Every few weeks, I board the airplane in Phoenix and fly east to Florida. There is no joy in the journey, a trip to vacation land that feels like anything but vacation.
I’m headed back to the house where I grew up to visit my father, years old but going on what feels like so many more years.
Mostly I go to take inventory. How much worse has he gotten? How much more of him has seeped away with each passing month?
It has been 27 months since my mother passed away. My father, married to her for more than 53 years, seemed a sure bet to follow her immediately. Instead, he has survived, somewhat improbably.
A few weeks after my father lost his wife, he agreed to go to the doctor – a neurologist – to see why his hand and tongue had begun to tremble. This was when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
I am not in the business of ranking horrors, comparing one form of human suffering to another, but I can say this much about what my father is going through: Being robbed of your life a little bit at time, dying a little bit more every day, looks worse to me than, say, taking a bullet to the brain or keeling over dead of a sudden heart attack.
When the One Great Scorekeeper decides it’s time to make a final slash mark and total up my days, my prayer is he does so decisively.
I am not afraid of death. But I am afraid of dying.
Never one for doctors, my father also has proven not to be one for any help at all.
He says his medication makes him groggy, so he skips it. My younger brother and nephew have moved into the old house to help with his care, but he says he doesn’t need the help. He doesn’t want visits from a nurse, doesn’t want a home health aide, doesn’t want to do anything except watch old westerns on TV.
For the better part of a year, I fought this, tried everything I could think of to help him get over his depression and rejoin the living.
I’ll confess I feel fresh out of ideas.
Finally, my brother and I chipped in and bought him a remote-control recliner that does everything except function as a hovercraft. At least the man can watch “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza” and “The Virginian” and “Have Gun Will Travel” in style.
For two years, it has been the subject of our phone calls: What are you watching on TV? Mostly he claims not to remember and then turns my attention to his other passion in life: Filing his taxes.
It’s where I will be as you read this: In the old house in Florida poring over whatever bank statements my dad has stacked beside the microwave on the kitchen counter. It’s where the “important mail” goes now.
Not a rich man, my father’s stack won’t be high, but it will be complete; he also doesn’t like throwing things away.
Maybe we’ll order a pizza. Maybe if we’re lucky, we’ll find the episode of Bonanza where Joe puts Hoss on a strict diet, so he can win the big flapjack eating contest. It’s one of my dad’s favorite reruns.
He still laughs every now and again and he still smiles when I show up at his front door.
I never imagined any of this, least of all my father giving a shaky hug to a guy bearing a stack of 1040 tax forms.
But hey, I guess it’s how life goes. It’s what happens when you’re busy making other plans.