A couple weeks before my dad passed away, I drove him upstate to have an MRI. One of his eyes had started to bulge, and his optometrist referred him for a scan to look for the cause.
The previous weeks had been a frenzy of one appointment after the other, hurry-up-and-wait for results, more bad news following bad news. Mom had been the one to take him to each appointment, to advocate for him and parse what the doctors were saying, and to handle the calls when they came in. This was something small I could do to offer her some relief, but it also meant spending one-on-one time with Dad. Given what would follow in the next few weeks, I’m really glad I did.
It was about an hour away, and as we navigated the roads, covered in frost heaves and potholes, with me trying to weave around them, I had to laugh at the irony of me driving Dad anywhere under these circumstances.
First, my family teases me because, when I was younger, there wasn’t a pothole or a frost heave I didn’t hit at least once. I have the dubious distinction of having bent all four rims on my Mom’s old Nissan beyond repair. The mechanic who worked on the car said he’d never seen anything like it.
Fifteen years later, here I was, trying my best to avoid every bump, because Dad had developed a sudden tendency toward carsickness along with his mysterious vision problems and the spot on his lung that we were all in denial about.
Second, there’s a running joke in our family that originated about the time I was learning to drive. Dad would take me out to practice with my learner’s permit, and he’d spend most of those drives glued to the door, one hand on the “oh shit” handle (as he referred to it) and the other gripping the armrest, sucking in his breath when I took a corner too fast or came too close to the curb (which was often).
He was a little nervous with his 17-year-old daughter at the wheel, to put it mildly, and it didn’t help that I was a nervous driver. We were so alike, we were a terrible combination. More than once, he’d slam his foot into the floor as if there were an extra brake, and I’d grudgingly remind him that kicking a hole in the car wasn’t going to help anything.
One day, we came back from one such drive and a mutual agreement was made: No more Dad in the car with Caroline, for the sake of preserving our relationship.
But now I was driving him, because he was too sick to drive himself. Thankfully he was in good spirits, so we were able to spend most of the time talking.
He told me how he used to drive this particular route for his job as a rehabilitation counselor. He spent a lot of time in the northern parts of Aroostook County visiting clients — people who had been injured to the point of being unable to work, often at a job that was the only thing they were trained to do.
The work itself was depressing; there often wasn’t much he could do for these people, many of whom were depressed and in chronic pain, and I think that took a toll on him. His colleagues, when he met with them, were heavy drinkers, the types who spent most after-work hours at bars. He didn’t have much passion for rehabilitation besides the fact that it paid the bills (most of the time) and allowed him to work from home.
It also meant a lot of time on the road. I remember his car — a gray VW Jetta — and how it smelled of cigarette smoke, the ashtray was usually full, and how the back was littered with work files and papers and fast food containers.
That life was hard on his body and his mind, he told me. 40-something with two pre-teen kids, a mortgage, a job he didn’t like, and student loans on a master’s degree he wasn’t using.
Of course, I’d known about his work before, but I’d witnessed those years through the eyes of a teenager. Those were tumultuous times for all of us, for different reasons, but this was the first time I’d thought about it from an adult perspective, as a grown woman with a family to support and a job of my own.
He told me how happy he was that Tim and I had steady work in fields we enjoyed, that more than paid the bills, and allowed us to take the time we needed for our family. Grateful that we’d fared better than him.
At the appointment, he couldn’t see the tiny print on the forms, so I helped by reading the questions aloud. We joked about it to ease the tension — ”How have those menstrual cramps been lately, Dad?” — then he went in for the scan, and afterward we went to lunch.
We talked more over hamburgers and fries, about the small stuff, the kids, his vision problems. I don’t remember the details, but I suppose that’s not important. It was the last time we were able to be a father and a daughter, enjoying each other’s company.
On the way back, he started to feel sick, so I let him rest. We got home to find the MRI office had already called, saying the cause of his vision problems were multiple brain lesions, likely metastasized from the cancer growing in his lungs. That was about the time my denial was forced to confront reality.
We’re coming up on the anniversary of his diagnosis, so these thoughts are predominant. It’s hard to believe it’s been a year; the other night I dreamed about him. There was a point where that would have been difficult, but it was nice to see him again.
It’s true that things don’t get better; they get different. It’s easy to reflect on the hard times, but I’ll always remember that afternoon as one of the bright spots in an otherwise somber time.