It’s pre-dawn, and I just dropped my dad off at the Phoenix Sky Harbor airport after a week-long road trip through California and Arizona. We started in Oakland, drove down the Pacific Coast Highway with a night in Pismo Beach, east from LA to Palm Springs, then a few days in Tucson with my Aunt and Uncle. I’ve learned some things about myself: I won’t die immediately in triple digit temperatures (apparently Labor Day isn’t the time to head to Palm Springs); the only tv my dad and I can agree on is nature documentaries; and vacations are a lot better sober. I didn’t miss a day.
I knew going in it would be a special time with my dad. I really savored the spontaneous moments of joy: making bird puns while sitting on a perch in our Pismo Beach hotel room, watching thousands of pelicans and gulls squawking and swirling on the seaside cliffs. We revisited memories of old friends, my grandparents, places we had lived growing up, highlights from trips we had taken. We cracked jokes, too many jokes, pointed out every Miata and Jeep we drove by (an absurd habit that once started, could not be stopped). We told each other stories of our more recent lives and communities. It was great to make memories with my father in places I know I’ll visit again over my lifetime. It fills in the meanings of these nearby destinations with my life-long New Yorker Dad. He of the Hudson River and Gully’s will now be a part of Palm Springs and Pismo Beach in my wandering psyche, helping me feel at home in this part of the world.
But travel is also challenging. The long stretches of driving can be boring or tense. The disagreements about what to do (relax vs explore) or what kind of food to eat. I’m sober (and hungry), while my dad is more of the rum and coke in lieu of lunch ilk. Watching a nature documentary about baby animals the last night it struck me that many species don’t see their offspring again after maturity (or even sooner in some cases, sea turtles). In terms of human reproduction, we are matched with these people randomly at birth or adoption and then once we become adults, we stay connected by choice. I love my dad, he’s been a supportive and loving person in my life and I wouldn’t be nearly as witty or down-to-earth without his example, but I don’t spend a ton of time with 70 year old men these days. It’s a strange dynamic to suddenly be together 24 hours a day for days on end.
There was also an energy shift in our roles. He’s still mentally sharp and mobile, but he’s no spring chicken. I’m in stupid good shape from my daily fitness routine and living in a 4th floor walk up. I had to be mindful that he wouldn’t enjoy the physical exertion I now crave, and he set boundaries that disappointed me a few times. I feel incredibly lucky that both my parents are still alive and healthy, but it’s difficult to observe signs of aging and see him slowing down. I realize none of us are here forever, but that knowledge doesn’t really prepare you for anything about the process, however gradual.
I’m grateful to be in the mental space to enjoy this time with my father, to sit through the moments of discomfort, to embrace the uniqueness of our relationship. He’s not my biological father, he met my mom when I was a baby and though he never wanted kids, he ended up taking his parental role seriously. My birth father is out there, and I wish him well, but Dougie is my dad and I have to think we both lucked out in the fact that our paths crossed. He got a chance to show up (and by many measures, excel) in raising a child, and I got a parent who had the emotional, mental, and financial resources to give me a stable, loving upbringing. No, it’s not perfect. There’s dysfunction that occasionally challenges our rapport. Neither of us are always in such good spirits. But overall, we’re pretty damn happy.
This week on the road definitely brought us closer. It’s a relief that my dad still likes hanging out with me even though I’m not sipping rum with him at a dive bar. I’d say we had even more fun, since I was feeling good in my own skin. I was able to take care of myself and be present with him, a breakthrough of sorts for me. I‘ve had a tendency to sacrifice my needs for others in unsustainable ways. This was the first time I was able to assess situations without ignoring or medicating over my own needs. And thanks to my sobriety, I won’t soon forget this time with him, speeding through the desert, arguing about the AC, and just being together. It’s a connection to my past I don’t have very often living on the opposite coast, and it’s a meaningful one.
Thanks for the time, Dougie. I will treasure this trip forever.
And look! A Miata!