It was a quick visit. Only 36 hours tacked onto the front end of a business trip. What made this even more remarkable is that my 84-year-old father travelled more than ten hours (with two lay overs) to get to me in Puerto Vallarta. My friends here had all kinds of questions: How would Dad deal with the extreme heat and humidity? Was he travelling by himself? What do I have planned? Where will we eat? What my emergency plan (if there is one, god forbid). One friend thought I should have a tank of oxygen available in case Dad has trouble breathing. Another suggested I make sure he had wheelchair service at the airport.
But here’s the deal; when he told me he booked his flight, Dad said, “I don’t want anything fancy. I don’t need a whole lot of activity. I just want to relax and spend some time with you. See where you live, make sure you’re OK.” So in spite of my friend’s advice, I took him at his word, and didn’t plan any sight seeing tours or make reservations at any of the nicer restaurants in town. I also knew that if he needed any special arrangements regarding his health, he’d let me know. And aside from prunes, which he brought himself, he was good to go (no pun intended).
The biggest challenge for my father was around meals. He doesn’t like a lot of spice, never did. He reminded of this me as we sat down to eat dinner the first night, laughing at how my mom would try to sneak garlic into a dish without his knowing…
He stopped his sentence, looked directly at me and says, “I talk to her every day, you know…” tears filled his eyes as he continued, “I miss her so much…” He reached for his water bottle and quickly washed his tears down his throat, blinked a few times, took a breath, and then pointed to the sun sinking into the horizon through a thick patch of gray clouds, “It looks like rain, huh?”
Those tears would show up several more times during his visit, each time Dad would swig some water, take a breath, and change the subject.
We met for breakfast the next morning, where ordering something palatable was less of an issue, and then walked slowly to my apartment. “Your sister says I’m slowing down,” he offered between breaths as we made our way through town, “I think she’s right.” I reminded him we weren’t in a hurry and he said, “Good, let’s take a seat,” leading us to a bench under a palm tree. We hadn’t been walking ten minutes and he was already winded.
Once at the apartment, Dad took a seat on the couch and placed his hands on his lap, feet under knees, looking like a kid outside the principal’s office. I offered him a pillow, suggested he take his shoes off, but he said he was fine. I was not convinced, but figured he’d relax when he was ready.
It was a light conversation, as I prepared our meal in the kitchen. Slowly I could see Dad start to unwind. First he put a pillow behind his head and stretched his legs out in front of him. A bit later, he moved to my desk, turning the chair to face the balcony and began narrating the activity of an iguana in the branches over the river. At some point, the conversation stopped leaving just the steady flow of the river to fill the air around us. When I came out from the kitchen and asked if he needed anything, Dad was just sitting there with a lazy smile, “I am so relaxed right now.”
The next time I checked on him, he shifted from my desk chair to the daybed on the balcony and was asleep. I followed his cue and lay on the couch and took a nap too, my mind floating on the steady current of the river below.
Later that night at dinner, Dad mentioned the section in my book where I described his family, and said I was right – when he was growing up, there was very little laughter in his house because of his father’s drinking. “My father would be gone for three four days at a time, and then suddenly show up at the dinner table, embarrassed, not looking at anyone.” Then he told me how meeting mom and her family changed his life. “There was always laughter, and music…every time I stopped by for a visit. I’d never seen that before….everyone sitting around the table telling stories, enjoying themselves….”
When we started talking about the recent changes in our family (see my last blog post), I could see Dad heading into his knee-jerk, faith-based approach to traditional families; and I could feel myself winding up for a long debate. Then I looked at him and said, “I understand you’re confused about gay parenting, Dad….here’s a real simple way for it to make sense – just assume the parents are coming from a place of love.” He was absolutely stunned – and, admitted he’d never considered that idea before.
The following morning, I walked to his hotel for breakfast unable to ignore the obvious – health, age, and distance made it very possible that this could be the last time I saw Dad alive. Rather than think about all the stuff he did when I was a kid; teach me to swim, hug me when my Pinewood Derby car lost, or making Sunday breakfast….I burst into tears hearing him say, “I am so relaxed right now,” and thinking about him sleeping on the daybed.
He hugged me before getting in the cab and whispered in my ear, “God bless….” which, everyone in the family knows, is code for “I love you.”
I kissed his cheek and said, “I love you too, Dad. Thanks for coming.”