmen. Yellow mesh dry wall tape can be seen under badly applied plaster in the corners, the porch can only support the weight of one human or risk collapse, the hot water is where the cold water should be. All the furniture has been bought at the DI, which is a cute nickname for the Mormon thrift store in the neighboring town. Everything functions marginally, but nothing works perfectly, not unlike our relationship.
My dad was once a good driver. Family holidays of my childhood consisted mostly of driving hundreds of miles to stay at a destination one night before a the return journey home. In the last decade, however his skills have declined. The drivers of Arizona have been generous and explicit with their feedback. My dad is oblivious to crude gestures, and not worried about the anxiety his driving may cause others. A man who never tips more than a dollar, is not terribly concerned with what others may think of him. He once told me “ A tip is a gift and you never have to give a gift.”
This year he agreed to let me take him to Idaho. I called him the night before I flew in to confirm he’d pick me up. “Oh, are you coming tomorrow?” he joked. “Saturday is a big day. It’s steak night at the VFW.” He says “doubleya” just like George Bush.
He was waiting for me in the exact right place at the exact right time. I saw his truck in the distance and walked towards it. My sleeping bag winter coat was rolled up and shoved in to my now bulky carry-on. It felt good to walk in the warm Phoenix air. As I got closer, I looked more carefully. Where was he? I could see the headrests outlined clearly on both sides of the car,It looked empty. After a few more steps his face began to appear through the dusty windshield. He was there, shrunken within the silhouette of where he used to be.
He got out beaming and shuffled around the hood to me. I hugged him hard to feel if he was any less solid than he was a few months ago. He felt the same. I lifted my suitcase in the back of the truck, which was full of stones and we drove off. Rocks tumbled and clattered around the back, at every turn, start and stop. “Did you see my rock collection?” he asked as an orchestra of pebbles ping-ponged over the truck bed.
Before I had a chance to reply, he started to pull out on to a five lane road in front of a stream of fast moving cars. “Dad! Wait! Don’t you see those cars?” I shouted, immediately reproaching myself to soften my tone. “We’re not in a hurry. Let’s wait until the coast is clear.” I tried out an angelic voice, twisting like a yoga pose to look out the back window. “Ok, after this guy, you can go now.” He lurched into the second and third lanes at about 20 miles an hour. A few moments later he tried to use the indicator, but missed and the windshield wipers began to squeak and jump across the dry glass. We both laughed.
We set off the next morning. He made it clear that he wanted to get to Idaho as fast as possible, no stopping for fun or sightseeing. The endless chime of his unfastened seatbelt accompanied us as we navigated from driveway to road to highway.
Google maps suggested the fastest way is to go north over the Grand Canyon. Incredulous, my dad insists the fastest way is through Las Vegas. “I hope you’re not planning to squander my inheritance in some casino” I say as part of an ongoing joke we have about how much he spends in casinos. He’ll often call me to report excitedly he won $50 or so, and then reveal he spent $100 to do it.
We headed west and passed through boring places with interesting names like “Surprise” or ‘Nothing.” Comfortable silence took over over but not before he tried to needle me a little about politics. He follows the Republican party like a sleepwalking lemming and gleefully mentions he supports outlawing abortion. I took the bait and told him, “As your daughter, you are telling me that you don’t support me or my choices, it’s insulting. Plus you are an atheist.” He replied “I’m a Christian atheist.” I couldn’t argue with that.
I sipped truck stop coffee out of a trough-sized reusable cup, ignored him, and watched the landscape transition from beige to red. Saguaro cacti gave us the finger for a couple hundred miles. My dad fell asleep to the drone of the wheels on the seams of the highway.
A few years ago I got my dad an iPad, hoping that we could share photos and that he could enjoy the splendors of the modern age. It didn’t really work. He has two bookmarks in his browser; one for a site that publishes the daily price for alfalfa, and the obituary page of the Rock Springs Rocket, the newspaper from his hometown.
When we got to Idaho we had dinner at the local diner use their wifi. “Dead, dead, dead” he said to himself as he drew a finger down the screen. “I’ve outlived just about everyone I know, and that in itself is an achievement.” I asked him if he’s afraid of dying. He looks at me like I just asked him to teach me to tie my shoes and answer’s “Not all all, why? Do you think I should be? I’m going to die Natalie, there is not doubt about that. When, where, how, I don’t know, maybe it will happen in 10 minutes. When you get to be 90 years old, you are kind of living are borrowed time, so I am just going to live my normal life.”