My dad has Parkinson's disease. Taking a trip with him one weekend taught me a lot.
"Watch him like a hawk. Take no excuses."
Those were some of my mom's last words to me as I set off with my dad for D.C. He hadn't been up north to see his own father, who is pushing 100, in over a year, and my dad's advanced Parkinson's disease made traveling alone impossible. So I was enlisted to go with him. For the first time, I'd be in charge of his medication, along with shepherding him through the airport, getting him in and out of bed — pretty much everything.
"You can't take him at his word," she'd tell me.
"Don't hand him his pills and walk away. He'll never take them. Don't leave him while he's brushing his teeth at night. He'll never make it to bed before the medicine knocks him out. Don't assume he's going to do what he says he's going to do."
"You have to watch him like a hawk," she said. "Take no excuses."
Maybe that's why it felt so good when I was finally able to text her, on our return trip, that we had made it through security and were almost at our gate.
My dad was in the bathroom while I leaned against the wall outside waiting for him. We were flying out of Reagan International, and in four days of travel, there were no emergencies. No crises. No disasters or catastrophes. There had been no medicine mix-ups, no missed doses, no falls, no accidents. Everything had been fine.
That's not to say it had gone easy, but at least it had gone. Though we weren't home yet.
Not quite anyway.
When my dad came out of the bathroom, we headed to the seating area in front of our gate. As we passed a small concession stand, awkwardly pitted in the middle of the room like a prize counter at an arcade, he mumbled something about being thirsty.
"A pink lemonade sounds good," he said. And he reached out and grabbed one from the cooler.
We had all of our bags on us. Him carrying one, me rolling the other with a duffel slung over its handle. I looked at the narrow, winding queue leading to the cashier and back down at our bulky bags as my dad slowly started to drift away from the concession stand, lemonade still in his grasp.
"Why don't we get settled over by the gate, put our bags down?" I said. "Then I'll come back over and get you something to drink."
With him, I had learned to think several steps ahead. I learned to scout obstacles and anticipate problems.
I learned enough to know that, with only one hand free, he'd have trouble getting his wallet out of his sweatpants, or he'd trip over his feet and tumble into the people in front of us, or he'd inadvertently shoplift this lemonade if I didn't take it and put it back.
But still, it felt awful to say something so patronizing to my own father.
He agreed that we should get settled and we made our way over to the gate, finally coming to a stop in front of a row of roomy handicapped seating.
"Dad, you want to sit here with the bags while I go get us a drink?"
He just stood there.
He does this thing where he's always standing. He'll wander into a living room conversation where everyone's sitting, and he'll just stand in front of a seat and talk from there. You'll ask him if he wants to sit, and he'll bend his knees slightly but then pause, almost as if he's forgotten he was going to sit in the middle of doing it.
There's something unsettling about someone standing when you feel like they should be sitting.
"Dad, you want to just sit here for a minute while I get us a drink?"
On that, he plopped down and I positioned our bags so they'd be in his sight and reach.
"A muffin would be good, too," he added.
"OK. I'll see if they have muffins."
I turned and headed back to the concession stand. I couldn't have walked more than five or six steps before I glanced back over my shoulder at him. He was still sitting there. I don't know what I expected to see — like he was going to erupt in flames the moment he was out of my sight or something.
I got in line, and as I waited my turn, I kept looking back.
“Watch him like a hawk."
We hadn't come this far to have him fall down and break his wrist or have our bags stolen from under his nose.
We hadn't come this far without a disaster to have one now.
I paid for the lemonade and a blueberry muffin I spotted in the display case. And I looked back over at my dad again.
He was standing.
What is he doing? I wondered. Is he sifting through our bags? Is he going to wander off?
I hurried back over and found him contemplating our belongings. He was hoping to find a bag of sliced oranges we'd packed for the trip, trying to solve our luggage like it was some impossible puzzle.
I unzipped the outermost pocket of my suitcase and handed him the oranges, the lemonade, and the muffin.
We both sat down and he began to eat.
He attacked the muffin the way you might eat an apple — gripping it with the entire width of his hand and lifting it to his face for enormous bites. It crumbled as he mauled it, massive pieces tumbling over the wrapper and landing on him. All over his lap and his shirt and his seat and the seat between us.
He was not mortified, like I would have been if it were me.
He wasn't even affected.
Halfway through, he had clumps of muffin pinched precariously between his fingers. He was picking up stray blueberries off the seat and eating them.
People were staring. I wanted to help, to do something, but I didn't know what.
I had my phone to my ear now, working out the last minute details of our shuttle pickup. I had my other hand death-gripped around his pill case, which I was under strict orders to never let out of my sight.
As my dad gnawed his way further into the muffin's core, I noticed this older bald guy in a fleece jacket across from us stealing glances at the scene. I thought about telling him to mind his own business, but reconsidered given the absurdity of what was happening. I understood why he'd be compelled to look.
But I started to hate this random guy anyway.
There was nothing spectacular about him. He was bald with some prickly silver stubble covering his chin and an orange fleece pullover. He was just a guy, really.
But what stood out about this man, to me, was that he didn't have any food stains on his clothes.
He didn't have elastic shoelaces or drawstring pants. He didn't have hearing aids. He didn't have anyone with him to help him get on the plane without getting lost.
I started to hate him because I thought, this is who my dad was supposed to be.
My call finally ended and I hung up. At this point, I had seen enough of the muffin massacre and was ready to go get us a plate, some napkins, something. But I remembered I hadn't gotten us a preboarding pass yet and we'd be boarding any minute. My dad — not surprisingly — doesn't do well with people nipping at his heels, squeezing around him, crowding him, hurrying him. We needed to board before the rest of the passengers. It was one of the last obstacles between us and home.
At the ticketing desk, I kept glancing back as I talked to the agent.
“I'm traveling with my father who is, uh, he has… He's handicapped."
I never know how to describe it.
When it comes to Parkinson's, "handicapped" always seems to be both wildly conservative and entirely overly dramatic at the same time.
It doesn't come close to telling the whole story.
As we wrapped up the transaction at the counter, I caught my dad standing again from the corner of my eye.
Is he sifting through our bags? Is he going to wander off?"
As soon as I got our preboarding pass, I hurried back over to him.
He had, to my complete surprise, cleaned himself off pretty well with a stray napkin. He'd brushed the crumbs away from his shirt and pants. He'd wiped the seat clean, save for a few hangers-on in the crevice. And he had stuffed all the trash into the small white bag that the muffin came in.
In that moment, I got a glimpse of my dad. The real one.
The one who raised three kids and taught us how to throw a football, how to use a hammer, how to treat people. The one who, in another world, would have been leading me through the airport, reciting Civil War trivia as we walked. The one who, to an outsider, would have been just a guy.
The one who, to those who knew him, was far from just a guy.
He looked at me as I approached and said, "Are we ready to go home?"
For a second, it felt like we were already there.
We stood and waited to board, watching travelers deplane from the previous flight. We were mostly silent because no one ever wrote a handbook on how to ask your father if he's sure he doesn't need to use the restroom and then jump into shooting the shit about sports.
So it was easier to just say nothing.
But it was a comfortable silence. Maybe even a happy one. Because the catastrophe I had dreaded and been warned about and tried so hard to avoid, well, it ended up just being a particularly unwieldy muffin.
And all it took was a single napkin to wipe away any trace that anything had ever gone wrong.
If only for a second.