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My father is descending mentally into the shadowy valley of Alzheimer’s. And for weeks now he had wanted to see his beloved five-year-old grandson. His grandson lives 400 miles north in the town of Elk’s Meadow. The only time we could get everyone’s schedule together was for this Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. So I was able to get off work on very short notice, somewhat concerned that my co-workers might realize how unimportant I am, and my father and I headed north at 3PM on Tuesday afternoon for a journey that Yahoo! informed me would be 6-hours long (within its virtual reality).
There was a tropical storm from Mexico crossing our southern borders months ahead of usual, coming up with complete disregard for years of historical weather patterns. The heat was thick and I wanted the air-conditioning on. I needed cold air in my face to stay alert. My father is in his 80’s and complained of the cold. So I was juggling off-and-on air-conditioning, opening and closing vents, raising and lowering windows, struggling with eternal vigilance to create a democratic environment. It was like trimming sails on a racing sailboat.
My father was once the traveling salesman for his own little business and he often travelled the route on which we now were, and I mean often, a lot. So I suppose he just couldn’t help but micro-navigate for me this journey right down to the specific freeway lane. The whole trip he pointed-out where former customers of his had their place of business.
There is a scene in an old episode of the TV series Friends where Phoebe, the free spirit, is asking Monica, the chef, to make a dish, “You know. The thing? The thing with the stuff?” It’s a tiny amusement but my father and I now have a lot of “You know. The thing with the stuff” conversations, interpreted with my own technique of “Twenty Questions”. As his son I have learned all of his pet concerns over the years and so I am able to grasp and to translate. My father’s condition has passed the stage where I could politely wait for him to formulate the exact question or statement.
Fortunately, this journey up Highway 5 is one I love. Once north of the spinning gears of clockwork Los Angeles we were into the rolling golden hills crowned with oak trees and then on down into the awesome and legendary Central Valley that pushes apart the coastal mountain ranges and the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The Central Valley: whose length and breadth of fruit, nut, vine, field and row flatland can barely be conceived even while witnessing. Forests of Almonds, Apples, Cherries, Figs, Grapes, Kiwi, Lemons, Olives, Peaches, Persimmons, Pistachios, Plums, Prunes, Pomegranates, and Walnuts; prairies of Asparagus, Beans, Bok Choi, Broccoli, Cabbage, Carrot, Cauliflower, Corn, Cucumber, Eggplant, Lettuce, Melon, Onion, Peas, Potatoes, Pumpkin, Spinach, Sugarbeet, Tomato; and lakes of Rice.
Every few hours we pulled into a Rest Stop where, standing between the other travelers, I bought a cup of hot cocoa for my father from the “Wailing Wall” of vending machines. Next we would dare to use the foreboding Restrooms with the various and fascinating urinal technologies and then attempt to use the stingy washbasin faucets that drooled water for washing, but only as I held the on-button with one hand and listened to the sound of the other hand washing itself. As my father’s son, I seethed about the highway taxes diverted from Rest Stop improvement.
Because of traffic out of Los Angeles and because of Rest Stops every few hours, our journey was exceeding the 6-hour cyberspace estimate. As darkness fell my father grew apprehensive. Before Alzheimer’s started beating him down he was already nervous about night driving because of his aged vision. Now, his Alzheimer’s whispered to him that we must be lost and he frequently requested of me to pull off of the freeway and to ask directions from someone. I tried to reassure him that I knew exactly where we were going but he only took comfort in naming aloud to me each off-ramp street name and asking of me periodically to get off and ask directions. Understand: Highway 5 travels the backbone of the Central Valley from top to bottom, and Elk Meadows lies right off of Highway 5, so the idea of getting lost was humorous to me but not impressible to my father. He would hesitantly reply to me, “Well, if you think so…”
We made it safely and surely to exit number 507, Elk Meadows Road, and we arrived at our hotel ten minutes short of seven hours from the time we had left my father’s house. I had not wanted to burden my brother and wife in Elk Meadows with this sojourn under the circumstances, even though they had invited us to stay with them. On the last visit, when we had accepted their offer, my father had misplaced his wallet and upset my sister-in-law by wondering if his then-four-year-old grandson had absconded with it.
The next morning at the hotel I slept-in. I finally got up and went in to shave and shower and then saw that all of my toiletries were gone. My first thought was, “The maid stole…,” and then I had a flash of fear that I myself was getting Alzheimer’s by formulating such dumb thoughts. I emerged and found my father sitting dressed, suitcases packed, waiting to leave. My father, who used to stay in hotels only as a necessary evil expense during his sales trips, never more than one night at any one town, had packed up my toiletries and asked, “Are we going?” I explained that we had that room for three days. And then I reassured him that I was paying for it.
My father is fiercely proud that he doesn’t have cable television and thinks that I and all others are suckers for paying to watch TV. “It’s free.” He thinks that the whole world is contained in Public Television. But I sat him down in front of the television and found for him the Military Channel and he was then enthralled watching hours of “World At War”. I had told him for years that he would enjoy that and the History Channel but he always acted like I was offering him heroin.
Around 11AM we met my sister-in-law and my nephew at the Family Fitness Center, an enormous temple to militant health. My sister-in-law was invoking guest passes for us but we still had to fill out forms “for liability reasons” which meant to me only that they were going to use our person information for addressing advertisements to us. My father subsequently got into his bathing suit and joined his grandson and dozens of other children with a few parents in a large shallow pool outdoors beneath a tall and wide covering. My father splashed water at his grandson and pretended to be a sea-monster to the squealing delight of his grandson and several other children. I was happy observing all the activity, thinking, “Good. Stay on mission. My dad and his grandson, that’s the mission. No diversions with relatives.”
We all took a long drive up to Lake Tahoe where I honored the duties of an uncle and made up silly stories for my nephew’s amusement. You know how that situation goes: where the uncle gets the nephew so riled-up and rambunctious with laughter that his mother is left with the burden of maintaining discipline by scolding.
Next day we all went to the Train Museum located in the historic Old Town that preserves the buildings and flavor of the 1800’s. My father’s grandson sat in the engineer’s cabin of a huge locomotive and pulled on all the throttles and brakes. My father chased him around the exhibits. My poor sister-in-law.
On the last evening my father’s own beloved sister invited all of us to a dinner at her house. Just before dinner was ready my cousin decided that, “Yes, we have enough time. I made a DVD of some old family films I found. It’s only about five minutes.”
I assumed it would films from the era of my and my cousin’s childhood.
But the DVD began to flicker with an actual moving picture film from my father’s childhood. My mouth fell open. I had seen a few black-and-white photographs from my father’s childhood. But this was a moving picture show of my father twelve years old and with his eight siblings and his mother and father and uncle in the family house in the 1930’s, Windsor Locks, Connecticut! His Uncle Joe at that time was doing well despite the Depression and he had purchased a motion picture camera and he was instigating the whole family to clown around for it.
In the film my father was smiling, bright and as healthy as a twelve-year-old boy should be. He chased the little family terrier named Peanuts. He wrestled with his older brother; he teased a sister, the very one at whose house we now were. I looked over at both of them and then back and forth from that film and I kept saying, “This is unbelievable!” I saw all my aunts and uncles as young vibrant children. I saw my grandmother and grandfather, rest their souls, with dark hair and slender bodies, being silly and performing for the camera.
I had heard all the stories of how poor they had been up until “the War”. World War Two ironically gave all of them opportunities, my uncles in military service and then to college, and my aunts to factory jobs, all with salaries unthinkable to them at the time of this film. But in this film they all were, are eternally, a bubbling, bouncing, swirling, tumbling family!
Words failed me. Forgive me; words fail me as I write this. As I looked from the film to my father and my aunt I was experiencing a thrill and a floating feeling. It was a rapture of spiritual understanding that I cannot express rightly even at this moment of pondering. I was witnessing a humble and powerful Alpha and Omega. My father and my aunts and uncles really were young once; they really were not unlike me. But I was now unlike my insulated self, my fucking selfish self, and I was choking with Love.
My father and I began our return journey around noon on Saturday after a farewell brunch at an old-fashioned ice-cream shop. My father and I were both feeling happy as we drove but I was damn tired after all the chauffeuring. On the way south again on Highway 5 I took an early advantage of a Rest Stop and bought my father a cup of hot cocoa and myself a tall can of cold “energy drink” which is a soup of vitamins, minerals, electrolytes, and most importantly, a saturation of caffeine. That propelled me for a few hours.
But then my eyes grew heavy and my mind began to wander so I pulled off of Highway 5 to yet another Rest Stop. As my father sipped another cup of cocoa and I sipped another energy drink I was drawn to the wall of maps that were inside a glass enclosure. There was a big map of California, there was the line of Highway 5, and there was a big thumbtack marking “You Are Here”, nearly at the southern end of the Central Valley.
We got back on the road and I found a Country Western radio program. In his recent years my father has become a fan of Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Cowboy music in general. When my father was a kid his hero was Gene Autry, “The Singing Cowboy”. It was not long before a Willy Nelson song was announced, “On the Road Again”. My father cheered, “Turn it up!” and when the song began he started to slap his knee like an imaginary washboard and he burst into song and I was raptured away.
On the road again
Goin’ places that I’ve never been
Seein’ things that I may never see again
And I can’t wait to get on the road again
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