It was New Year’s Day 2014, cold and gray. Albany hadn’t seen much snow yet and the ground was bare. I boarded Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited mid-morning and headed west. When I arrived in Buffalo, in the dark, the snow was coming down steadily; the roads were white and slick. I still needed to travel fifty miles south, through the dreaded Lake Erie snow belt, to get to my Dad’s. Early the next morning I’d be driving three 80-year olds: my father, stepmother and her sister, Thelma, to their winter home in Florida. My parents had reached the age where they didn’t feel comfortable making the trip on their own so I offered to drive the thousand miles for them. It was still snowing when we left pre-dawn. The going was slow, trying to stay in the two thin, bare asphalt tire tracks in an otherwise white-covered Interstate. We knew that once we got a little south of Erie, PA away from the lake, the snow would ease up and we’d have good roads again. An hour after we left home Joyce remembered she’d left her cellphone charging on the kitchen counter. We weren’t going back. Her son could mail the phone down to her.
Dad rode shotgun, the two sisters shared the back. Over the two-day drive the four of us bantered and bickered and bonded. Every couple hundred miles I prodded Dad with questions about his family, his eight brothers and sisters and their life growing up. I asked him about the war in Korea and his gunshot wound and about my mother and their early years together. Joyce was surprised these two stoic and non-communicative men were actually talking to each other. Being an only child I was closer to my mother when I was young and have only gotten close to Dad since she died back in 1989. Oh, we got along well enough then; it was a happy childhood. But we didn’t do much together. Dad worked hard and had his hobbies and putterings and alone time and I had mine. I am my father’s son. Nowadays we are comfortable with each other and we can sit and not talk together for hours.
I was joining the Peace Corps and would be leaving before they got back from Florida, so this was our goodbye. I’d be gone for two years and I might not see one or both of them again. As things turned out my assignment to Ukraine was aborted just before it began and I received the blessing of another year to spend time with my father and Joyce before my new assignment in Thailand. On New Year’s Day 2015 we said our goodbyes again.
My family and I are from the ‘no news is good news’ school of communication and during a year and a half in Thailand we had chatted fewer than a half dozen times. My Dad doesn’t use the computer and Joyce isn’t one for lengthy emails. She sometimes loses them before, or while, hitting the send button, so she keeps them brief, having less to remember when she needs to type the message a second or third time. The message this one particular morning said that they “didn’t make out well,” that they were keeping Dad in the hospital for more tests and it didn’t look like he’d be getting a new valve. It ended with, “Give me a call!” It was 6:30 AM my time (Wednesday), 7:30 PM her time (Tuesday). I needed to call before she took her hearing aids out for the night.
Dad has had heart problems for years, two bypasses, two pacemaker installations and he’d been getting increasingly weak over the past year. He’d lost all energy and couldn’t move off the couch. It was a struggle for him to take a shower. Joyce couldn’t remember everything the doctors said, she has her own issues and she’s been tired and frustrated dealing with Dad’s weakness and obstinacy. Apparently the doctors couldn’t, or wouldn’t, fix the heart valve. His lungs and stomach were filling with fluids and he needed frequent draining. The doctors were willing to take care of that and keep him comfortable. The news didn’t sound good to me either. I needed to go home.
Dad and Joyce are both 84 and even though we’d said our goodbyes twice, I felt that wasn’t going to be enough. I needed to be closer than half way around the world. I needed to sit with him a few more times and ask more of the questions I failed to ask during that trip to Florida and throughout my life these past 60 years. Joyce’s email and the ensuing conversation rattled me and it gave me the excuse I needed, the excuse I’d been looking for, to end my Peace Corps service. I was going to need to say goodbye to Thailand too.