Updated: Feb 22
They say that places are never like you remember them. I’ve been on the road for twelve hours to see my dad for the first time since the pandemic started and I’m having difficulty recognizing my surroundings.
While this certainly isn’t my first trip back to Michigan, it feels different this time. The places I hold fond memories of don’t stir the same feelings of connection within me. As I pass by Ann Arbor, it dawns on me that it’s been over 20 years since I spent a semester “studying” there. Further up the road, the gas stations and convenience stores that I used to frequent look old and disheveled. Their faded, forgotten storefronts seem foreign to me.
As I get closer to home, I pass the old shopping mall that looks like a shadow of its former self. It’s no secret that Flint has been hit hard with economic issues, job losses, and a water crisis in recent years. Still, it’s concerning to see the mall parking lot nearly empty. It’s Christmastime, after all. The signs that once advertised places like Foot Locker, JCPenney’s, and The Finish Line now sit mostly empty, the white paint used to cover the names of past tenants fading with time.
The movie theater along I-69 that was such a big part of my childhood years is no longer there; the bulldozers and backhoes did their work on it over a decade ago. The drive-in further up the road hasn’t shown a flick in nearly as long and looks like it’s been for sale for more than a little while.
Its huge rusting signs signal to me that I’m nearing home and I begin to feel the anxiety build.
As I turn on the exit for M-15, I sit a little straighter in my seat, convinced that I’m going to see old friends, teachers, and acquaintances. Maybe I’ll even run into an old coworker from the store where I bagged groceries in high school. I glance at every car at the stoplight, expecting a smile, wave, and shocked looks at my unexpected presence. They don’t come. The same happens at the next light. And the next. By the time I pull up to my dad’s place, I’ve slumped a little lower in the seat, coming to grips with my new-found irrelevance.
The feelings of insignificance quickly give way to nervous anticipation as I hop out of the truck and approach the front door. I ring the bell and my dad comes out to greet his unannounced visitor. When he sees it’s me, he swings open the door and we wrap each other in a warm hug. His emotions are on high and his voice cracks with the tinge of tears.
“I’ve missed you a lot,” he tells me as we pull apart. I can see the mist in his eyes.
If this were to mark the the end of my trip, it would have been worth it entirely.
I tell him I’ve missed him, too, and get right to the point. “You wanna go to the cabin for a couple days?”
It doesn’t take long for Dad to think it over. “Sounds good!” he replies, and the plans roll further into motion.
As Dad’s partner, Carol, and I exchange hugs, Dad starts collecting his things for the trip. I can see him grabbing his hat and gloves and putting a few pieces of clothing in a duffel bag. Carol insists on putting a sweater on my dog and tells Dad not to forget his medicine. I watch as he picks up bottle after bottle, analyzes the label on each one, and throws them into his bag.
We’re ready to go.
I take his bag out and stow it away in the bed. As Dad is walking out to the truck, I notice he’s taking his time with shortened steps. I open the door for him and watch as he cautiously uses the running boards to climb inside.
Pandemics Change Everything
It’s been 11 long months since I’ve seen my father in person.
It’s not like I wanted to wait all this time to see him. I’ve wanted to visit. But – like the rest of 2020 – things haven’t gone as planned.
Since moving to North Carolina back in 2008, my wife, Becky, and I have made a point of staying connected with our families. Pre-kids, it seemed like we made the drive to be with family every other weekend. As our family’s grown, the trips have become less frequent, but we still make a point to see everyone a few times each year. Throw in the occasional detour during a work trip, FaceTime calls, and family coming to visit NC and you have the makings to feel properly connected while living apart.
My once-hectic travel schedule has been put on ice since the pandemic broke in March. In my past life, I was a frequent flyer and hotel connoisseur with a healthy budget who enjoyed frequent upgrades and fancy meals while exploring new locales. During one trip last year, I enjoyed a lobster omelet for breakfast in Boston, deep dish pizza off the Magnificent Mile for lunch, and something overpriced and underwhelming for dinner in Times Square.
Ahh, expense reports.
Now that I’m eating on my own dime, I’m lucky to have Cheerios in the family room, a sandwich in my second-floor makeshift office, and a fast-food dinner in my truck. If I’m feeling really adventurous, I put the tailgate down and eat with my legs dangling off the end.
Other things have gone the way of my expense report, particularly our out-of-state travel. We’ve been determined to avoid planes due to the pandemic, limit stops, and try to avoid hotels whenever possible. A four-hour drive across the state is daunting; the 12-hour drive to Michigan now seems impossible. Throw in a couple of young kids with their raisin-sized bladders and uncanny propensity for touching every germ-covered surface and the drive gets prioritized somewhere between reorganizing the pantry and volunteering for a non-sedated colonoscopy. It ain’t happenin.
Just because a long family road trip hasn’t been on the horizon doesn’t mean the desire to go back home hasn’t subsided. If anything, it’s grown stronger as the days, weeks, and months tick by without the familiar warm embrace of loved ones.
Knowing that I haven’t seen my Dad since a quick breakfast on the way to the airport in January has gnawed at me.
In early December, my wife’s family lost a dear family friend to the virus. He was a giant of a man, not just in size, but in character too. He was a pillar of the small community and his passing really hit a nerve for many.
Several days later, Covid struck close to my family. My dad’s neighbor – another leader in the local community – had contracted the virus and passed away within a few short days. Dad had gone to see him and his wife a couple days beforehand, dropping off an anniversary card. While he wore his mask, he was understandably worried that he may have become infected, too.
After these close calls, I was more determined than ever to visit my dad. I urged him to get a Covid test. Without telling him, I did the same at a local drive-thru testing site in North Carolina. While we waited for the results, I hatched a plan to make the trip to Michigan.
I reached out to Carol and asked her if there was anything stopping Dad from going up to the cabin with me for a few days. I explained I’d pick him up and play chauffeur, and asked the visit be kept a surprise. Carol was on board from the start and helped me keep it under wraps.
Dad got his negative test results on Friday. I was still awaiting mine, but assumed I’d be okay considering I hadn’t taken too many risks and had been feeling fine.
While I’m excited to spend some time with my old man, I’m absolutely determined not to introduce him to the virus during our adventures. To that end, my provisions look a lot different this time around. I’ve loaded the glovebox with disposable masks, hand sanitizer, and Clorox wipes. Kleenex boxes line the pockets along the doors. Cough drops have settled into the center console.
Of course, I’ve still packed the essentials, too. Scores of Twizzlers, peanut M&M’s, and trail mix are stowed conveniently within reach.
I went to bed last night still waiting for the results of my “rapid” test and set the alarm for 4:00. Worse-case scenario, I’ll turn around – regardless of how much of the drive I’ve completed – if the test delivers a bombshell verdict.
This morning’s wake-up call jolted me from deep sleep and, for the first time in a long while, I didn’t fumble for the snooze button. Actually, it was the first alarm I’ve heard since I started going to work in the bedroom next door dressed in sweatpants and a collared shirt. I jumped from bed, hopped in the shower, got dressed, and kissed my wife and kids goodbye before 4:20.
Right as I was walking for the door to the garage, my phone buzzed. My test results were ready, and not a moment too soon. There would be no turning around halfway. I was in the clear!
Time Marches On
The months between our visits have taken their toll.
Dad’s had to battle some illnesses and health scares this past year. Over Labor Day, he went to the emergency room after having trouble breathing and coughing for a couple of days. It got so bad he couldn’t catch his breath and his heart was struggling. He was scared, knowing that shortness of breath was one of the tell-tale symptoms of the coronavirus.
“The worst part was waiting for the goddamn test results,” he told me. “It felt like forever laying there thinking I had it.”
While he dodged the Covid bullet, he didn’t walk away unscathed. Doctors had discovered some concerning heart issues that had caused fluid to build up around his body, including his lungs. They diagnosed him with congestive heart failure and atrial fibrillation and went to work draining the excess water off his lungs. When they were done, they had removed 18 pounds of it from Dad’s body.
He takes diuretics now to control the fluid, but his nagging cough remains. I pick up on it every time we talk on the phone or hop on a video call.
The cough is remarkably noticeable now that I’m sitting beside him in the truck. Sometimes he has such intense coughing spells, I wonder if they’ll ever stop. Once they do, Dad quickly dismisses it.
“This happens every year when it gets cold,” he tells me the first time I point it out; “the doctor tells me it’s just nasal drainage” the next; “I figured out I’m good for an hour if I just clear my throat” the last.
I’m pretty sure Dad doesn’t even believe the defenses he’s offering up at this point, but each one serves its purpose of kicking the can down the curb and buying him some time between questions.
A Familiar Trip
We’ve made this drive hundreds of times together over the years. My parents purchased the cabin when I was in First Grade and we spent most Friday evenings making the three-hour trek along I-75 to get Up North. While most Michiganders with cabins utilize them exclusively in summer, we went year-round: rain or shine, flurry or blizzard.
Over the years, we’ve made stops up and down the highway for gas, bathroom breaks, and quick bites. We developed a mental list of favorite places, what they were known for, and their respective mile markers.
We’re passing one now near Bridgeport.
I point to a building. “Remember when that was the chicken place we used to visit? Started with an F, I think.”
“Freeway Fritz,” Dad says matter-of-factly without any hesitation.
His memory has always amazed me. It’s like a steel trap holding tight to various bits of information. He can easily recall places and events from over 30 years ago. A car guy, he can usually tell you what kind of car was being driven at the time, what color it was, and how that year’s model was different from the previous edition.
I’ve been particularly amazed with Dad’s ability to remember people. You know that embarrassed feeling you have when you forget a name? I’m pretty sure my dad has never experienced that. He can remember people he met once twenty years ago at a snowmobile race or auto show. He remembers my old friends, their parents, and – of course – what they drove. My siblings and I lean on him when we’re having trouble remembering a name or a detail and he never fails.
At one time, Dad had 2,500 customers. Each customer had their own 3x5 card in his trusty metal filing cabinets. And each card contained what cars they bought, when they bought them, their spouses’ and children’s names, and a picture of them standing next to their car stapled to the back.
I don’t think he needed those cards to remember people or their names. Rather, he used them for a very important occasion in our household: the annual Christmas card mailing. Every December, our family would set up shop to send out cards to Dad’s customers. My brother, sister, and I would sign the cards, seal the envelopes, write out addresses, and adhere stamps. For twenty-five hundred customers. The monumental feat took us weeks to complete. By the end, our hands were filled with papercuts, our wrists were sore, and our tongues tasted like adhesive glue and blood.
“Get all your Christmas cards out yet?” I ask.
“Just finished them up this morning! The last one’s in the mailbox now.”
“Good work! How many did you send out this year?
I look at him incredulously.
“What? My penmanship sucks! I only send cards to people who send them to me now.”
I know better than to push it any further, so I just give him a small jab.
“Thank God you sold Buicks. You’d still be sending out cards if you sold Chevys to young people.”
“Exactly! They’re all dead anyway!” he jokes back.
As we get further from the big cities on our trek North, we enter long stretches of road without roadside distractions. The restaurants, gas stations, and billboards grow fewer and farther between. It’s quiet and peaceful, and there's a little bit of snowfall lingering from the last accumulation. I’ve always been drawn to the seclusion the area provides.
It’s shortly before 9:00 pm as we make our last turn towards the cabin.
It’s like going to see an old friend. Throughout my life, the cabin has been a constant in my world while everything else has changed at breakneck speed. A visit to the cabin has always been my cure for whatever ailment life has thrown my way. She’s kept me grounded as I navigated tough decisions, comforted me during times of grief, and served as a backdrop for celebrating many of life’s milestones. We make a point to take a family vacation at the cabin every year, but this year has had other plans. I haven’t seen her in 18 months.
As we pull into the drive, I’m comforted by the familiar surroundings. The cabin’s exterior hasn’t changed much in 30 years, save for a new metal roof and some changes to the front porch. I recognize the trees that have grown along with me, the concrete slab where I wrote my name with a stick, and the weathered sign out front welcoming guests to the river. I take a deep breath of fresh Up North air with its unmistakable cool pine fragrance and listen to the silence that has settled in over the land.
I walk up the steps, open the door, and hold it open for my dad. He’s a few steps further back than I expected, but I pretend not to notice. As I head back to get the bags from the truck, he readies the inside by turning on the furnace and hot water.
We sit down in the living room and chat a little bit before bed. The cold winter air has caused Dad’s cough to flare up again. He has a tough time keeping the cough at bay long enough to have a conversation and he’s repeated a story he told me in the truck already. After a short while, we retire to our beds, which is okay with me because I’m exhausted from 15 hours on the road.
I wake up before sunrise, which isn’t unusual for me while I’m at the cabin. The place is so full of wonder and adventure; I’m always eager to get started.
When I was growing up, we’d head out early on the boat to catch smallmouth bass on Elk Lake long before the weekend warriors set out to party on her crystal-clear waters. Dad would wake me up to go for canoe rides where we’d sneak up on resting bald eagles on the eerie ancient trees still standing in the middle of Lake Skegemog. In winter, we’d spend these morning hours on a variety of activities, from running down the dock to catch wigglers to use as bait in our ice shanty to cross-country skiing or taking snowmobile rides on fresh, powdery snow along the trails at Ranch Rudolf.
Today, it’s quiet.
My dog, Boomer, is ready to go, so I put the leash on him and head out. Three ducks fly overhead as we make our way down the path to the dock. Mallards are calling out to each other and I can see some buffleheads floating on the river.
I watch the waterfowl show while my dog does his business and, before long, realize that I can really see the river from my vantage point. Usually, it would be tough to see due to the vegetation. Has the view always been this unobstructed in the winter?
After looking around a bit more, I realize that something’s changed. Specifically, the tree count on our piece of property has gone down dramatically since my last visit. Every tree that used to provide some privacy from the water – and some cover for the local fauna – is missing. Looking closely at a large maple still standing, I can see a chainsaw wound a few feet high.
Dad’s still snoozing when I bring the dog back inside. I’ve never known him to sleep in.
It’s December 21 – the Winter Solstice. It’s the shortest day of the year and the sun doesn’t come up until well after 8:00 this morning. It’s been up for nearly an hour when I finally hear Dad start making noise in the back bedroom.
“I guess I was tired!” he announces to no one in particular.
“Feel like going for a ride?” I ask, anxious to make the most of the time we have together.
“Sure, just let me take my medicine first,” he says.
He swallows his pills, throws on his coat and hat, and we're ready to go.
“You drive!” I say as I throw him the keys.
Dad’s no stranger to driving cars at high speeds. He grew up selling and servicing snowmobiles, cars, and boats. He and his friends fixed up a race car in high school and put it to work out on local dirt tracks. When I was growing up, I’d beg him to smash his foot down on the accelerator of whatever Buick we were driving to school. “Use the supercharger!” I’d beg. He’d oblige from time to time and a smile would cover my face as my head snapped back into the headrest. Sometimes he’d even do donuts with me in empty lots – an experience I’d tell my friends about for weeks afterwards.
We've been fortunate to share a couple track experiences, too. We'd take turns smoking tires on someone else’s Dodge Vipers and taking hot laps on whatever road course we were visiting. At one event in Pennsylvania, the hosts set up a drag racing challenge. The rules were simple: Wait for the light on the tree to turn green, stomp on thte accelerator, and don't let up until you passed the quarter mile marker to receive your score. I was in my 20's and Dad was in his 60's; he didn't stand a chance in my mind. On the track, though, he whipped my ass. He whipped everyone else's, too, winning each head-to-head challenge.
When I went to work for Chrysler after college, I enjoyed driving free field cars. They’d typically give us something to drive that wasn’t selling on dealer lots and have us mile them out before sending them to auction. When gas started creeping towards four bucks a gallon back in 2007, people weren’t buying trucks and SUVs. In short-sighted American style, they were trading in their Suburbans for Sebrings, their Silverados for Sentras. Trucks lost 25% of their value overnight.
At the same time, Dodge was launching a new pickup with a 10-cylinder Viper engine pushing out 500 horsepower with low-profile tires and a manual transmission. It achieved approximately two miles per gallon downhill with a stiff tailwind. Looking back, it probably wasn’t the best time to launch the Ram SRT-10. But it was certainly a great time to be a 20-something Chrysler field rep with a gas card! We’d get a new SRT-10 every 1,500 miles, which is a good thing because I don’t think mine had too much tread left on the tires when they went back.