He sits on the back porch to smoke, because he’s not allowed to smoke inside. He has a comfortable chair and a radio out there – tuned to news talk – and a glass of ice water. His dogs like to sit in his lap. The smell from his cigarette sneaks by the back door, through the kitchen to where I’m sitting on the couch. I’d like to go outside and sit with him, but I hate the smell. These fumes have been with me since childhood, and they are of no comfort whatsoever.
It’s my turn now. Time to fly half way round the world to be with my Dad who’s been diagnosed with cancer. Time to make the trip that I’ve seen countless expat friends make to their parents: for dementia, for heart attacks, for Alzheimer’s, for Parkinson’s. When we do get the call – and we all will – we hope we’ll get back in time. We hope we’ll have time, to make up for all that we have lost.
I knew this day was coming. I thought I was prepared, but I don’t think you can ever prepare for your parents getting sick. And when you’ve chosen a life overseas the situation somehow seems more desperate. It takes me a day and a half to get there – 34 hours door to door – and I can only stay one week.
The lady at the rental car place reminds me how to get on the Beltway. I leave the airport and head east on a gray Sunday afternoon. Though I’ve been coming to Houston for 25 years, I don’t call it home. My Dad moved here when I was in college. And if it weren’t for him, my stepmom and their friendly neighborhood Mexican restaurant, I would feel nothing familiar or welcoming about the place. Houston the city is flat, flat, flat. There are only a few pockets of beauty here: the forests around The Woodlands or the bayous and coastline on the way to Galveston. But otherwise this place is prairie flat and industrial ugly. There’s no other way to describe it. Driving on 610 toward the shipping channel, all I see are tired strip malls, freeways, storage units and paint-faded apartment complexes: immediate move-in, no deposit required.
It’s rainy and cold on my first day. My Dad is still recovering from surgery but he’s more active than I thought he’d be. We watch the local evening news where the lead story is about a 15-year-old Clear Lake girl raped and killed in a Satanic ritual. The 17-year-old boy arrested for the crime claims he sold his soul to the devil. He told his accomplice that if he wanted the same for himself, he would first have to kill this girl. The teenagers carved an upside-down cross in to her stomach. This story will play for the rest of the week while I’m here, and I’m reminded why local news is only good for sports and weather.
I drive my Dad all over Pasadena, to two different doctors, to the Social Security office, to the barber and the grocery store for prescriptions and milk and steaks. He is my radar detector, my driving instructor, pointing out every county constable or city police cruiser that could give me a ticket. He knows instinctively when my speed inches one mile above the limit and he warns me so. Watch your speed, he says. It makes me smile. He gives me directions blocks and blocks before I have to turn. I indicate I’m going to turn well before I normally do, to make him feel better. We listen to Country Legends and Sports Talk on the radio. For the sake of our relationship, we haven’t discussed politics since W’s second term. So we talk about Johnny Manziel’s NFL draft prospects and the newly-named coach of the Longhorns. He tells me why the chemical plants have to burn off waste through their smokestacks.
In the parking lots, I sense a direct correlation between the size of a person’s truck or SUV and the level of fury at the current administration. Drivers express their anger in bumper stickers: Reclaim America! Stand and Fight! Don’t Believe the Liberal Media! There are a lot of big trucks, a lot of bumper stickers here.
We drive by tire stores and Salvation Army shops, nail salons and taquerias. On a stretch of lawn outside the post office, there’s a picture of Obama with a Hitler moustache and IMPEACH in big, block letters. Last month they were calling him Satan. Make up your minds already.
I wonder if people would feel better if they lived somewhere more naturally scenic, prettier. Where there was something beautiful on the horizon, and not just power lines and the flares burning at the chemical plants.
Maybe I’m reading too much Joan Didion, maybe I should give the place a chance or at least agree to disagree with their politics. Maybe it’s the shock of mortality, hitting me like a drunk driver on the access road. Whatever it is, it’s tough. It’s tough to be here, but it’s good to be here, with my Dad. I try to keep my emotions in check. I play with his dogs. I talk to my husband and my siblings on the phone. I go shopping at Target. I take photos, of chemical plants. And late one night, while I’m sitting on the couch watching a movie, my Dad comes out of his room for a snack and a smoke. He’s in the mood to talk, so we stay up until 2:30am and we talk – about religion, the Catholic Church, about why he stopped going after he divorced my Mom. He says he still likes the ceremony, the liturgy. His wife was raised Lutheran. He says, you know Lutherans are just bob-tailed Catholics.
It’s been a week of difficult news and a long road to come, but he still has his sense of humor. He still stays up with me.