LA Affairs: How my partner gave me more time with my father
I never really considered moving back to my home state of California after college. Like so many children, I wanted the opposite of what I had known growing up in Pasadena and Irvine. Among other things, I wanted to live somewhere with changing weather conditions so that I could wear seasonally appropriate outfits including hats.
New York City was a match for this project, so in the 1980s I moved east, finished my journalism degree, and landed a job. Magazine publishing was flourishing, and as a young woman starting her career, I felt I had found my place forever. My dad and I wrote postcards every week. On mine, decorated with scenes of Central Park in the snow and the like, I shared my daily life. His postcards were like the art he loved to make: decorated with collages he created with colorful bits of contact paper, pictures from magazines, and all the pieces of rope, foil or wool. steel he found around his house. He was writing about volunteering at the Yucaipa library, where he had recently moved, his adventures reading stories at a local radio station for the blind, and his work on the golf course down the street.
I tried to visit twice a year, budget and time permitting, and we would peruse thrift stores – clothes for me, picture frames for him – and sit on his porch to talk as the sun went down. on the mountains of San Bernardino. Then, even though it felt like my journey had only just begun, it would be time for me to go. As I walked out of his driveway, I still felt our conversation had been abruptly interrupted. But I was coming back to a life that excited me, a city that still fascinated me.
I sometimes wondered if a girl could live alone with the ups and downs of her career. After more than 20 years of riding the roller coaster of lost and found New York City, and then inevitably lost again, I have met someone whose heart was beating at the same rate as mine. Dennis, an actor, music lover and builder of beautiful things (also able to remodel homes), shared his stories, I shared mine, and we started weaving some together. A few months after meeting up, we were making our way across the country so that he could meet my father.
A year went by in the next and Dennis accompanied me on my father’s visit, each weekend too short making me a little more cranky about the weather. We had celebrated my father’s 90th birthday, then I was on the plane the next day because I had to work. And even though my dad didn’t participate in any ceremony around these markers, I felt a deep pain of missing.
But in 2019, when my dad started talking about selling his house because there was too much maintenance to do, something clicked inside me. The magazine industry was changing, and suddenly my priorities changed. Dennis and I explored what a move would mean for our careers. I had decided to devote myself back to my writing as a full time business. He talked about reconnecting with actor friends in LA and seeing what the West Coast scene might have in store for him.
So we sublet our New York apartment, packed our truck, and hit the road as 2020 clicked on the calendar. As I drove west, the string that had been stretched between my father’s house and mine began to loosen.
I knew there would be the question of how to be in my father’s life without being too much in his life. He had been a solo pilot for decades, since my parents’ divorce and before that as an only child, so his sense of independence was not in question. He went to three aerobics classes a week, walked into his art studio almost every day, read a short story with lunch, and made himself a martini every night. It was persuading him to stay away from the ladders, put down hammers and put back weeding scissors that would become the challenge.
Six weeks after we unboxed our last box in our new apartment in Redlands, a place close enough to my father’s to be there in a jiffy but far enough away to be out of the way, Governor Gavin Newsom issued its stay at home-orders.
My dad, Dennis, and I quickly formed a COVID-19 pod. The only road we traveled was the one connecting our home to his as we worked to adjust to the wonders and frustrations of home delivery. For my father, this way of shopping was not his style. He loved his daily grocery trips. They were social – neighbor spotted in Aisle 24 – and practical since, as he puts it, “At 95, I don’t even buy unripe bananas.
I played his aerobics class on our living room TV and he came over so we could walk and balance behind our dining chairs while using cans of soup as weights. Twice a week we moved the party to his place, sitting on the porch watching blazing sunsets and, once terrifying, keeping an eye out for a real fire too close for comfort. We made the acquaintance of a few noisy Western scrub jays that live in its trees.
We told stories – about the graphic arts studio in Los Angeles where my dad worked when I was young and how much I loved visiting and using all the markers. My dad remembered his childhood baseball games in his Moline, IL neighborhood and what Los Angeles was like when he first moved here in the 1940s to attend school. of art. Dennis would connect the dots from his own birthplace in California to his brief stay as a child in the Midwest.
I looked back and forth between my dad and Dennis and saw the past, present, and future – relaxed into our silences because we didn’t have to pack all of our thoughts into a long weekend. I saw how my love of reading fiction and listening to music grew out of my father’s passion for stories and his willingness to try his luck on sounds that weren’t traditional. Even though I didn’t particularly understand the jazz he listened to when I was growing up, I recognized it as a dive deeper than the Top 40, and it was something that would light up my career as a music journalist.
The future would open as I watched him negotiate the space between what he wanted to do and what his body would allow him to do. A chance for me to learn to be with everything that was going on, not to try to find a way to fix it. He gave me the gift of observing age in all its messy reality.
There were many times in our forties while weeding his garden, Dennis changing a sink, my dad blasting his jazz up and working on a collage, that I would be struck with happiness. Even during the terror of an airborne virus that most attacked people my father’s age, I found myself floating on a raft of joy at being together, enjoying those moments as a river of terror flowed just below. I never let go of my fear that COVID could sink us. I dreamed of designing a full life jacket to zip it up until it was all over.
At the end of the year, the vaccine opened to people his age – 95! – and I dedicated myself to getting him a date. Every time I got closer the page would freeze or the site would crash and I would grit my teeth and start over. When, after the millionth refresh, I managed to book an arrival slot in an hour, I didn’t really believe it. The confirmation email appeared to be invited to a party hosted by a golden unicorn standing under a double rainbow. But as we drove to the vaccination zone, I began to realize that this scientific miracle was happening. I started to breathe. And smile. Cry a little.
When the nurse handed him his immunization card, he handed it to me for safekeeping, and as I put it in my wallet, today’s date sounded.
I had been in such a frenzy making an appointment, I had not realized the symbolism. But as I set that date, it hit me. It had been a year earlier, almost on time, since Dennis and I had parked in my father’s driveway in Southern California from New York. I also haven’t forgotten that paper is the traditional marker for a first birthday.
The piece of card stock in my hand couldn’t have been a better gift. The one who would prolong our conversation on the porch, at the dining room table, in front of its fireplace and sitting in our backyard. A gift that science brought us, that I could deliver to him, that he can now share with Dennis and me, continuing to show us what it means to live in every moment, appreciating how fragile life is but never boring when filled with creativity and love, plus maybe a few perfectly ripe bananas.
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