January 24th, 2006
On the flight, everyone slept but me. The video screens kept me awake the whole time, watching movies I didn't want to see.
We got to Chicago, and everybody is hungry. We needed to find something the baby could eat, so we went to a Chinese place because they had plain rice. I asked the people behind the counter if the rice was plain, and the servers were openly hostile. When I finally order, the woman waiting on me literally tosses the styrofoam box on the counter. Welcome back to American customer service.
Our flight to Memphis was delayed several times. While I knew that flights were sometimes delayed, I did not expect that the gate would be changed "on the fly," but when I finally figured out how things worked, I called Dad to tell him about the delays and left a message with my stepmother.
When we finally got on a plane headed for Memphis, it was almost 11 at night, and we got to Memphis near midnight. The airport was empty, and the other passengers left quickly. The stalls were closed, and even the security guards were gone. There was one passenger there waiting for a hotel shuttle to pick him up, and then there was us. After he left, we were alone. I gathered the bags near the door and scanned the parking lot.
So there I was with a wife who doesn't speak English, a baby in a sling over my shoulder who doesn't speak much of anything, a backpack, and two suitcases, and no one was here to pick us up. I called my Dad's home, but there was no answer. When I called from Chicago, my stepmother B had told me that Dad would wait in the car in the handicapped section. There were a lot of handicapped spaces, and I ran around between them trying to remember what his car looked like.
I was caught in a dilemma. If I went to a hotel, it would be like abandoning my father, because he would be left there waiting for us when he arrived, and we did not have a way to contact him. He is handicapped, so he would be sitting there looking for us. However, it was 1:30 in the morning, and I was in a seedy city, loaded down with luggage, and I had a 1-year-old baby strapped in a sling on my chest. I felt vulnerable, and I was responsible for all three of us. R did not even speak English well-enough to recognize threats, and I had to make a decision. This was the beginning of a change in my self-image, particularly regarding my feelings of responsibility for my father's welfare. I was a father now, and that takes precedence over being a son.
I called the first hotel I could find at the free hotel phone at the airport. The night manager answered the phone, and though his English was barely comprehensible, he agreed to come and get us. The hotel was owned by an Indian family, and the night manager was probably the father. His English was probably too poor to do the day shift, but he was gentle, quiet, and direct. I thanked him, paid the bill in advance, and got R and the baby settled in the room. I had only 12 USD, so I called Dad's house to see what was up. According to my step-mother, my father had left an hour ago, and he was on his way. As we left the airport in the hotel shuttle, I remembered seeing a small red light in a parked car far from the handicapped spaces that I had checked. I wondered if Dad was in that cold car, waiting in his silent, gentle way, eating vanilla wafers or fig newtons from a zip-lock bag.
After getting R and the baby settled in, I talked to the night manager, explained the situation best I could - that my father had come to pick us up but that I could not find him - and told him that I need to go and look for Dad. He misunderstood and thought that I was trying to cancel the room. I assured him that I was not asking for my money back. I just needed a cab.
The cab cost 10 USD, leaving me 2 USD... not enough to return to the hotel. I decided I would have to walk back to the hotel if Dad was not there, so I tried to remember the way we took to the airport.
I arrived on the upper parking lot, but there was no one there, so I went down to the lower floor, near arrivals, and there was a car waiting right by the doors in a handicapped space. I did not recognize my own father at first. I could not believe it was him sitting in that car.
It was not just age but also the injuries and the increased weight. His white, curly hair had grown down to his shoulders, and his beard was wispy and long. He was patiently sitting at the wheel. Understandably, he did not get out of the car to greet me.
Our greeting was brief and practical, even dry. I was under too much stress and trying to manage too many things to be affectionate. There was just too much to do. I had to find the way back to the hotel, which was not easy, and I was trying to accept my father's present condition, but the shock was so great that I just put feelings aside and managed the situation.
When we arrived at the hotel and Dad shuffled in with his walker, R had cleaned and fed the baby and was waiting for us. This always amazed me about her. She was from a nice middle-class family, and as our relationship progressed, I let her into the Faulkner-esque stories of where I was from, and she never flinched. She never looked down on me for it. She never ran away. And now, in this situation, she had everything set up for grandpa to meet the baby for the first time. The lights were on, she was smiling, and the baby was happy and bright-eyed. It was as picture-perfect as it could be.
We introduced the baby and held him up so Dad could put his arms around him. While Dad's hip injury was very bad, his increased weight complicated the matter, making moving around and even sitting very difficult. We helped him hold the baby, and my son pulled his hair and beard.
But Dad was tired, and it was "time for my pills". The hotel bed warped under him as he rolled back and forth, slowly moving himself to the center of the bed.
I was past 3 in the morning, and the room had double beds, so I asked Dad to sleep there with us. He called his wife, and amazingly she insisted that we all pack up and go back immediately so that Dad could be there to take care of her. His wife B was like that. She was the stone around his neck, and much of the things I have had to overcome began with their marriage when I was six. Life could have been much different for everyone had they parted.
But Dad refused her this time. It was better for all of us to go back to Oxford together the next day. Dad asked me to bring his bottle from the car, a wide-mouthed milk jug. He found it difficult to get to the bathroom sometimes.
My wife and I sandwiched the baby between us. For the first time, there were three generations of my family in the room. I felt pitiful and rushed, because in spite of having lost 10 years supporting my father, he was in this state, barely shuffling around the room and peeing in a bottle, and he was not even 60 years old yet. I had made very little of my ten years, professionally, and Dad was barely living, too. Not much for me to feel proud about there. But Dad was simple, honest, and direct. Above all, he was kind and good-natured. The pain he was in never came out as anger or even grouchiness. He told me what he needed, and he did what he could. Now he was twitching as he slept, and his breathing stopped and started in fits.
I had arrived in America for the first time in 9 years. I had brought my son back to my roots and my family for the first time. I had come full circle, and as I lay in that dark room, listening to the sounds of my father struggling to breathe, my son suckling and cooing, and the heater murmuring, I felt like I was performing a kind of ritual. This was certainly not a happy homecoming, and it was definitely not a vacation. No one would call this restful or fun. This was a right of passage for me, bringing my past into contact with my present, and in doing so, helping me to realize how far I have come and then let go of the past altogether.