The flight is bumpy, the flight is turbulent, the flight is a flight designed to turn my knuckles white.
It touches down in Albuquerque at midnight. My hometown airport is almost deserted except for a few huddled families. I realize for a small self-pitying moment that no one has ever met me inside an airport. I roll my eyes and call a Lyft to take me to my dad’s place. He volunteered to pick me up at midnight. I politely declined but was secretly horrified: what the fuck, dad? You are 83. You are not picking me up at the airport at midnight.
A month earlier I got a text from him: “hi mike sorry I’ve been out of touch been in the hospital for a week getting out tomorrow don’t worry everything fine phone was dead”. Oh my gosh Dad, I think, you have an iPhone. There are chargers for iPhones literally everywhere Ask the nurse for a charger. Ever since my dad got a cell phone a couple years ago communication has been alternately charming and frustrating. Consider if you will his first text ever to me (to anyone, really), a few years ago:
I wake up the next morning in his guest bedroom. I throw on sweatshorts and a tshirt and pad in my bare feet to the kitchen, override the timer on the coffee maker and start the brew. I look in the cabinet and my Portland soul shrivels a little bit. Yes, he still makes Folgers coffee.
It’s 10am and he still isn’t awake yet so I pour myself some coffee and sit down at the kitchen table in the morning light. The light is bright and clear, I forgot how the light in New Mexico felt even though I was here just last year. It’s going to be a scorching week while I’m here but hey IT’S A DRY HEAT AMIRITE?
I hear a stirring in the living room and see my dad: He is walking in with his walker, and has an oxygen tube in his nose. Also, he is naked except for his underwear. He does not usually do this, wander around the house in his underwear when I am home, so either he 1) forgot I was coming this particular day or 2) was eager to see if I actually arrived safe and sound (much more likely). He is slighter, much thinner than I remember him from a year ago. It’s startling to see him like this; he must have lost what, like 20 pounds during his week in the hospital? Maybe 30?
After our greetings he goes back to throw some clothes on and I consider his weight loss. He wasn’t an overweight man before, but was a big guy. There is always that moment in your life when you realize your parents aren’t superheroes anymore, he’s not the Superman you thought he was when you were little kid. That happened a while ago for me, maybe in middle school? Maybe later. It’s the feeling that comes just before the realization once you’re an adult that you will be their age someday. You will never, ever catch up to their age. And perhaps they had no clue what they were doing either, just like you.
He comes back out, clothed this time. we catch up, we eat meals, we complain about the president, we spend time together silently. While he does his crossword I get on my phone, he gives me sideeye until I say “This is my version of a crossword puzzle. I am solving social media.” He is silent on the subject after that.
I quickly realize that the weight loss has had a positive effect on his mobility. He needs the walker for balance, but he moves much faster with it than he did the year before after his hip surgery. I remember hearing his labored breath on that last trip, whenever he would get up from a chair. On the oxygen, he doesn’t struggle for breath anymore. He volunteers to go get take out from a local restaurant because they have curbside delivery. “Surprisingly, the car is when I feel the most like myself again,” he says. When he’s driving, he is unfettered by the oxygen tube, by his balance, he can drive, can fly as fast as he can press the gas pedal down. I am deeply touched by this, but I don’t tell him that.
The days pass. Coincidentally, I happen to have visited Albuquerque on the same weekend as Gay Pride, just like the year before. I get out of the house early that Saturday, find parking, walk to the fairgrounds. I find myself along the parade route and stop to take some footage, take some photos. Then it happens: first a tear, then two. I retreat to the back of the crowd as I start crying. I am smiling as I am crying, so I think I am happy. I am heartened by the Latino families I see on the parade route, the fathers’ hands on their sons and daughters shoulders, the kids’ eyes filled with wonder as they gaze at all the colors passing by. It’s a far throw from the Albuquerque I grew up with. I used to joke every visit that this city felt more and more conservative every time I visited. I don’t think I’ll make that joke anymore: I was just not looking in the right places.
A couple days pass and it’s time to head back.We get in the car, I pull out of the driveway. I hear his breathing, it seems labored, I ask if he is okay; “do you need to go inside for a second, get a minute on your oxygen?” He insists he does not, I know he is being stubborn because I am sometimes stubborn exactly like him.
We arrive at the airport. My dad gets out of the passenger side, I keep the car running, get out of the car, get my luggage out. I hug him, hold him close. Again, he is shorter than I remember, thinner than I remember. I make the hug count, I overcompensate because that is what I do, that is practically my brand.
I hug him harder. I tell him to text me when he gets home, but not just when he pulls into the driveway, no, no, when he gets *inside the house*, so I know he is safe and sound in air conditioning.
I go to the Albuquerque Sunport™ bar, order a Malbec, God what a fake I am ordering like I know my wines. The bartender brings it of course *just* as I am taking my Xanax out of its unmarked container, placing the dainty peach colored pill on my tongue. Her eyes dart to it and then down almost imperceptibly: “do you want to order any food?” she asks. “Oh no I’m fine” and force my face into the most normal-looking face you have ever seen. I’m sure she has to ask that.
We board, the plane sits. And sits. And sits. Finally the pilot apologizes. We take off and I have a moment of panic when I think I won’t make my connecting flight, is the time change between New Mexico and Arizona? Is it between Arizona and Portland? Fucking Arizona with its ignoring Daylight Savings. I ask an attendant and she assures me the time will change once we land in Arizona. I sit back, my heart slowing.
I look outside and my dad’s face looks back at me, he is flying outside alongside the plane. Except of course he is not, by some trick of the light, some exact balance between the dusk outside the plane and my magazine reading light my own reflection looks back at me. My face is my dad’s. I am getting older, and I wonder as I turn my reading light off if I look like he did at my age.
No, my dad isn’t Superman, but he is close enough.