PAST PRIME - A Story of Growing Old & Going Home During the Pandemic
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. The nicer, newer places are 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 high school 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. I 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 from the grocery store where I worked. 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. By the time I pull up to my dad & Carol’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 the 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 was the end of my trip, it would have been worth it entirely.
Instead, I ask, “You wanna go to the cabin?”
It didn’t take long for Dad to think it over. “Sounds good!” he replies, and the plans roll further into motion.
As 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 tells him not to forget his medicine and 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 Things
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 put a plan in motion to make the trip to Michigan.
I reached out to my dad’s partner, 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 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. I started loading up the truck for the solo haul yesterday morning.
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 load the glovebox with disposable masks, hand sanitizer, and Clorox wipes. Kleenex boxes line the pockets along the doors. Cough drops settle into the center console.
Of course, I still pack the essentials: 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, this is 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 jump from bed, hop in the shower, get dressed, and kiss my wife and kids goodbye before 4:15.
Right as I'm walking for the door to the garage, my phone buzzes. My test results were ready, and not a moment too soon. I was in the clear and my trip was confirmed!
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 fluid off his lungs. When they were done, they had removed 18 pounds 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.
It’s 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 buying him some time while kicking the can down the curb.
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 3-hour trek along I-75 to get Up North. While most Michiganders with cabins utilize them exclusively in Summer, we went year-round.
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 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 roads without roadside distractions. The restaurants, gas stations, and billboard grow fewer and farther between. I’ve always been drawn to the seclusion the area provides. It’s quiet and peaceful, and there's a little bit of snowfall lingering from the last accumulation.
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 sign outside 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 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 animals) 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 on the way 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 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, mash the 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, people 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 2 miles per gallon downhill. 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.
I’d always have my dad drive the cars I brought home. I enjoyed how proud he looked when he drove one of my new rides and how impressed he was when he’d hit the throttle. But I’d also learn something in the process, as he’d show me an overlooked feature or talk to me about the benefit of this and that.
One day my then-girlfriend/now-wife, Becky and I were up at the cabin for the weekend. Dad needed to run to the store, and I threw him the keys to the SRT-10 I had driven up. He backed out of the drive, threw it in first gear, gave us a devious smile, and floored it. Streaks of bright red went flying in every direction on the calm, quiet road. The truck spun around twice, jolted forward, and came to an abrupt stop facing the other direction. The spinout left tire marks all over the street, a lingering smell of burnt rubber in the air around us, and my young career flashing before my eyes.
Dad wore a sheepish grin in the driver’s seat. Although he clearly didn’t mean to do what he did, he made a valiant save, somehow keeping the truck from smacking a tree. Even the nearby mailboxes and houses were still standing.
That was 13 years ago.
While today’s ride will undoubtedly be just as memorable, it’s proving to be a bit more reserved at the start. Dad’s taken great care to back out of the drive and he’s going so slowly down the road that the people walking their dogs are nervously putting some extra space between us. You can see them puckering up, wondering if we’re going to fully stop and mug them. They wave tensely as we drive past at four miles per hour.
The drive doesn’t get any faster as we go around the lake. In fact, for the first time in my life, I just witnessed someone get passed in a 25-mph zone. Unfortunately, that someone is us. Oy vey, this trip down memory lane is going to take a while.
To kill the time, I casually ask, “What happened to all the trees at the cabin?”
“I cut the bastards down! Your nephew helped clear it out a few times this summer. I like to see the river!”
Umph. I’m not going to win this one – in fact, I’ve already clearly lost. I ask about the big maple with the cut in it.
“I was going to cut that one down too. Got about halfway through and realized I needed a bigger chainsaw. Thought it would improve the view. How do you like it?”
Truthfully, I miss the trees. I miss walking down to the river on cold snowy mornings and feeling like I had entered a winter wonderland. I miss the animals I’d see huddled underneath them and the deer using them for cover as they walked along in search of sustenance. I miss watching the little bronze balls flung out the end of my Red Ryder BB gun on their long, slow arc toward an unsuspecting blackbird or cedar waxwing.
The new and “improved” landscape looks like a barren field speckled with cattails. It leaves me longing for the old days and old ways.
But, as my grandmother always said, “there’s no sense crying over spilt milk,” so I change the subject as we plod very slowly along the shoreline.
We pass by the old stores in Alden, many of them with different owners, names, and offerings from the ones I remember. One that has weathered many storms appears boarded up for good. Higgins Party Store sits empty, old display shelves knocked over inside the only thing I can see through the windows. I’m sad to realize that I’ll never enjoy another Black Cherry ice cream cone on their benches out front again.
We hit 20 mph as we drive past the old basketball courts, playgrounds, and make out points dotting our path out of town. Time seems to stand still.
Dad takes me to see my good friend, Nick. I hop out with my mask on and take him some Christmas cookies from the kids. We were always close and served as each other’s Best Man, but I haven’t seen him in 18 months. We could spend a month catching up, but settle for 10 minutes. While we’re talking on the porch, I hear the truck door open and I look back. Dad’s taking a leak on Nick’s driveway. The diuretics are doing their trick.
Nick and I chat for a few more minutes and then we say our goodbyes, hoping our next visit will come much sooner than the last. I reclaim my spot in the passenger’s seat and we trudge ahead.
Our drive leads us to the Grass River Natural Area, a place we haven’t visited in years. Dad parks the truck. On warm summer days, you can walk the boardwalk around the river, catching glimpses of garter snakes, deer, turtles, and butterflies – or even an otter if you’re really lucky.
I throw on my backpack and GPS, thinking we’re going to take a decent trek through the enchanted forest.
Walking by the Visitors Center, I say something to Dad, but he doesn’t respond.
I look back.
He’s about 50 yards behind, taking small, cautious steps along the trail. I wait and take note to slow down the rest of the way. We walk along the trail for ten minutes before Dad announces, “I need to take a whiz,” and heads over to a tree.
While he’s taking care of his business, I look around for other signs of life. There aren’t any to be found on this cold December morning. All is quiet. Boomer gets my attention by sniffing excitedly at a nearby stump. There’s something on top of it in the ice. Boomer’s found a critter, although this one isn’t going anywhere fast. The little brown piece of fur and legs ends up being a field mouse that succumbed to the cold. As if undisturbed, Winter has grown around it.
We get to the river boardwalk and I step onto it. Dad hesitates.
“Maybe we should head back,” he says. “I don’t want to fall on that if it’s icy.”
I don’t protest. We walk back to the truck and Dad goes into one of his coughing spells.
“It’s just the cold air,” he offers.
I insist on driving, partly because I want to offer Dad a break and partly because I don’t want to spend a year getting back. Dad agrees, but says we should go see his friend, Bob, before heading home.
“Sounds good. Did you call him to let him know we’re coming?” I ask.
“Hell no! We’ll just show up and see if he’s there!”
Ever since I was a kid, Dad’s taken this approach to house calls. We’ve visited dozens of houses, nursing homes, and hospital beds together – many of them way out of the way – without any warning to the people who are staying there. Sometimes people are there, sometimes they’re not, but we’ve never been turned away. If our targets aren’t fans of these surprise visits, they haven’t shown it yet. In fact, I think they genuinely enjoy them as much as we do.
I’ve adopted a sneak attack strategy of my own over the years, too, and I can’t tell you how freeing it is. I have a tendency of trying to cram too much into a weekend (as Dad says, “trying to put ten pounds of shit in a five-pound bad) and sometimes find myself not able to see everyone I want. When you announce your visit ahead of time, people expect it. You don’t show up, they’re disappointed. But when you don’t announce your visits, there’s only upside! I’ve shown up on many doorsteps after a 9-hour haul to be greeted by a surprised face. Even Grandma didn’t know when I was coming. But you know what? She always seemed to have bacon ready for me.
Back in the truck, Dad gives me some directions to Bob’s place. We’re headed to his workshop today, Dad explains, and we pull up to a nice pole barn at the top of a short, snowy driveway.
“We’re in luck!” Dad says, as he sees Bob’s shiny GMC parked behind the barn.
We climb out of the truck and head for the door.
“Wait just a second,” I hear, and turn to see Dad adding some color to the snow outside. This has to be his 10th piss of the day!
Dad zips up and walks over to the barn. Without knocking, he opens it up and hollers, “Hey Captain! You home?”
When we get inside, I can see Bob tinkering on something in the corner. A true gentleman, he looks over at his unannounced guests and welcomes us inside. Bob’s nearing 90 and has to look closely at me behind my mask. I take it down briefly so he can see me and take in his workshop as we head over to the sitting space. It’s not fancy. The walls aren’t finished, the floor’s bare, and there’s a bunch of wood laying around from various projects. But it’s quiet, it’s warm, and there’s plenty to tinker with. It also provides a safe haven for Bob, where nobody gives him a Honey Do List; he can work on what he wants. Today, he’s building a wooden end table that he’ll take to a craft fair along with his other creations.
It’s brilliant, really. I make a mental note: When I grow up, I want to be like Bob.
Dad and Bob have a long history together, working at the same dealership back in the 70’s and 80’s. In fact, Bob’s the guy who introduced us to the river. He owned the place next door to the cabin for many years. The three of us catch up for a little while, chatting about old cars, new cars, people buying new cars, people fixing up old cars, and a few things in between.
Our sneak attack successful, we exchange goodbyes with Bob and jump back in the truck for the 20-mile ride home.
We’re less than five miles down the road when he barks “Pull over!” I look over and recognize his in-car pee dance that I’ve become familiar with over the years. I find a driveway and pull off. You can see some of the windows on the house, so I tell him to hurry up.
“Damn pills,” he mutters.
I insist on driving, partly because I want to offer Dad a break and partly because I don’t want to spend a year getting back.
We’re less than five miles down the road when he barks “Pull over!” I look over and recognize his in-car pee dance that I’ve become familiar with over the years. I find a driveway and pull off. You can see some of the windows on the house, so I tell him to hurry up.
“Damn pills,” he mutters.
It starts to snow by the time we get back to the cabin and it looks magical coming down, even over the tree-free land. We watch it come down from the warm sunroom and it’s extremely peaceful. As we’re sitting there, I take in the furniture and décor.
It’s hard not to, honestly, as you have to take carefully orchestrated steps to move around the space. The couch serves as an 8-foot barrier between the walkway and sunroom. When the door’s open, you can’t get around it. But if it‘s closed and you make it past the couch, you’re quickly met with the next obstacle: a 1990’s-style wooden dining table and chairs. These random pieces are complemented by some old light pink and pastel blue plaster seagull decorations my mom had hung to accentuate the former couch that’s long gone.
The centerpiece of the room appears to be an old cookie jar my mother bought 30 years ago. It sits proudly on top of the table in the middle of the room.
“That cookie jar’s worth something,” my dad says, sensing me questioning its presence.
So is cocaine, but I don’t see any of that laying around, I think to myself.
Looking around the rest of the cabin, I realize that the interior has changed a lot over the years. It’s clearly the work of a bachelor, too. The carpet was ripped up and replaced with an odd red-colored pattern. There’s a huge pull-out couch taking up the lion’s share of the family room. The tv sits atop an old sewing machine. And the old fridge was replaced with a stainless-steel version when it died. It looks fantastically tacky.
Most of the family photos no longer hang from the walls and have been tucked away. Not a single one of my mother hangs in the cabin.
When this first happened a few years back, I went through a range of emotions. I was sad, angry, and confused. At one point, I even texted my wife while we were all playing cards in the kitchen saying, “I’m going to talk to Dad about Mom’s pictures tomorrow. It’s weird that they’re all gone.” I quickly felt my phone buzz and opened the text response that said “You can talk to me now if you want to. But you should move on. Your mother’s been dead for a few years.”
I thought that was an odd response from Becky. I didn’t even see her type it. I glanced at her, but she wasn’t paying attention to me. I looked back at the text. I cringed when I realized it was from my dad. I had sent the text to him by mistake.
With the benefit of a few more years, I now understand why those pictures don’t hang in the cabin anymore. I’m certain it’s out of respect for Carol. And I get it – after all, Becky and I don’t hang pictures of our former lovers on the walls at our place.
I turn my attention to Dad sitting at the desk where the bulky desktop computer and dark gray monitor used to reside. The desk now houses a sleek mesh router system, a stapler, and room for my dad to write out his checks. Hanging directly above is perhaps my favorite example of bachelor design: a framed poster of a Buick Grand National GNX is flanked by a mount of the northern pike my dad caught in the river. These rest awkwardly above and beside a canvas print of us paddling the canoe down Torch River.
The more I look around, the more I discover that I like the way Dad’s decorated his castle. Sure, I’d do it differently, but he’s not worried about what I think. He’s organized it this way for him. The hodgepodge of furniture strewn about is functional – now he can eat breakfast in the sunroom while enjoying a full unhindered view of the river. The things hanging on the walls serve their purpose, too, reminding him of cherished memories. He couldn't care less about what the folks at Better Homes and Gardens think about it.
I have to applaud him for putting forth the effort – and for being unabashedly genuine.
Up for Anything
The snowflakes grow larger throughout the afternoon and they’re starting to shield our view of the river. After a few hours, there’s a decent accumulation of white stuff on the ground. I’m eager to take Boomer back outside to watch him relish his first real encounter with snow.
“I’m taking the dog for a walk. Want to come with us?”
“No,” Dad replies curtly, leaving no room for misunderstanding.
As I put on my layers and prepare to go outside, I hear him cough a few times. They‘re great, deep coughs – the kind you need a Kleenex to spit large yellow chunks into when they’re finished. I waited patiently for them to end, and then headed outside.
I don‘t make a big deal of Dad’s declination to join us on the walk, but it‘s a significant departure from the norm. Throughout my life, I’d ask my dad to join me in all sorts of activities, and he always accepted the invitation. Always. It didn’t matter the circumstances or how bad my timing was. At the cabin, it wasn’t unusual for me to pounce on him just after he closed his eyes for a nap.
“Huh, what,” would come his startled mid-snore reply as his eyes let the light in once again.
“You were sleeping.”
“Oh, was I?”
“Yup. Do you want to go fishing?”
And, to his credit, he’d get off the couch and take me fishing. Or play P-I-G in the driveway. Or go for a ride in the canoe. Or take the boat into Elk Rapids.
As I got older, the asks became a bit more demanding and exotic.
“Hey Dad, do you want to go on a 30-mile canoe ride through the Okefenokee swamp next weekend? They’ve got alligators and snakes and you sleep in tents on a wooden platform over the water. We’ll drive down Thursday night.”
“Do you and Carol want to go to Germany and France in August? Mike’s having his baby baptized and would like us to be there.”
The answer was always, unequivocally, YES.
But not today. Today, Dad isn’t up for a 10-minute walk in the snow.
Maybe it’s the cough. Maybe it’s the heart issues. Or maybe it’s just his age catching up with him.
I’m lost in thought before realizing that Boomer’s been playing in the snow for a few minutes already. He seems to like it, but he keeps on holding up a paw to keep it from the foreign, cold substance now covering the path. He’s hesitant to go through the deeper drifts along the edges. A duck quacks down by the dock. Boomer’s forgotten about the snow and we’re off, presumably to find the noisemaker. He settles for a showdown with a stump instead.
Dad’s tinkering with his router when we get back inside.
He sees me enter the room and asks, “Do you know how to set these things up?”
He’s holding a Google mesh router in one hand and an access point in the other.
“I can’t get them to connect to each other,” he tells me.
I take a look and get to work, using his phone to connect them to his account. It takes some additional steps and a reset, but we figure it out.
“Good job. Now how about this?” he asks as he hands me an Amazon Echo. “And then maybe we can work on the thermostat.”
Dad has more wireless gadgets than most other 77-year-olds.
We get the Echo set up and move onto the wireless thermostat my nephew bought him for Christmas. I look at the instructions, determine it seems simple enough, and swing into action. I flip the breaker for the furnace and pull the old thermostat off the wall.
The directions say to take note of the wires and how they’re connected. Strike one. The two wires aren’t connected to the old unit: it’s a remote model. Not to worry. How hard can it be with only two wires?
I look back at the instructions and they’re adamant that you need at least three wires for proper setup. Ehh. I try my luck with the two, making my best guess on where they connect to the 16 possible posts on the back plate. Naturally, I attach the red wire to the R post and the white one to W.
Time for the moment of glory. I flip the circuit back on and head over to the newly installed unit. Nothing. I play with the buttons a few times and an error message appears.
“Hey Dad, you need three wires for this thing! You only have two. I’m not even going to mess with it.” I say, trying to save face.
I flip off the circuit again, hurriedly reinstall the old thermostat, and turn the system back on. Nothing. I hit the buttons. No dice.
In the 15 minutes I’ve been messing around, the temp has gone down considerably. After all, the cabin isn’t the most insulated shelter.
In reality, “cabin” is a bit misleading. It’s the term I adopted in recent years to make it sound charming and quaint. Whenever I’m talking to people who belong to society’s upper crust, I find that this simple word impresses them and offers an air of wealth. You can see their wheels turning as they imagine the vast riches my family must command and think about inviting me to their summer compound down on the Cape, just so I’ll return the favor.
Our “cabin” is really just a mobile home. A trailer. It sits on wheels and can be moved at any time with just a modicum of effort. I can still remember the day they pulled the old one off and put this newer 1984 model on the slab.
It’s 70 feet of pre-manufactured goodness. The walls are thin, the ceilings are covered in 'popcorn,' and the floors sink in when you step on them, offering evidence of old water leaks that have hindered their strength. The wood trim and wallpaper – ahead of its time in 1984 – now looks as old and outdated as it is.
It’s never been the nicest home Up North; hell, it’s not even the nicest home on the sleepy street it resides. The money isn’t on this side anyway. It’s over on the nearby lakefronts, with empty land commanding upwards of $7500 for every foot of frontage. Plenty of new money has come in over the years, with multimillion dollar homes now breaking up the blue water views I enjoyed taking in from the backseat during Sunday drives. Their part-time residents and summer guests relish walking out into the clear waters and sandy bottoms during warm weather.
The river is less desirable. The water is clear, but the bottom is filled with seaweed and black muck that swallows things whole. Perfect for the snapping turtle trying to hide; unpleasant for anyone who falls in. The river isn’t too deep, so the big, expensive boats steer clear. Nobody goes up and down our river for sunset cruises. And there’s no sandbar in the middle of the river where hundreds of boats park on weekends to show off their loud speakers and drunk occupants.
All that stuff – and all that money – sticks to the lakes.
It’s no secret that infrastructure improvements go where the tax dollars are. The lakefront developments were greeted with smooth roads, parks, and sewer lines.
Those luxuries have been a little slow coming to the river.
I remember when our septic tank backed up. It was a gradual process, initiated by years of roots growing and working their way inside. The first summer, I just thought the grass must get the ideal amount of sunshine in that location. It offered the brightest greens and fastest-growing grass this side of the Mason-Dixon.
A large, perpetually wet spot marked the green grass the following year. When you’re there on weekends with so much exploring to do, you really don’t think twice about it. You just run through the water and laugh on your way to the shed to grab the tube.
Snow didn’t accumulate on that area all winter. That grass is really smart, my young brain thought.
The following summer a decidedly foul stench enveloped the yard. We’d run down the other side of the trailer to get to the river. Or, better yet, I’d load up the Kawasaki Mule and drive as fast I could, spraying water this way and that.
Then the unthinkable happened one day. I was walking barefoot through the lawn and stepped on something mushy. I looked at my foot and there was no mistaking it; I had stepped on a dark brown, gooey, toilet trout.
We called the septic guy immediately. That afternoon, a big burly dude named Ralph hopped down from his tanker cab to take a look. After realizing what I had been stepping in, I went way out of my way to stay out of the area. Even talking about it made me nauseous.
Ralph didn’t seem to share those reservations. Indeed, he was cut from a different cloth. Ralph was a no-nonsense type and you quickly got the impression he wasn’t there to exchange pleasantries. He took a crowbar over, pulled up the manhole cover, and revealed a fermenting pool of nasty filth. The stench was overbearing. I backed up a few steps while Ralph moved in closer. He dropped his huge suction hose into the brown pool, causing some of the contents to fling out and splash about. Some even got on his clothes. I took a few more steps back.
Ralph told us what we all knew was the problem. I imagine he announced, “Shitter’s full,” although that’s just a guess on my part. By the time he said what he said, I was standing firmly in the middle of our neighbor’s yard and couldn’t hear him.
Now there’s a large mound that sits close to the road where all the turds retire. The grass grows really well there, but I know better than to walk on it.
Back inside, the modern-day thermostat still isn’t working as I tinker with it. Dad and I have slipped our sweatshirts back on. Finally, I admit that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.
“I took it off, put it back on, turned this thing here on, and, well, this dumbass thing is clearly defective. It’s a good thing you got a new one, because this one was going long before I started working on it.”
My dad sighs as I imagine him thinking Too much college; not enough high school and kicking himself for not making me work on the tractors and cars with him.
“It’s okay,” he offers, and suggests we call in a professional.
He makes the call and finds out it’s going to cost $175 just for them to come out for an emergency call. And that doesn’t include any parts or labor. Geesh. Is it too late for me to be a HVAC tech? I look back at the thermostat dangling from the wall and have my answer.
It shouldn’t be this difficult. I examine the thermostat again and check the batteries. I open the furnace door and hit metal things a couple times. I have no idea what I’m doing, but it usually works in the movies. And at the very least, it certainly sounds like I’m doing something productive. I flip the breakers again.
I resort to the instructions again. They may as well be written in Mandarin.
Defeated, I grab a seat on the couch and embrace the cold. It’s so chilly at this point, we may as well move the couch outside.
While we wait for the emergency service, Dad puts on his jacket and plays on his phone. After a few minutes he goes to the thermostat, makes a few clicks, and goes back to his phone. A few minutes more and he does the same thing.
The furnace cranks on.
“How’d you do that?” I ask, in wonder.
“I watched a YouTube video.”
He’s beat me at my own game. I slink away into the sunroom and resign myself to an easier project: putting new batteries in the tacky fishing alarm clock.
Splurging on Dinner
Later that evening, I bundle up and head out to the local grocery store to pick up something for dinner. Thinking it might help with Dad’s cough, I grab a couple cans of chicken noodle soup, a side of garlic toast, and some Traverse City Cherry Bourbon. Okay, the last thing might be for me. I’m a sucker for bourbon, especially a variety you can’t get in the Carolinas.
When I open the oven to heat up the garlic bread, I’m greeted by an odd assortment of cereals, marshmallows, and spices. I forgot that the oven quit a few years ago and it hasn’t quite reached priority status on the list of home improvements. Maybe if a tree sprouted in there, it would get more attention.
I throw the bread in the microwave instead and get the soup simmering. We sit together at the dining room table in the sunroom. It’s nice and it’s quiet.
We spend time bringing each other up to speed on people we know. He asks about some of my friends and their parents. I inquire about an old friend of his.
“He’s doing good. Had some heart trouble a couple months ago,” Dad says, “but he’s still kicking.”
“Does he still live in the same place?”
“Yeah, same place. Used to be his dad’s house,” he says, stirring up a memory. “You know, his dad was tighter than bark on a tree. Your grandpa used to say he ‘wouldn’t give a nickel to watch Christ ride a bicycle.’”
I snicker out loud at the thought.
I’m sure folks have said something similar about Dad before. He hasn’t been known for spending much, as evidenced by the 40-year-old trailer we’re eating in adorned with the red carpet that I really hope was on sale.
A memory comes back from when I was in high school. My uncle had stopped in to stay with us for a night at the trailer and asked to use the phone. My mom waved him to the Mickey Mouse telephone set sitting on our counter and invited him to use it.
My Dad exchanged a glance with her, the kind that communicates more than it seems on the surface. Quickly picking up on it, she said, “Go ahead and use it, but keep it kind of short. Long-distance is fifteen cents a minute up here.”
My uncle made his call, kept it short, and then headed outside, mumbling something along the lines of “They’ve got a goddamn cabin on the water and they give a guy shit about a long-distance phone call!”
At least he got the terminology right.
It’s not that Dad doesn’t splurge; he does. He just doesn’t do it often. And he usually saves his splurging for smaller ticket items.
Take ice fishing, for instance. It’s a hobby we enjoyed up at the cabin maybe a half dozen times a year. But those half dozen excursions were done in style. On a January or February weekend, we’d bundle up in the nicest boots and warmest coats money could buy. Dad would load us up in a truck and drive us out to Kewadin, Clam Lake, or a public access point on Lake Skegemog.
After the snowy drive, the real fun began. We’d back the Kawasaki Mule off the trailer and quickly scramble to load up our 4-person ice shanty, fishing gear, propane heater, and buckets into the back. We’d drive that Mule as fast as it could go over the ice and through the slush, using ice piles as ramps along the way.
Once we found a suitable piece of ice, we’d set up the shanty and get the heater going. Then we’d fire up a gas-powered ice auger to drill a hole in the ice wider than my head. The auger was the ultimate symbol of American strength. Powerful, loud, and completely unnecessary. A single pull on the starter rope and VR-VR-VROOM! Velcro window coverings would come down inside all the other shanties within earshot, the other fishermen scrambling for a view as the beast roared to life. We’d bask in our glory, holding onto the auger for dear life while its spinning metal blades cut through a foot of ice in seconds. We’d let the engine run a bit longer, just because we could. Finally – and triumphantly – we’d turn off the auger, slide the shanty over the holes, and man our posts inside the warm shelter.
My favorite memory of Dad splurging involves a car. It was 2008 and Mom was dying. She had been sick and had defied the odds for several years, but everyone knew the end was drawing nigh. I was still at Chrysler and we were launching a remake of the Dodge Challenger.
The Challenger’s model launch was the hottest one of the decade. It was being offered as an SRT model, complete with a 425-horsepower Hemi V8 that threw down 420 ft-lbs of torque. They paired it with a sleek orange exterior with black racing stripes.
I can’t exaggerate the demand for these cars. Only 5,000 were being built and everyone wanted one. A woman even broke into the Detroit Auto Show after hours that year to pose naked on the hood of the show car. Really. Google it.
I saw one out in the field and fell in love. Dad saw the one at the auto show and he was hooked. The only difference was he could afford it and I couldn’t.
“Can you get me one of those Challengers?” he asked me in early 2008.
“I can try, but it’ll be tough. The dealers are taking orders for ten grand over sticker right now.” I told him, certain that this would turn him away.
“Okay. Well, see if you can find one. Let’s build it in orange and black.”
Holy cow. That’s a lot of long-distance calls.
With a racing pulse, I hung up the phone and went to work.
The dealers I called on at the time were only getting 1-2 Challengers for the entire year. I went through my list and every one of my dealers had their allocations filled with sold orders. All of them, except one.
My smallest dealer in a rural town didn’t have an order placed for the only unit they’d get for the year. I called them up.
“Hey Tyler, I noticed you haven’t placed your Challenger order yet,” I said.
Tyler quickly dismissed it. “I don’t think we’re going to place one. We got burned on a Prowler a few years back that just sat here and didn’t sell. Things like these just don’t sell in our town.”
I was incredulous. Is this guy living under a rock? Hasn’t he seen any of the press? Hasn’t he heard about the naked chick?!
I played it cool. “Well, I understand. Sometimes these things are big gambles. I tell you what. I think I can find you a buyer. Would you mind if I placed the order for my dad in the system? He’ll send you a check for MSRP and we’ll pick it up when it comes in.”
“Yeah, that’ll work. Go ahead,” Tyler said, giving me the green light.
I couldn’t believe it! My hands were shaking as I keyed the order in, checking all the options and selecting the orange and black paint.
I called my dad with the good news. “Write down this order number and keep it handy,” I said.
“Holy shit, Splitshot! Holy shit,” came his exuberant reply.
I had done good.
We told Mom about the Challenger and showed her photos while she laid in the hospital bed in the living room. A fan of cars, too, she was eager to see it. A bigger fan of her boys, she was overjoyed with our enthusiasm.
I checked that order every day to see if it had moved. I bothered the hell out of our Distribution Manager, urging him to put our order in front of all the others.
The effort paid off, as our Challenger started moving down the assembly line in June.
Unfortunately, Mom’s health seemed to be deteriorating as quickly as our car was moving. By the time the Challenger moved off for quality inspections, Mom was back in the hospital. The months and months of dialysis, wound care, and emergency procedures had taken a devastating toll. A shell of her former self, she weighed a paltry 85 pounds.
On the morning of July 2, I called the rest of the family to the hospital. I had just stopped by for a quick visit and Mom told me she didn’t want to continue receiving treatment. No ventilator, no more dialysis, no more fighting the inevitable.
As all of us huddled at the hospital, I got a call from Tyler.
“Hey Andy, your dad’s car just got here. When do you want to pick it up?”
Jesus Christ. Talk about bad timing. I explained our situation to Tyler and said I’d call him back after I had a chance to figure out logistics.
My dad reached out to his good friend, Jim, and asked if he could pick up the car.
Mom died a little after four o’clock the next morning. Jim brought the Challenger to the house around 11:00. She just missed the new car by a few hours; she missed my wedding by three weeks.
A small Dodge Challenger Hot Wheels was buried along with my mother in her coffin.
The real thing still sits covered in the garage at the cabin, showing fewer than 8,000 miles on the odometer. I fire it up when I visit. My heart still races every time she starts up.
A coughing spell brings me back to current times. Dad hasn’t eaten much of his soup and tells me he can’t have that much sodium.
“You should watch your sodium levels, too. You eat a bunch more than I do,” he begins his lecture.
I don’t argue with this opening salvo, thinking it will soon pass. I’m wrong. The barrage continues.
Of all the things wrong with me, I have to imagine that sodium levels are way down the list.
“Ok, Dad. I tell you what. I’ll keep my sodium under tabs if you go get your cough checked out by a specialist.”
He thinks it over for a few seconds.
“Deal. I’ll call them when we get back down state.”
This was easier than I thought.
Getting Old Sucks
After dinner, I get ready to take Boomer for another walk and invite my dad along. Again, he declines.
As Boomer and I get around the curve, I grab my phone and reach out to my sister.
“How’s the trailer?” she asks.
I think CABIN in my head, but don’t correct her.
“It’s pretty good,” I say. “It’s interesting coming up here after being gone so long. Some of it’s the same, but a lot of it has changed. I noticed that back home, too. Didn’t recognize anyone.”
My sister’s quiet for a second. I don’t know if she‘s mulling over what I just said, or I dropped the call.
As I pull the phone from my ear, her voice cuts through the silence. “Doesn’t getting old suck?”
“Yeah yeah,” I reply, taking the ribbing from my sister in stride.
She asks about Dad. I tell her about the cough, and she says he’s had it for over a year.
We chat a few more minutes and hang up.
My sister’s comment about getting old lingers with me after we hang up. To be honest, it bothers me more than it should. Then, Boomer barks at something and I forget all about it as I try to make out the figure in the woods. My eyes haven’t adjusted yet and I can’t see it clearly. Maybe it’s a deer. Maybe it’s a rabbit. Maybe it’s a serial killer aiming a rifle at my head. Boomer and I head back to the cabin and arrive unscathed.
Back in the warmth, I futz around on Facebook a bit and am reminded that the Christmas Star is visible tonight, making its first appearance in something like 30 trillion years.
I decide to see if I can prod my dad into action. “Hey Dad, there’s a star out tonight that won’t come back for a long time. You want to go check it out?”
This time, he agrees. We bundle up again and head out for the dock. The snow’s stopped falling, but the clouds haven’t cleared. They fill the sky, blocking our view of every star in the galaxy. We quickly realize there’s no way we’re going to see it and my dad bails.
“I’m headed back in,” he says between coughs. “Olivia and Everett will have to tell us about it next time it comes! Tell them to send me a signal in Heaven!”
The shortest day of the year comes to an abrupt end. We head back inside, watch a little tv, and saunter off to bed.
Time to Go Fishing
Tuesday morning comes early. Really early. It starts for me at 5:48 am to be exact. I awake to a strange buzzing and beeping noise that I can’t quite place. I check my phone and my watch, neither of which seem to be the culprit. I walk out into the hallway and follow the beeps like breadcrumbs as they lead me to the sunroom. There, I quickly corner the perpetrator.
The tacky little fishing clock is throwing off an alarm on the table. I flip the lights on and try to understand why it‘s making noise. I hadn’t set an alarm when I replaced the batteries, so what was the cause for this spectacular ruckus?
Apparently, the beeps indicate the conditions are right for fishing. The image of a fisherman dressed in heavy layers blinks on the screen and he's holding a fish in his hand. I look out the window to the limits of the lights’ reach. It looks awfully cold and windy. The familiar hum of the furnace reminds me how warm and cozy it is indoors. I hold the fishing clock in my hands trying to figure out how to get it to stop. Just as I'm about to give up and grab a hammer, the little digital fisherman stops blinking and peace resumes.
Dad evidently isn’t too concerned about fishing either. I don’t hear any movement from the back bedroom and know it will be a couple hours before he stirs.
Fully awake, I turn the lights off, plop down on the couch, and stare outside. I can’t begin to tell you how much time I’ve spent looking out these windows. Memories come flooding back about watching the shadows at night while the raccoons and opossums visited our bird feeders. I smile at the thought of how excited I’d be as I quickly whisked away to grab my mom and dad and show them what I’d found. Hours spent watching does bringing their fawns up the path, watching skunks digging for grubs, or swans taking flight up and down the river. Hours spent looking outside on cold mornings just like these and being amazed by the silence of the earth around me.
The furnace had been working hard all night to keep us warm, and finally switched off. The white noise was gone, and the room was completely silent as I kept my gaze focused outside. I could see the wind but couldn’t hear it.
Unprompted, my sister’s words enter my mind.
Growing old? Who the hell is she talking about?
An unplanned conception, I’m the youngest in the family. My brother’s got me by 10 years; my sister’s 8 years my senior.
I’m still a kid for Christ’s sake. I joke around all the time. I’m active. I do fun things while I travel. I still instinctively lurch away from the cops if I have a drink in my hand.
Each year, I take a week off to tackle 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail. It’s a grueling endeavor that takes me up and down the tallest mountains found along the east coast. The trail offers some of the most scenic vistas I’ve ever laid eyes upon, with 100-mile views on clear days. But I don’t sit long to enjoy them, knowing that I have to keep in perpetual motion in order to hit my goals. As soon as I finish that year’s 100 miles, I look at the map to see what’s next. Before enjoying a celebratory beer, I start figuring out next year’s journey.
Family vacations are no different. Most people are content sipping Mai Tai’s all day by the pool in Hawaii. Not me. I’m done with the pool after 20 minutes and would rather spend 16 hours hiking, kayaking, and exploring. We’ve gone on a 10-mile hike in the Waimea Canyon before most people have ventured out for breakfast.There’s a sunrise on the mountaintop that you have to leave the hotel at 3:00 am to take in? Cool, book it.
I approach work trips with the same vigor. I’ll wake up at five o’clock to catch the sunrise over the Charles River or the Golden Gate Bridge. If I’m staying near mountains, I’ll plan a hike. If the ocean’s nearby, I’ll explore the beach, looking for shells to take back to the kids. In the city, I’ll take in a sporting event or two. Anything to keep me out of the boring hotel room.
I don’t move as I ponder my age for the first time.
I’ve never given myself the time to sit and think about it. I’ve been too busy living in fast forward.
Looking back, maybe constant activity and continual change is my coping mechanism.
As a senior in high school, I somehow managed to get accepted at the University of Michigan. Not a satellite location, but the one in Ann Arbor. It was a good school. It also housed my favorite football team. The thought of watching those guys play on Fall Saturdays from the student section captivated me. I enrolled, but only spent one glorious semester in Ann Arbor before deciding to transfer schools. But I didn’t transfer for all the usual reasons; after all, I wasn’t a student-athlete not getting enough playing time.
I left the school of my dreams because my girlfriend dumped me. It’s not like it was entirely my fault . . . she left me for a guy whose parents invented My Little Pony or something ridiculous. This son of a car salesman didn’t stand a chance. Most kids would get over it, stay enrolled, and move on with life. But I was different. This was the first time I had experienced that feeling and I hated it. With a chip on my shoulder, I packed my bags and moved out of Ann Arbor.
That seems to be a trend in my life.
Becky and I have lived in 11 houses, one apartment, and one long-term hotel. I’ve worked for six different companies since college, a couple of them really good places to work. And you can bet that my résumé is consistently up to date.
All this movement isn’t because we’re enrolled in the military; we aren’t. It’s because I suffer from what I call If Only Syndrome.
If only we lived here . . .
If only I worked for . . .
If only we had a cabin on the lake . . .
If only . . .
Determined to never feel the way I felt in Ann Arbor again, I devise an exit strategy when things get too comfortable or if I get the sense that I’m not appreciated any longer. I’m continuously looking for a nicer neighborhood, a better career, and a stronger sense of purpose.
Grief also seems to be an impetus for change in my life. A few months after my mom died, we moved to North Carolina and I switched careers. When my best friend died in 2015, we made another move for another career change.
I’ve become comfortable with taking risks and making moves because we always land on our feet and enjoy success. While it hasn’t been the most conventional path, it’s afforded us plenty of opportunities that never would have presented themselves had we sat still. That said, it’s hard to establish roots when you’re constantly in motion.
Becky is a saint for standing by my side and putting up with all of it. (She also happens to be a remarkable mother to our children, exceptional cook, witty companion, and former beauty queen. Put that in your My Little Pipe and smoke it.)
I’m still on the couch going down this deep, dark, winding path of self-reflection when it dawns on me that I left the University of Michigan over 20 years ago. It’s ancient history.
My mom’s been gone for 12 years; my best friend left this earth five years ago.
I celebrated my 40th birthday in April and my first colonoscopy a few weeks later.
The hair on my head has been graying for the past 6 or 7 years. More concerning, it’s decided to start thinning at a fairly rapid pace, my forehead taking up additional real estate as quickly as my hairline cedes its grip. I’ve even got this really cool bald spot forming in a weird spiral shape on the top of my head. So much for baldness skipping a generation.
I recall the basketball courts we passed along yesterday's drive. Nick and I used to stop every time we drove past for a quick pickup game or three. We could hold our own, regardless of who was playing.
We also had a basketball hoop at the cabin. It was bolted to a pine tree next to the driveway and was installed right at 10 feet. I could dunk on it at one time during my peak, even after the rim height had grown an inch or two along with its wooden host. That hoop’s long gone (it’s demise obviously being that it was attached to a tree), and the last time I played a pickup game was humbling. It’s safe to say I’ve now got a better chance of spontaneously combusting on the court than dunking at regulation height.
Those make out points we passed by are distant memories, too. Sadly, I haven’t been invited to park and suck face at one of those spots in a little over a month (and a dozen years).
I could stand to lose 50 pounds. Some of the weight’s driven by genetics. (Dad always says it’s a good thing we didn’t join the army because we’d make really good targets.) But most of my weight problem is driven by my penchant for bacon, burgers, and bourbon. Truthfully, if I lost 50 pounds, I’d still be in the “Obese” category on those height and weight charts they insist on giving me at every visit to the doctor’s office. Those charts – and the people peddling them – can kiss my bacon-flavored, maple-smothered grits.
My knees creak when I go up and down stairs.
I sleep with a mask. I think it makes me look like a fighter pilot; Becky disagrees. I ask her to refer to me as “Maverick” anyway.
I turn the volume up on the tv a couple notches so I can actually hear the sounds.
I haven’t been carded to buy alcohol in 15 years.
One of my nephews is now a cop.
Holy shit, I’m turning O-L-D.
A Cold Shower Will Help
I’ve had a helluva morning by the time Dad comes to life.
I hear him flush the toilet and walk into the living room. We exchange hellos and I log into my laptop to get some work done. I’ve got a Zoom call first thing this morning, and I take it from the sunroom.
I hear Dad hop in the shower when the video starts.
When it ends a half hour later, the shower’s still going. Concerned, I head back to check it out. Along the way, I see that the noise is actually coming from the sink. The hot water is cranked fully on and I turn it off.
I holler out to Dad, “I just shut off the sink. Any reason you had it on?”
“Yeah. The reason is I forgot to turn it off!”
He’s tinkering on something in the bedroom, so I go back to the computer to knock out some more work. After an hour or so, I head back to take a shower. Hopefully the hot water will make me forget about my newly acknowledged midlife crisis.
I turn the water on and strip down. After a few minutes, I check the temp with my hand and it’s ice cold. Legitimately. I’m actually surprised it’s coming out as liquid instead of cubes.
I crank the lever all the way to the left. A quick check a minute later tells me it’s not going to warm up. Dad must have used up all the hot water warming up the sink.
My body stinks, but there’s no way I can bring myself to hop in the shower. I stand there debating what to do and reach up to feel the water again.
I make contact with the shower head. It's a new, improved model that Dad had added when he replaced the tub. Apparently it's held in place by magnets. As soon as I touch it, it comes off the cradle, stretching out the hose as it falls toward the floor. It resembles a snake dancing around, spraying it’s arctic-blast venom indiscriminately in every direction. It’s hitting the bathroom walls, the ceiling, and the floor. Some water has even hit my ankles, causing immediate jolts of discomfort and adrenaline.
I jump into action, trying desperately to get this five-alarm emergency under control. As my hand makes contact with the hose, the grimacing shower head flips in my direction. I take a direct hit of ice water to my nether regions and groan in an agony I’ve never felt before. If Sasquatch happens to be on the other side of the river, he’s started eagerly swimming across to get a closer look at whatever is producing this high-pitched mating call.
I get the water turned off and stand there looking like a turtle that’s gone back in its shell. I’m in total disbelief. It’s quiet again, except for the water dripping from the ceiling and bathroom door handle.
It almost sounds like the Spring thaw, but the shower head and I know the vicious truth.
If it Walks Like a Duck
Surviving this run-in with hypothermia, I throw on my winter coat, hat, and gloves for a traipse outside. While Boomer’s doing his business, I catch a view of the treehouse out of the corner of my eye.
Dad and I built the thing when I was nine years old, and – like all of us – it’s showing its age. It’s got some large holes in the plywood sides, it’s tilted, and the ladder has fallen from its post, but it’s still standing.
I wasn’t involved too much in the construction of the treehouse (see thermostat installation above), but I’ll remember it as long as I live. Dad and I worked on it over the course of a couple fall weekends and the finishing touches were being installed on September 15. I remember this date clearly because it denoted the opening day of Michigan’s small game hunting season.
Dad and I talked about that day for weeks. I was determined to get a squirrel on opening day and Dad had upgraded me from a Red Ryder to a brand-new Daisy pellet gun for the occasion. With 10 pumps and a pellet loaded, the gun had plenty of power to take down a squirrel with a well-placed shot to the head or chest. I practiced shooting that Daisy relentlessly and had it dialed in for the big day.
It was mid-afternoon and the treehouse needed one final piece to make it complete. Dad told me to stay put while he went to his blue shed in search of a latch for the door and some screws to hold it in place.
I stayed in the treehouse with my pellet gun at the ready when I heard some rustling in the leaves next door. There, at the edge of the swamp, a black squirrel had its head buried in search of acorns. My heart started thumping, sending hot blood and adrenaline to every corner of my body. On the very first day of the season, my most sought-after target stood a mere 15 feet from my new tree blind. If life got better than that, I didn’t know it yet.
The squirrel kept digging in the leaves for a few long minutes. I held my Daisy in my hands with the sights lined up and safety clicked off, ready for my prize to lift its head. Whatever it was after beneath the leaves must have been really good because that squirrel never came up for air. I waited patiently, but it never showed its face.
I glanced back towards the shed and saw my dad making his way back to the treehouse. I tried to get his attention but couldn’t. I didn’t want him to scare away the squirrel before I could get a shot. If he got too close or called out to me, the squirrel would hightail it for cover.
My focus turned back toward the squirrel and I quietly prayed that it would show its head. It didn’t.
Knowing I had less than a minute to bag the squirrel before it got spooked, I decided to take the best shot I could get. I took aim at its side near its front shoulder, squeezed the trigger, and nailed it.
I was extremely proud, but my pride was short-lived.
As soon as the pellet made contact, the squirrel started acting funny. It didn’t go running up a tree or into the brush. And it didn’t make any of the typical squirrel squeaks or grunts. Instead, it went running directly toward the neighbor’s house making a loud “Yip-Yip-Yip” sound with every quick step. I noticed it also didn’t have the long black bushy tail that I had planned to keep in the shed as a trophy of my first kill.
Before it got to the house, the neighbors started yelling in a panicked voice. “Lucy! Lucy! What happened?”
I had shot the neighbor’s Yorkshire Terrier.
The hot blood in my body turned cold and the adrenaline faded as quickly as it came. By the time I reached the last step on the ladder, I was as white as a ghost. My dad, oblivious to what had happened, asked me if I was alright as I ran inside the trailer without uttering a response.
When I got inside, I called for my mom. She came over and immediately knew something was wrong. Dad was at her side by the time I could spit out what happened.
My dad insisted we head over and confess my sin to the neighbors. As you can imagine, I wasn’t high on that idea, but my mom and dad told me it had to be done.
Our neighbor’s fist hit the front door before we did. My parents answered and Mrs. F was standing there in a fit of rage.
“DID YOU SHOOT MY DOG?!”
I looked at my mom and dad. They weren’t going to help.
I tried to speak but couldn’t.
“DID YOU SHOOT MY DOG?!”
I was scared to death. “I-i-it was an ac-ac-accident,” I mumbled.
Mrs. F clearly wasn’t buying what I was selling. Despite telling her the truth, she accused me of lying and went on a tangent about a lawsuit and calling the cops.
“IF SHE DOESN’T MAKE IT, YOU’RE IN BIG TROUBLE!”
I was pretty sure I was in big trouble either way.
Lucy made it through surgery to remove the pellet. Rightly, I paid for her $175 surgery with my next 17-½ weeks of allowance.
Despite still living there, Mrs. F hasn’t talked to me since that unfortunate incident. Neither has anyone in her family.
I look back at the treehouse. Just like Dad, the cabin, and me, it’s past its prime. But the bones are still good. I think to myself maybe I’ll rebuild it one of these days for Olivia and Everett to enjoy.
Don’t worry – I guarantee Olivia won‘t let us shoot any squirrels out of it.
Dad and I lock up the cabin and I take one last trip down to the dock to soak it all up before we hop in the truck to make the trek downstate. I snap a few more photos before rolling out and have Dad join me for a selfie.
I’ve planned the drive between work meetings, but as luck would have it, some last-minute meetings get added to my calendar while we’re on the road.
It seems like I’m either taking phone calls or stopping for a video conference the whole way home. It’s not the way I pictured spending this sacred time with my dad.
We make it back at about five, just in time for me to head inside and connect to their Wi-Fi for another Zoom call. A few minutes in, it’s evident that the material could’ve been covered in an email, but I can’t sign off.
My notes contain scribbles, circles, and 300 variations of my autograph. Finally, it ends, after dragging on for over an hour.
It’s now after 6:00 and I’ve still got a few hours’ worth of driving in front of me tonight. I can’t stick around long.
Dad makes sure to get me fed and hydrated. He gives me some gifts to take back for the kids, and we head out to the drive to say our goodbyes.
I give him a big hug and we hold on tight. Dad’s having trouble getting the words out again.
I can hear him crying as he says, “Thanks for everything.”
I tell him I love him and say goodbye.
As I pull out of the drive, my headlights catch Dad. He’s standing there with some tears in his eyes and that damn cough is causing his body to convulse again.
The greatest person I’ve ever known looks feeble and frail.
I stop the truck and hop out of the cab.
As I head back to Dad, I tell him “I’ll take one more for the road,” and wrap him in a bear hug. Tears stream down both of our cheeks. I turn my face at an angle over his shoulder, so he can’t see me cry.
I stand there hugging him, partly out of fear.
Fear of his cough.
Fear that he’ll catch the damn virus.
Fear of not knowing when I’ll get another visit.
Fear that this is the last time I’ll hold him.
But mostly, I hug him out of gratitude.
Gratitude for saying “yes” to every adventure.
Gratitude for all the early-morning hunting and fishing trips, boat rides, and snowmobile excursions.
Gratitude for helping me learn to enjoy each moment, however difficult and fleeting they may be.
Gratitude for teaching me that life isn’t about having the nicest place or fastest toys; it’s about spending time with those you love.
Gratitude for setting a prime example.
Thanks for everything, Dad.
© 2021 Andy Miller. All rights reserved.
You can reach the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.