The pelicans—excuse me, the goddamn pelicans—are back. They skipped town for the hurricane last fall like everybody else, and weren’t to be seen during a 99-degree Memorial Day weekend, but they made it in time for Father’s Day, gliding over the beachfront homes in a single line, headed wherever it is smug and certain creatures go. My brother says the front pelican breaks the headwind for those that follow, and I like that so much I don’t want to check it.
I can still hear Dad hollering about them last year.
“Mike, Mike! Look at the goddamn pelicans!” he’d shout, over and over and over. By then he maintained a permanent slump in his wheelchair, down and to the right. His hand shook when he pointed toward the sky, halfway outstretched.
“Look at ’em! Goddamn, I tell you what.”
Dad died about halfway between last Father’s Day and this one, on January 11, in a pretty Hospice room with the Penguins’ doowop song “Earth Angel” on the radio.
In one of his previous lives, back in the 1960s and 70s, he’d been a world-class sport parachutist on a team named … the Pelicans. He outlived so many of the ones he flew with, the most difficult death by far being Billy Gifford, a clown of a fellow who was one of Dad’s best friends on the team. His was one of only nine phone numbers my dad had on his flip phone. When Billy died over Thanksgiving weekend in 2015, my dad cried in his chair. Now he was down to eight. “I knew there was a reason he wasn’t answering his phone,” Dad said. When I asked him if he’d be ok, he said, “Yeah, just another bad day.”
Nobody wanted better days more than my dad. After his strokes in 2010 and 2011, he tried pool therapy and anything else to get back to normal. He even managed to get himself in a meeting with a doctor from Duke, high cotton for someone in our family. It’s cliche to brag about how hard your loved one fought in the face of death (what choice do they have?), and I’m proud to say my dad tried harder than most, but what few people talk about is how heartbreaking it is to watch every attempt fail.
“If I could just get up out of this chair,” he’d say, “I’d be back to driving my truck again in no time.”
In the five months since he died, we’ve been doing the best we can. I hesitate to write about him because I don’t want to come across as a wallower, but I miss him. I dream about him. More than anything, I know how much he’d hate to miss being here. My brother, Kenny, bought a house a month after Dad died, Laura and I are renovating the kitchen, the pelicans keep flying. He’d love to see all that.
Laura’s family, 20 to 25 deep depending on the year, spends Father’s Day week at Ocean Isle Beach each summer. My mom retired from teaching first-graders after 40 years in 2014, and in 2015 they moved out of Maryland and to Shallotte, N.C., which happens to be 15 minutes from all of Laura’s summertime memories. After Laura and I started dating, her people invited my people over for dinner. They visited him in the nursing home. They called in meals on some of the worst days. I’m a lucky in-law.
“I’m sure Laura’s told you,” her uncle Grady told me once, not long after we met, “watching you and your brother and your mom with your dad reminds us all of our dad.”
Laura’s grandfather had a stroke, too, in 1987, about 20 years before my father’s, and they both spent their last eight or nine years needing help. Laura’s family always treated my father like their own, and he got a kick out of them.
You’d think we’d have been ready for him to go after eight or nine years of waiting for it, but that’s not the way it works. At least, you’d think we’d welcome the little bit of freedom from caretaking. Especially my mom, who did it every day.
Going anywhere with him was a pain in the ass. The rundown usually went like this: He’d hit the button on his recliner and it would creak forward. One of us would place the walker in front of him. He’d grab the handles and, to buy himself some more time, he’d make a joke about something on the television. Throughout his life, he tried to fill awkward spaces with laughs.
“Look at that Sarah Huckawhatever her name is,” he’d say when the press secretary was on. “She just looks like a liar.”
“Focus, Dad. One-two-threeeeee.”
On three, he’d summon on the strength in his legs and arms and stand in the walker. We’d pull down his pants and hold the pee bottle up to his, you know. It made him as uncomfortable as it made us.
“Can’t believe a word out of her mouth.”
We’d pull up his pants, let him sit to rest, then do the one-two-three again, and pivot him toward his wheelchair, where he’d fall with a thump. We’d wheel him to the passenger’s side and he’d grab the inside of the door and one-two-three, one of us would slide the chair out and stand behind him and put a knee under his left butt cheek to give him a little extra oomph as he slid into the seat.
“Easy! Easy!” he’d yell.
At restaurants he was the show. He’d take the lemon from the rim of his unsweetened tea and chow on it. People all around watched with bewilderment, or maybe disgust, as he scrunched up his face, then stuffed the lemon back in his mouth to finish it off.
We could only eat at restaurants where we knew the bathrooms. Learned that lesson around about 2016, when they came to Charlotte, and I tried to take them to one of my favorite places, Alexander Michael’s. I couldn’t get dad into the men’s stall there, so we used the women’s bathroom, which had a little more space. When we came out, there was a line of women waiting. This was during the months after North Carolina’s bathroom bill became law.
“Glad you got to meet me,” Dad said as I pushed him past them.
There are a thousand other things you notice when you’re with a disabled person. Of course there’s the handicap parking situation, which seems either nonexistent or abused. I wish I had a set of handcuffs every time I saw someone park in a handicap space and run into a store or a bank. But you notice smaller things, too: For instance, next time you’re anywhere, check out the height of the handrails that steer you through your day, up ramps and out on porches. They’re all at eye level for someone in a wheelchair.
NBC Nightly News ran a story this week on a program in Minnesota that allows people 62 and older to audit university classes for $10. It was a nice piece that, like any, made people on the internet mad. Millennials were outraged that their tuition in the same Minnesota higher-education system will likely increase by more than two percent this year. For in-state students, the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus costs $14,760. I get it. It’s unfair. But the overreaction was, too.
I’m 39, just too old to be a millennial and just too young to be a Gen X, and I think one thing’s true across generations: How we care for those who came before us and those who come after us determines not our financial status or social status, but our character. We can bitch all we want about the way Boomers have handled the earth and resources, or we can thank them for being maybe the most progressive generation in American history, one that came of age during the civil rights movement and assassinations and the moon landing and Watergate and did the best they could with all of that.
One of life’s great promises is that no circumstance is more lonesome than growing old. Your parents die, siblings die, friends die. Giving elderly people a chance to keep learning is good for them, and good for us. If you don’t believe me, walk through an assisted living facility sometime. An engaged and active aging population is one of society’s great assets; a swollen and unhealthy one can be one of its great troubles.
Let those seniors learn, I say.
We decided to have our Father’s Day lunch this year at one of the places with the lemons. Crab Catchers is a fishy-smelling restaurant just over the South Carolina line in Little River. We’d gone there with Dad last year on Father’s Day. It’s the closest thing we’ve found here to the crab houses back home in Maryland, where we grew up and where, in one of those other lives, Dad ran his charter-fishing boat on the Chesapeake.
Mom and I drove to pick up Laura from the beach, and Kenny went ahead of us and put our name on the list. On the way to get Laura, the speaker phone rang inside the car.
“Fred” popped up on the screen, as if he was calling.
“Oops,” mom said.
One of her recent incoming calls was from Dad’s phone, when she used it to find her own, and she accidentally hit the button the car.
Crab Catchers has a patio that sits out in the Intracoastal Waterway. A casino boat is usually docked next door. Time was, we’d judge a place like this by how cold the beer is and how hot the crabs are. But the first thing we talked about was the bathroom.
The little hallway area outside of it is tight, and the staff stacks all the extra chairs and tables there. For three years, whenever we went to Crab Catchers, Kenny or I would pull the chairs out into the dining area, and the other would wheel him in and help him with the one-two-threes and the pivots and whatever called at the time.
We didn’t have to worry about any of that this Father’s Day, unfortunately.
Instead, our table was ready when we got there, a shady spot on the waterway, and we walked right up to it. Nobody said, “Excuse me.” Nobody had to move a chair. Too easy.
The waitress brought our menus. She dropped four on the table and said, “And there’s a fifth, right?”
“No, I put it in wrong,” Kenny said. “We just have four.”
Then she brought our waters and Mom said, “OK, now all of us eat the lemon,” and none of us did, because some things don’t need to be passed down.
After lunch, Kenny went back to Charlotte and the rest of us, three of us, went to the beach for a couple of hours and stared at the water. Then we went back up and showered. I was sitting on the deck with a beer on Father’s Day evening when Laura’s mom walked out with a glass of white wine. She raised her glass toward mine for a toast, “I know today’s probably been tough,” she started.
And I told her it was, but at least I can hear his voice every time the pelicans fly by.