Monday, February 23, 2015

Back And Bigger Than Ever

Harold Dubilier. Colossus.
Once, last year, in a wrong-for-so-many-reasons escapade, Dad decided he needed to prove his independence and vitality. At age 89, in a condition that could be called road-blind, he snuck out of the condo, which had become his prison -- because in America a car and the ability to drive is a condition of independence -- and drove the mile and a half to the supermarket. He shopped. For what didn’t matter, least of all to him as long as he had proof of his conquest. Upon returning to the condo, he announced to his wife, “I have my balls back.”

She was furious. When I heard of the incident, I was amused and compassionately dismayed. After a long struggle to survive his second bout of cancer, he felt his horizon claustrophobically constricting. Yet what a selfishly dangerous thing to do. Understandable. Not excusable.

Shortly after that ride, he was beset with the shingles, leaving half his face lame and his head painfully pulsing with nerve inflammation. He was reduced to a walker because his inner ear scattered the beads of balance all around his skull. This slammed the door shut on his independence and the condo. At least he had the means to afford taxi rides to the supermarket. Determined, he engaged in physical therapy of all manner, including chewing gum to exercise the muscles of his face. To everyone’s surprised, he recovered quickly and almost completely.

We suggested a tricycle now that he was able to venture out again on his own. It was dismissed. Perhaps a man of self-determined horizons chooses his own timing. Or perhaps riding a tricycle when you’re in your 80s seems like a concession, while doing so in your 90s is a statement. This month, he bought the tricycle.

Before departing Vermont to visit him in Florida, I was given a list of particular fishing gear to bring down. His favorite pole. His 40-something-year-old leather-sheathed pliers. The tackle box with the jigging lures. “Don’t forget the scaler and the reels.”

For a week, the residents and staff at the condo watched Harold as he dragged his tricycle, step by shuffled step, up the incline out of the garage, mounted it in deliberate movements, and peddled around the parking lot.

First, you ride around the parking lot. Then you cast off to fetch the fishing pier.
He and I spent days discussing the best route for the mile-long trip to the fishing pier. Since he can’t see well, there was the option of asking the guards at the condo gate to help him across the fast-paced Route A1A; a concession he would have to make in this exercise of will. But with me coming along on this first outing, concessions did not have to be made. Even the voyage’s magnitude didn’t have to be acknowledged. This was just an outing of father and son to the fishing pier. For this reconnaissance mission, we left sans gear.

The short of the half-hour biking trip itself to the pier is this: I have never felt so worried since my daughter swung amid the structures of playgrounds. The curved entrance into the condo garage put him in a blind spot to oncoming cars. The drivers who slowed behind us waiting to pass were perhaps patient, but in my mind were as menacing as the looks of grown men watching my daughter at the playground. I wanted to freeze time and motion until Dad was safely at the pier.

But that’s not what voyages are about. Dad was not simply visiting the pier. By now we understand he was engaging in challenge. Pure and simple, for its own sake. Every time we cast off, while we hope for fair winds, what we talk about later are the times we overcame the opposition of obstacles, potential failure and ultimately, ourselves.

His adrenaline of accomplishing this achievement became quickly evident as we walked out onto the fishing pier.

Dad immediately started acquiring local knowledge: bait and methods.
We came upon a woman whose pole was bent and she was struggling to reel in. “I can’t,” she said as we approached. “Help her,” said Dad, and already he was taking charge. I took her pole and noticed the pull was steady and firm. This wasn’t a fish. She had snagged something on the bottom. “You have to slack the line,” Dad said. “Show her how to slack the line.” The pole was back in the lady’s hands and my Dad’s insistence invading her comfort. “You have to slack. More, more! All the way! You have to jiggle it, schussel it!”

The woman in the white shirt is the one struggling with the snagged line.
We moved on and next he came upon an unattended pole.

“There could have been 20 fish nibbling on that line and he never would know it.”

To an embarrassment that made me walk away, he started working the line, jigging it. Luckily he stopped before the owner returned.

Then the fishing talk began. He asked what people were catching. What kind of bait? As is typical with fishing personas, answers were given offhand and monosyllabically. When one man mumbled something and walked off to tend to another line, Dad pursued him and told him he had to answer louder since he couldn’t hear. The Demand. Not just of answers, but attention.

We speculated on how Dad could raise his fish the 20- or 30-feet onto the pier. Of course the fish HE would catch would be so large it couldn’t be reeled up like all the others were. He wondered if he could lead the fish, while still in the water, all the way along the pier back to the beach.

“If you get one on the line, I’m sure anyone here would be happy to help you get it up,” I had said a few times to the response of silence. I should have known he had heard me fine the first time.

When he asked one burley and surly fisherman how a large fish could be gotten up, the man gruffed: “There're plenty of kids around here who will help you.”

We walked away and it didn’t take three steps before Dad leaned into me with, “I don’t want no damn help.”

Back at the ticket booth to the pier he played his usual games, asking the clerk if he could be granted permission to take his tricycle onto the pier since he had a handicapped permit. Special Dispensation: the privilege of the privileged. She would check with city rules and call him the next day. As we walked away, he leaned into me with, “I’ll have to ask my doctor to give me a handicapped pass.”

I have had mixed feelings about this blog post and so delayed posting it. I’ve been ruminating.

It is all quite charming to see an aging man assert his vitality. Not too long ago, Dad was referred to as the colossus. Ever since then that moniker has swirled within me, sometimes forming a question mark, sometimes constricting my heart. What is now charming and admirable was once egocentric and conniving. In certain broad strokes, I see the pirate in me mirrored in him. In my own life, I have worked hard to discern between assertion and selfishness. His traits could have killed a young child on a bicycle during that trip to the supermarket.

Dad and I have had epic battles. During those times I directly confronted his self-absorbed campaign through life. At other times, I have marveled at the generosity, both emotionally and financially he bestows. How is it that everyone who meets this individualist is charmed by him?

I can’t derive it. I can’t grasp it. I ruminate.

But let’s tack back towards voyaging, for that’s what Dad’s excursion to the pier was: A mini-voyage. It embodied all the challenges and rewards of a transatlantic. Most importantly: uncertainty.

That I can grasp. That, at the age of 90, I admire. That comprises a colossus.

After two bouts with cancer in the last seven years and downed by shingles for almost a year, he’s back. And yes, Dad, you got your balls back. Bigger than ever.

Next time, with a big one in the basket.

1 comment:

Annie Williams said...

your blog about your dad was touching, captivating, and heart warming. You are a great writer. I could picture the story and was sucked right in!