Family, Ambushed – Part Two

The Gape-Mouthed Man

Twelve years ago, a week after my wife Margaret, Harry, and our huge dog flew in from Hawai’i to join Coco and me in our new home in Georgia, I’m crammed into an airport van on the way to the Atlanta airport.

I stare out at the summer-green fields and trees blurring by. Beethoven turned way up on my iPod, I try to bury the dark fact nightmare uncertainty of my dad’s fall and traumatic brain injury that I’m flying to at my parents’ house in Delaware. But my earbuds won’t stay in place. Every bump on the road pops one or the other out, replacing furious classical music with the irritated drawl of the driver moaning about airport traffic. The nightmare rushes back in, and I’m transformed into a selfish 2-year-old holding my breath and squeezing my eyes shut: I don’t want to go — you can’t make me. No! No! No! 

At the airport, I try calming myself with deep-breathing exercises while I wait at the gate, because on top of all my other neurotic self-obsessions, I detest flying. The waiting, herding, and lack of control, combined with having to jam all six feet and two hundred pounds of myself into an airline seat sucks my soul down into a dark, hot, and angry place. By the third time the drink cart clipped my elbow during last month’s marathon flight from Honolulu to Atlanta, my daughter, Coco was convinced my head would explode.

“Grow up. This is about Dad, not you.” I tell myself as I seven-eight-nine-ten exhale. “And the flight from Atlanta to Baltimore is only an hour and forty-five minutes.” Full disclosure: Philadelphia International Airport is actually closer to my parents’ house, but the flight is a full two hours and never lands on time, requiring me to sit still a half hour longer in the air. So I opt for the shorter flight and longer drive, following my motto: Take care of your neurotic self-obsessions and they will take care of you.      

On the plane, I’m squeezed between two teenagers even bigger than I am, who, despite being friends — a wild guess I make as they pass chips and cookies back and forth, their crumbs raining down on me — won’t switch seats with me. Neither one likes sitting in the middle.

Keeping my elbows tucked in, I breathe, turn up the Beethoven on my iPod, and read. I shake my head “No” to the flight attendant offering drinks, the plane hits an air pocket and both ear buds fall out, the aisle teen spills root beer on my lap, and the window teen knocks over my water bottle. Arms, napkins, and apologies fly around my face. Pringles drop between the pages of my open book.

I took my ADHD meds right before the flight, as well as the new beta-blocker for my panic attacks, so, jaw-clenched, my exterior remains peaceful and quiet. Inside my dark, hot head, however, I scream like a banshee and beat everyone within reach into a senseless, bloody pulp. No peace for the crazy, but I try. I close my eyes and flash back to last year’s visit with my parents.

Once academics, they’re now in their mid-eighties, living in retirement. I’m in the backyard helping Dad light the charcoal on the grill. He leans on his rolling walker with one hand and drinks a martini with the other. Unlike me, my dad could always handle his liquor. But lately, his crippling disk pain has him popping Percocet and drinking much more than he used to. Dad sips his gin as I finish readying the “chimney charcoal starter” we’re using to get the grill going: Crumpled newspaper gets put at the bottom of the starter’s aluminum tube and I add briquettes on top, per my dad’s careful instructions.

“The back’s bad these days, huh?” I ask as I light the paper.

Dad squints at me. “Yes, it is,” he says. “And how much I drink is none of your business.” He puts down his martini on his walker’s built-in seat and picks up the can of liquid charcoal lighter next to his cane lying on the seat’s edge.

“Um, I don’t think you’re supposed to use charcoal lighter with the charcoal chimney starter, Dad…”   

“Shit, that thing never works.” He squirts the charcoal lighter on the grill and whomp — the charcoal chimney’s engulfed in a tower of flame. He puts down the charcoal lighter and picks up his martini. “Go see if your mother needs help in the kitchen.”

Inside, the water’s boiling on the stove for potatoes but Mom’s not in the kitchen or the living room. I call out, “Mom?”

Her reply is faint and quavering, “In here… I could use some help…”

I find her on the floor in their bedroom, where she’s fallen. She laughs as I help her up and sit her on the bed. “I was getting dizzy, so I came in for a pill, but I dropped them, and I bent over to pick them up but kept going down. Now all the pills are hiding under the bed behind the dust bunnies.” I get her a pill and some water. “I’m fine,” she says, “but you better not leave your father out there by himself too long. He’ll burn the house down.”

In the backyard, the charcoal grill smolders near the walker, but Dad’s not there. Now I’m calling out for him, “Dad?” It’s like who let the dogs out or something. Getting no reply, I run to the side yard. I find him lying on the lawn, the martini glass spilled on the coiled hose. “Dad! Are you all right?” Using all his energy trying to grab his cane that’s fallen out of reach in his pepper patch, he doesn’t answer. I grab the cane and help him up. “What are you doing over here?”

“Weeding, as if it’s any of your business,” he says. Then he laughs and shakes his head. “The damn hose gave me a start. Looked like a snake for a second.” He pulls free from me and leaning on his cane, heads back to the grill, flicking grass off his shorts with his free hand. “If you really want to help, you can get me another martini.”

I pick up the cocktail glass. Tossing his cane aside, Dad leans on his walker and squirts more charcoal lighter on grill. The flames roar again, his crooked grin brightens his face.

 I snap out of the memory as we prepare to land in Baltimore. My brother Rob, a kind, non-neurotic, nondrinker who lives with his wife and two kids near my parents, and also prefers flying in and out of Baltimore, picks me up to take me to Mom and Dad’s house.

The mood in the car during the hour-and-a-half drive to Delaware is subdued as Rob fills me in on the medical news. During the surgery, they had to remove some of Dad’s damaged brain tissue. The docs can’t predict how much of a recovery he’ll make except that it won’t be complete, and it’ll take a long time. Good news is Dad’s at a comprehensive rehab place, and though he’s not well enough yet to begin any kind of therapy, he does recognize family. But he’s also convinced his mother is alive, playing cards, and mixing drinks in the room next to his.

“I bet he wants to go over there for cocktails,” I say.

“You got it,” Rob hoots.

We laugh like our parents do, deflecting the pain, trying to keep our family alive.

Mom, who’s been awaiting my arrival with Rob’s wife and kids, greets us with pizza and ice cream. Tonight, we’ll eat. Tomorrow, I’ll see Dad.

“God, this is a miserable June,” my mother says as we make our way across the muggy, hot parking lot to the entrance of the rehab center where my father is recovering. “It wasn’t supposed to get like this so early.”  

The rehab center’s automatic doors slide open and we walk into the foyer. The blast of air conditioning is a shock. Mom stops to catch her breath.

“You mean the heat?” I ask.

Mom nods. “Mm-hmm … that and the rest of it, I suppose.” She gives my arm a squeeze. “I’m so glad you came to help,” she says.

I’m happy that it makes such a difference to my mom that I’m here. But I’m preoccupied with the realization that this will be the first time I’ve seen my dad since he had a stroke, fell, fractured his skull, and had brain surgery. I want to believe that I can be a help to both him and my mom during this health crisis but I really don’t know how, and if I figure it out, I’m not at all confident I’ll be up to the task. Our history is clear: My father, the real Frank, is practical, wise, and invincible. I’m Frank the third, Trey to the family, the scattered, self-centered, dreamer son. How can I possibly help him? But in my attempts, I can at least hide all my doubt and confusion behind a calm, grown-up front. If I don’t panic, there’s a chance I won’t make this situation worse.

Back home with my wife and children, even though I’m sometimes a scattered, stuttering mess, I know my job and what I need to do to be competent and useful. I don’t know my job with my parents now. This is new territory, and I don’t think they know their roles yet either.

In the foyer of the rehab center, a man wearing a cardigan over a T-shirt rolls up in a wheelchair next to us and stares. Mom smiles at him. “Hello,” she says. “How are you doing today?”

The man frowns at her, turns around, and wheels away. Mom shrugs, releases my arm, and takes back her purse from my shoulder. “Better to walk using my own steam,” she says. “Don’t want to be mistaken for an inmate.”

I follow her down the corridor toward the nurse’s station. Cane in one hand, purse in the other, my mother walks with resolve, her brave, look-the-world-in-the-eyes face pushing past a gauntlet of injured and aged patients resigned to their wheelchairs. We’re headed toward the nurse station when my mother turns away and approaches a shrunken, white-haired patient who’s folded into a wheeled recliner, covered with a blanket, and tucked next to the wall.

We’re here to see my dad, what’s Mom doing over there talking to that unconscious, gape-mouthed ancient person? Just as she was with that guy who wheeled up to us in the foyer, Mom, a happy Iowa farm girl who became a gritty Great Depression kid on the road with her family, has always been unfailingly courteous to others, going out of her way to befriend the lonely and lost. Even the inanimate have benefited from her hospitality. When no one else would claim them, the ashes of Mrs. Yancy, an elderly widow my mother had become friends with before her death, sat in a gift-wrapped box on a bookcase in my parents’ house for years. Mrs. Yancy was toasted on every holiday she spent with the family until one Fourth of July when my mom felt the time was right to bury her in the backyard.

I admire this quality of kindness in my mother, but right now keeping my own panic and fear tied down has frayed my patience thin to breaking and the selfish son in me is breaking through. I want to see my father now. I leave my mother with her new friend and step up to the counter.

“We’re here to see Frank South,” I begin. The head nurse tilts her head toward my mother who is brushing aside a wisp of the ancient patient’s hair. She kisses his forehead. He smiles out of his drugged haze. Opening his eyes, he looks up at my mother and his smile breaks into a crooked grin — my father’s crooked grin.

As I join them, my mother says, “Frank, darling, look who has come to see you. It’s Trey.”

My father’s eyes find mine. He blinks back tears. “Ah, good,” he says. “Good.” He raises an arm and I step into my father’s embrace.

From my memoir “A Chicken in the Wind and How He Grew”

Story originally published in

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Frank South

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