I spent the two last years of my dad’s life traveling the globe for a job, a lucky perk with terrible timing. My world expanded as Parkinson’s disease shrunk Dad’s world to a hospital bed and the cracks in the ceiling. I’ve learned this lesson again and again: Life’s good sometimes comes mixed with the unspeakably awful. My father, a blur in motion as I grew up, who had earned the nickname “waterbug” at work because he couldn’t sit still, who took me as a teenager to Los Angeles from our home in Tulsa for a weekend just because, lived his last years trapped in a shaking body, his jaw slack, eyes glazed.
Dementia and hallucinations sometimes took him back to work as a maintenance supervisor at American Airlines. He felt the stress of those days too, sometimes becoming agitated that it was time to get a plane out. Sometimes he saw his long-deceased mother and father or talked about taking a trip home to Pennsylvania. Other times, he was lucid and present. I could hear his excitement when I told him my new job sent me on my first trip to Asia. “What time is it there?” he would ask on one of our Skype calls during that trip to Singapore. “What have you seen?”
His interest made me think of his old photo albums, stacked in a cabinet with their wedding photos and other memorabilia of my parents’ lives before marriage. Before anyone called him Dad, my father had joined the Air Force in 1954, working as a mechanic stationed at Sculthorpe Royal Air Force base in England. Whenever he had personal leave time, he went to see another country, and the photo albums gave us glimpses of what he saw. I remember square black-and-white photos of Dad skiing in the Alps, and him squinting at the camera on a gondola in Venice, Italy, shirts and pants dangling from a clothesline above his head.
He carried that love for travel throughout his life. After the service, he worked as an airline mechanic for American Airlines, and took Mom, my sister and me on trips to Hawaii and Florida and New York using the airline’s non-revenue or “non-rev” program that allowed employees and their families to fly for free on stand-by.
“I’ve never been to Africa,” Dad said when I had told him Senegal on the west coast was my next stop. I heard yearning behind his words, as if he wished he were beside me, and I felt deeply sad that his health had shut that door. Even though I spent most of my time in a Dakar hotel conference room, but my dad thrilled as if I’ve been going on safari. I collected impressions of that sunbaked seaside city to share with him and Mom: the tall slender woman in colorful dresses and head cloths, men talking on cell phones and leading goats on leashes through the city streets. How the hotel’s plumbing only provided cold showers. How the sky turned red at dawn. It was September, and tents full of sheep and rams with curled horns dotted the main roads in advance of the Muslim holiday called Tabaski.
“…the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness…” Carl Jung
Stories and souvenir T-shirts became my way of sharing the experiences with my father. Mom said he wore the T-shirts to his many doctor’s and physical therapy appointments, and they acted as conversation starters for my friendly father who always had kind things to say to everyone he encountered. His favorite shirt was a bright red one I bought him in Prague that read: “Czech me out.” His parents had emigrated from Czechoslovakia in the 1920s. For Dad, it didn’t matter that the country’s split in 1993 meant his parents’ hometowns were in Slovakia, not the Czech Republic. He’d grown up saying he was Czech and he loved the wordplay.
In between my trips, I also traveled see him in Houston almost every month. Dad’s health worsened. He slipped away from us in an increasingly wordless sorrow. His eyes stayed unblinkingly open for long periods but at the same time lacked focus, often looking upward. He still smiled but hardly spoke as I talked to him from Toronto, Canada, and after that trip, I spent most of the next two months in Houston while my father did the work of dying. Every day, he drifted further and further away from us. I imagined him living some kind of active mental life, free of his body, traveling through the world and seeing all of the parts he had missed.
After he died in December 2012, I took trips to South Africa and Malaysia and China. I visualized him at each place with me: watching a pride of lions walk by our jeep on safari, baking in the heat of Malaysia’s red-painted town of Melaka, walking on top of the Great Wall of China. His spirit felt strongest in London, about two-and-a-half hours from the air base where he was stationed. Through his eyes, I imagined him as a young man from a small town in Pennsylvania watching the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace or sampling the chaos of Trafalgar Square. He still travels with me today.