Accustomed as I’ve become to helping my dad with quotidian tasks, I didn’t care to watch him struggle with this simple act of composition. I prefer to remember the man who used to receive mockups of the editorial page by courier on Saturdays, marking them up and calling in the changes by phone as he peered over his reading glasses.
From the musical-card kiosk, I watched him as his hand daubed at the page. There was an assurance that belied the shaky grasp with which he held the pen: When a headline is right, it’s right. I walked back to the bench as he was still staring down at the card but no longer writing.
He was perplexed, I could tell, even though his face wore the inscrutable frown that is Parkinson’s mask. The pen lingered above the card, poised, just as it had those many years ago when he peered at the next day’s editorial-page proofs. Only this time there was no movement.
I waited a beat or two before prying the card from his fingers.
“Something’s wrong,” Dad said.
I glanced at the crabbed handwriting on the card, a jagged but familiar version of the script he’d always used to jot down notes on a three-by-five card he carried in his breast pocket. “Always take notes,” he’d told me once, a reporter’s advice.
Inside the card with Snoopy dancing, Dad had penned his message to my mother. Three simple words, obsidian in their clarity: “Everything for you.”
With brevity, he had acknowledged the toll this unyielding disease had taken on the life my mother and he had hoped to have.
Even this moment of grace the jailer could not allow. Instead of “everything,” my father had written “everythink.” And now that he’d reached the end of the gesture—marshaled his mind and his hand long enough to complete the task—this inexactitude perplexed my father. That pen lingering above the page was him refusing to yield, even while he’d forgotten what had inspired the realization that something was wrong.
I took the marker and changed the “k” to a “g,” then slipped the card into the envelope. We eventually made it out of the store and around the block back to my parents’ house. On the way home, with the boys strapped into their car seats and the radio blaring, the moment washed back over me. A sob wracked my chest, and I held the wheel tight at 10 and 2.
As you read this, my dad continues his battle against the rising tide of this disease. There are windows of clarity, but they grow shorter. What in recent years narrowed to a few good hours a day is even more sporadic. And yet, just when it seems the levee’s breached, some spark that’s banked within Dad flickers.
The other night, I stopped by for dinner. Mom had asked me over because she was going out and was worried he wouldn’t cooperate with the caregiver.
My attempts at conversation during the meal clattered to the plate beside the meatloaf.
“Want to go out?” I finally asked.
“Okay,” he said.
“Try the chair?” I ventured.
After a brief pause: “Sure.”
An ultra-light transport chair of red chrome tubing is the newest piece of Parkinson’s equipment. It has four small wheels and must be pushed by handles from behind, unlike a wheelchair in which someone with sound arms might propel himself. Dad still walks on his own—for now. The chair is just in case.
He shuffled to the front stoop and sat tentatively in the contraption. Our journey began. The rubber grips were like the ones on my first bike, a three-speed with hand brakes. I talked to the back of his head as we moved over the uneven bricks of the sidewalk, chattering about work and my boys.
“I’m going to lean you back,” I warned, wheelbarrowing him across a cobblestone driveway. He pointed left at each corner, directing our route around the block.
The going wasn’t easy. His weight was solid in the chair and the terrain bumpy. Neither of us had the feel of it; it seemed he might spill forward if we hit an unexpected bump or I’d lose my grip when leaning him back.
But we trusted each other. About halfway through, with sweat on the back of my neck, I realized that the sheer physicality of the act was itself a connection. We weren’t facing each other on opposite sides of a net. We were surmounting a challenge together.
“You gave me a nice report,” he said when we’d made it back home and upstairs to his bedroom, though I’m not sure he could have recounted what I’d said. One by one, he took the half dozen pills my mom had rationed out, sipping water with a hand that shook only a little.
Yes, my dad is drowning, and I’m not sure anyone can save him this time. But to be the father I want to be to my sons, I’m bound to go in after him. What I can pull to the surface will someday help them know him, and therefore—I hope—know me.
“You’re a great writer,” my wife once told me, “but an awful communicator.” To the extent each is true, I credit my father, who in his way taught me both clear prose and emotional restraint.
I pray the first will prove an adequate defense against the second; I want a closer relationship with my boys than the one he and I shared. I also pray I can pass on to them the grit my dad is teaching me now, in his final act as a father.