5:35 AM Central Time. I've been awake for an hour. Why? Not sure. It could be that yesterday was an easier day than the day before; a couple hundred or so miles less than the slog from Mountain Home, Idaho to Colorado Springs, Colorado. Or it could be I dreamt of a Yamaha Enduro and an easier, more care-free, time in life. In the dreams I was acting as delivery boy for my lawyer's office. Shuttling documents in a leather messenger bag. In the dream, I was still me. That is, old. And fatter than I should be. Middle-aged. But I handled that motorcycle with ease. A young runner ran by me with a dog. I used to run cross country in high school. That was before I was old. And fat. I woke up thinking about the dream and about yesterday. Yesterday I felt as if I were chasing ghosts across southern prairies. And the dream felt the same way, although the dream was much cooler. It involved a motorcycle.
Somewhere south of the New Mexico State line, as Bartowsky and I nipped the corner of the Enchanted State, or possibly after we crossed over into "Don't-Mess-With-Texas," I thought about my dad within the context of this trip. We used to drive like banshees all over God's creation. Skiing, going to see the grandparents in Pennsylvania, conventions, etc. Dad was the original nomad.
My pops had a series of two-door coupes that varied over the years. Coupes because a sedan would have been very uncool. I bought a slightly used sedan for this trip. Motorcycle dreams or not, I am not as cool as my Pops. I'm old. And kind of fat. Like the way sugar is "kind of" sweet. But I'm working on it. Not the cool part, the fat part.
At any rate, we were driving along yesterday, Bartowsky was reading, and I was thinking of the many road trips I took with the big guy when I was young. The two last road trips I remember were bittersweet. The older of the two involved flying my then very thin butt down to Louisiana from Portland (where I lived at the time) to drive with my father from Pineville, Louisiana, up the Natchez Trace, and eventually to Pennsylvania. I remember a rest area, trying southern Catfish for the first time, and sitting in a room in Pennsylvania with my dad. Across from us, fidgeting with a blanket over her knees, was my non-verbal, and obviously scared, grandmother. Alzheimer's had knocked at her door, found her home, and ransacked the place with her sitting there the whole time.
The second road road trip on this list of "the last two," involved flying down to Louisiana from Raleigh (where I live now) and retrieving my father along with some of his vast array of 1970's ephemera, and driving him to North Carolina. It took us months to convince him that he should be closer to us for health and safety reasons. The plane was delayed due to thunderstorms in Dallas, and a 4:00 PM arrival time became a 2:00 AM arrival time. My father, who had disconnected his phone, was unreachable. And by the time I arrived, he was also scared. And angry. I tried to sleep in a chair he was leaving behind, but my father hovered nearby like a cat on catnip. He was too jacked up. Wired. And he wanted to go. Finally I acquiesced and we left his apartment, in the dark, and headed for backroads and interstates that would wind us North.
I noticed that the electrical system in his GMC Jimmy would short out whenever I turned on the air conditioning. The car would suddenly drag. When I mentioned this to my pops, he shrugged. He hadn't noticed. We drove in toasty warmth for the rest of the trip. Finally, at one point, I told him that energy had left the body and that I, and he, should rest. I pulled off the interstate into a Hampton Inn's porte cochere. I grabbed a room with two queen beds and went to retrieve my father. I found him rummaging around in the back of the Jimmy. He came up for air with two hundred dollar bills.
"What's that?" I asked.
"For the room," he replied.
"Dad, I paid for it. And they don't take cash. It's all good."
"Oh," he looked defeated. "I'll put it back."
The concerning part was that he had fished the cash out of the car. Turned out that he had his "cash savings" in a box in the back of the GMC. How much? He told me the amount with pride.
"Dad! You're going to get us killed." He looked at me blankly. We went upstairs to our room. I tried to sleep but imagined the car breaking down and some shady mechanic ripping off my dad, or worse. Or a highway patrolman pulling us over and inquiring about drugs or cash.
"No drugs, officer, I mean other than some stool softener, but cash? Yeah. Um... about fifty-three thousand in a balsa wood box held together by staples and Elmer's glue. My dad calls it, 'Fort Knox.' Is that a problem, sir?"
I resolved that if we made it to Raleigh alive that I would take my father directly to the nearest bank.
Once again, he wouldn't let me sleep and we ended up leaving two hours later. He was anxious to get back to North Carolina -where he once lived while in the Army. I was exhausted and pissed. We drove straight through Georgia and South Carolina, and approached the outskirts of Raleigh well past midnight. By this time I was weaving all over the road, and my eyesight was blurry. My pops was wide awake.
"Keep going," he admonished, "you're doing great." And then he turned in his seat, looked at the rear passenger seats, and said, "Did I ever tell you what my son did in college?" That got my attention and I was suddenly fully awake.
"Who are you talking to, Dad?"
"These people," he motioned towards the backseat.
"Dad, we are alone. It's just the two of us." He turned around suddenly to look again. I checked the rear view mirror. Could two people have climbed in while I stopped for gas? There was no one there. Dad said nothing. I chalked it up to delusion brought on by fatigue.
I did get him to Raleigh. And we did get him to a bank. And over the months ahead I would eventually come to realize that Alzheimer's had also knocked on his door and was beginning to slip a toe in to the house. That explained the electrical system on the Jimmy. The talking to spirits in the back seat. Alzheimer's! Like a thief. In the pre-dawn hours. Looking for cash in a flimsy box.
Yesterday, I glanced over at my oldest son. He was on another book. His sixth of the trip. Occasionally I would see him put the book down and stare out at the vastness all around us. I remember reading on the Natchez Trace trip with my dad. Perking up when we hit Tupelo -the birthplace of Elvis.
"It's a big country," my son said. I nodded. "It seems like we just started two days ago," he added later. I nodded again. How many times on trips with my dad, had I made similar comments? How many times had he nodded. How lucky had I been to travel so many miles with him before the Alzheimer's kicked in and smashed all the strongholds? I realize how blessed I have been to take this trip with my son.
We have a couple of days left now, as we approach the Gulf of Mexico. Soon our trip will be over. A couple more days of chasing ghosts.
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