My Father: Lost, then Found
The e-mail from Miami reported: Dad has been missing for hours.
Instantly, there flashed a most terrifying image− my father’s 82 year-old sun-spotted face boldly imprinted on a quart of skim. When I called for details, my brother attempted to pacify me by reciting some of Dad’s prior extended escapes.
“Don’t you remember that daytrip he took to the Sawgrass Supermall, and what about all his secret jaunts to watch Jai Alai? Knowing Dad, he’s probably in the E.R., as we speak, having another mole checked.” Yet, when Dad failed to return home for the Monday night movie, we were forced to make dozens of calls, all futile, pursuing his whereabouts. I’ll admit that I purposely held off speaking to my mother, knowing I would hear that we, his children, should once and for all, insist that Dad hand over his car keys. But I’d sooner nap inside a lion’s den, than strip the once very independent man of all driving privileges — his one last bastion of virility.
This time, my mother surprised me.
“I hope he’s not headed up North to you,” she said.
My right eyelid immediately started to twitch. “Why, in God’s name would you think that?”
With the authority of a cardiologist, she reported how Dad counted out a 30-day supply of his Dilantin, Lasix, and Cumadin.
“And not to mention your new Buick,” I added.
“That’s not funny, young lady!”
Funny, yes, because the flipside of all this is wrought with pain and anguish.
The brushstrokes of this family painting might have been softer had my father not suffered severe brain damage during elective surgery over a decade ago. Although he walked within days, he would never again be able to state his own name or the names of his children. His diagnosis, global Aphasia. Dad’s emotions went to work overtime substituting for the innumerable thoughts and words now trapped inside his head. This former Navy man, lover of Kerouac and Baldwin, had to now rely on a woman to perform the tasks he had easily taken for granted: managing money, dealing with handymen, social engagements, and most importantly communicating with all those he cherished.
Mom mentioned Dad had hung some slacks in the backseat of the Buick before driving off into the blinding sun. When asked if she inquired about his destination, she answered: “No, I didn’t want to provoke him.”
I tried to imagine the menu of irritants that could have sent my father packing. Was it my mother taking hours to dress while, bored, Dad paced their narrow driveway, or her scolding him over the egg yolks he consumed at breakfast? Maybe she’d bought another “unnecessary” tchotchke for their home; one of those faux Lladros or another doomed bonsai plant — small rewards she bestowed upon herself for putting up with the guy for nearly 60 years.
My brothers and I suggested she call their credit card company to have them conduct a trace. And within an hour, we learned Dad had plopped down $250 at a Florida HoJo. But until the receipt is processed, we wouldn’t know exactly where. We began to breathe a bit easier picturing him dozing on a vinyl recliner, the remote control clutched in his hand.
The next day we divvied up a list of motels. Some managers cooperated, hearing that Dad takes medication. Others refused to share information, but suggest the $250 is probably a deposit for a four-night stay, including the AARP discount. Frugality always defined him.
By Wednesday, we considered calling the police. But we feared that if they find Dad, they might revoke his license on the spot. He might be judged too hastily on his inability to speak, rather than his skill behind the wheel, which was pretty damn fine considering the circumstances.
Thursday carried stark feelings of irresponsibility. Blame flew through the long-distance wires perching nowhere in particular. We were worried about our father and furious he hadn’t called. He carried a notepad with our numbers; surely someone could have helped him phone.
A collage of freeze frames flashed before me. Maybe Dad was mugged, the Buick stolen. Could he have been planning his suicide? Maybe he ran off with his favorite waitress from Wolfie’s — a chesty blonde who always gave him extra onion pockets and called him “Toots.”
Finally, my brother called the police. They needed a description: “He has silver gray hair and brown eyes. Last seen, he was wearing green plaid pants, white Docksiders, and an expression of tightlipped rage. And look for a spotless, white, Buick, Park Avenue.”
“You just described half the state of Florida,” an officer chuckled. Without us signing an affidavit, they can’t arrest him, but they’ll definitely keep their eyes open.
Mine opened Friday morning expecting my NYC doorman to buzz and say an elderly, unshaven gentleman was in the lobby pointing to a photo of me from his wallet. In that fuzzy moment before waking, I saw myself running to him, crying then scolding.
That same afternoon, four days from when he’d stormed out of his condo, my father strolled back in whistling “Moon River.” My mother was on the phone with us planning our next strategy. She said that Dad allowed her to kiss him lightly on the forehead and to make him a cup of tea and some Bumble Bee.
“He wore this grin,” she said, a sudden lilt to her voice. And I imagined him looking as if he’d mastered some terrific feat — his version of climbing Everest or knocking out Ali in the fifth.
I’m certain that what my father was trying to say, without saying anything at all, was, with all that had happened to him, he was still very much a man — a man who sometimes longed for the freedom of the open road.
Sande Boritz Berger