Driving With My Dad

I exited the track to enter the pit lane of Laguna Seca, the legendary race track in Salinas, California, found a spot in the paddock and powered down my car. I had completed the last session of a high performance driving school on a beautiful June day in 2008 with the BMW Car Club. The day was the fulfillment of a long-desired goal of driving at Laguna. The countless times I had driven the course on Xbox were no comparison to the reality of driving it in real life.

I sat there for a few moments to relive the highlights of the day. I flashed back to the first time I drove down the Corkscrew in the morning. I gasped as I came over the crest of the hill and dropped rapidly down three stories of spiral tarmac.  I replayed my second session on the track, where I skimmed apex after apex and remembered with some regret how my last two sessions were driven too fast and and too poorly. Nevertheless, I was filled with a deep sense of satisfaction and the first person I wanted to share it with was my dad, Jay.

As the other drivers packed up their gear from around the paddock, I called him in Houston and told him what went well, what wasn’t so great and what was just sheer fun. I heard pride, happiness and a bit of envy in his voice. I also heard fatigue. He had been diagnosed with leukemia and his treatments at a county hospital were sporadic because he lacked health care coverage. He had undergone a recent course of treatment and was in the hospital when I called.

My dad gave me a love for driving. He handed off his aggressive driving style as well. He had no fear and was ready to let any bone-headed driver know of their error through honking, gestures and retaliatory maneuvers that were neither polite nor safe but which made their point.

I loved the weekends because he and I would drive in the mountains or desert of greater Phoenix. Most of the time, he flung his Datsun 240Z on the mountain twisties but sometimes we would just drive someplace into the desert, “get lost” and then find our way back. We probably didn’t get very lost but I thought we did and I secretly enjoyed being a bit fearful that we wouldn’t find our way home. Inevitably, as the sun dropped lower in the sky, he would suddenly say, “There’s the road we need!” and with a sudden turn of the wheel, we’d be on a road that brought us back to the city.

While my engine cooled down in the paddock with periodic tick-tick-tick sounds, I told him a couple of my memories of driving with him.  He laughed as he realized that one of my favorite mountain drives was also one of his his.

“You have conveniently forgotten that you were so terrified that you got out of your seat and curled up in the footwell.”

I believed it. He often terrified and thrilled me by taking the direction up the mountain that placed the passenger side of the 240Z on the outside edge of the road. As he took turns at alarming speeds, all I could see was blue sky, a sliver of blacktop and plenty of sheer drop-offs from which we could easily have careened to our deaths.

I didn’t remember cowering in the footwell but I do remember the visceral fear I had whenever we drove the mountains together. I loved the fear. I loved the feeling of forces pulling my body as we turned left and right, how I was pressed back hard into the seat when he accelerated and how my body was flung forward against the seatbelt when he braked. Whenever I would sneak looks at him as he drove he sometimes had an expression of joyful concentration. I believe my dad was most himself when he was driving a car or splayed under one on his back while putting a wrench to a bolt that held together something that had gone wrong.

While he was skilled at coaxing speed and more life from his cars, he was substantially less successful as a father and ex-husband. He had been a consistently absent, inattentive dad but there were times when he came into my life in critically formative ways. I carry a lot of him inside me, both good and bad. Talking about Laguna endeared him to me as I realized that we were quite a bit alike. As we came closer to the end of our conversation, I felt that he and I were, at that moment, the closest we had ever been.

Reluctantly, I told him I needed to go. I was tired and still needed to drive back to Cupertino.

He told me he was proud of me, that he was glad I loved to drive and that he appreciated the call to share the day. As I drove home, I felt like something had changed for me as a man. I had honored my dad and included him in what was for me a significant life event and even though I was 42, I felt like I had allowed him to dwell more deeply inside me. I accepted Jay Reynolds for who he was that day and holding him hostage for the sins of his past was no longer satisfying for me.

The next day, his wife, Vicky called me to say that I should quickly come to Houston to see him because he didn’t have much time left. 

The flight to Houston was hard. There was a lot that was unresolved between us and I had no idea if there would be any opportunity to resolve what had been left undone. I had tried to talk about our past with him several times when I was younger but my approach was more accusatory than conciliatory. For obvious reasons, he wasn’t open to that approach. He knew he had failed me in some important ways but could never bring himself to admit them to me. He tried to make up for it in other ways but he never admitted his choices to abandon mom and me.

It was my dad’s nature to not be obligated. I know he cared for us but the commitment was too much. He knew he had abandoned us but he had his reasons. I wonder if the reason he could never apologize for not being around was because he was living according to his nature. Maybe an apology felt like he wasn’t being true to himself. Or maybe he was trapped by his shame. Once a person is isolated by a moat of shame, they feel more shame for having stayed in the moat for so long already and that leads to even more shame that traps them in the moat even longer.

Whatever the reason, we never got to a place of agreement about the past and I had no idea how this trip would to play out. I hoped for a clear conversation of mutual forgiveness but also prepared myself for nothing like that at all.

As soon as I landed, I went to the hospital. Vicky had the sensitivity to let us have some time alone together. We talked about Laguna Seca again and he told me about his experiences at the hospital over the course of his episodic leukemia treatments. As we talked, I was surprised how much love I had for him. It was suddenly apparent to me that after all the years that I hated him, I realized that I still had the love of a son for him.

There was a time many years earlier when I visited him in Arizona. I was probably six or seven years old.  Dad’s friend Jim came over to visit and the two of them were shooting the shit together. I curled up next to him with my head on his chest. I was awed by the resonance of his voice and the sound of his heart beat. I couldn’t understand how there was much more resonance and depth in his voice with my head against his chest than it sounded normally.

As a man, I can parse this memory in a way that helps me recognize that evening was the first time I became aware of and connected with my dad’s masculinity. I wondered if I would have a voice like his some day. I kept expecting him to push me away because of embarrassment in front of Jim but he never did. He did not shy away from that moment. It was one of the few times where he made himself vulnerable to me. Perhaps his vulnerability explains why I vividly remember that evening with him and his friend.

As dad and I talked in the hospital, I wanted to curl up in his lap like that again. To hug him and put my head to his chest and listen to his voice. I didn’t do it because I didn’t understand that moment then as I do today.  I wish I had possessed that awareness because if I had, I would have pulled my chair up next to his bed and hugged his chest.

After a while, he said he was tired and asked if I could come back in a couple hours. I agreed and left to find Vicky in the cafeteria. 

We went to a nearby restaurant and during the meal, dad called her. She looked at me with tight lips as she said, “I understand. It’s ok. We’ll see you tomorrow.”  After she hung up she explained that he had crapped in his bed, was embarrassed and wanted to know if we could see him in the morning.

Sometime around 1am that evening, Vicky called to tell me that dad had a stroke. He had been intubated and if we got there quickly, we could see him before he died. Fortunately, the hotel was not far from the hospital and we met in the lobby before heading up to the room where he was.

He was in a somewhat large room  with an open floor plan. There were less than ten other patients in the room. Curtains separated the beds but not all of them had been pulled for privacy. We found my dad and he passed back and forth from unconsciousness to mumbling incoherence. He knew we were there but he had no ability to speak. That being said, it was indisputably obvious that he was pissed off. He had been adamant about not being resuscitated and he could tell he had been intubated.

Vicky explained to him the staff intubated him to keep him alive until she and I got there. He grunted and gestured his demand to have it removed immediately and it was.

Once the tube was removed from this throat, my dad’s heart and respiration rates dropped in a slow decline. His respiration rate would be fairly constant as his heart rate gradually dropped a few beats per minute and then stabilize. Then his respiration declined.  After the first couple iterations of this pattern, I realized that this was how it would end. I was gripped by the magnitude of the realization that not only was my dad dying but that I would be with him when it happened.

It’s hard for me to put this into words but somehow 42 years of life with him were compressed into a single moment. All the disappointment and anger and unfulfilled longing for him to actively be my dad were compressed and flattened into this second of realization that he was going to die very soon.

We had never reached a resolution to how both of us had hurt the other. It had never been completed and though living through all those times of feeling rejected and unwanted by him was painful for me, they suddenly compressed into this one moment in time.  I realized none of that mattered anymore. I was a man, I was no longer a boy, I was his son and he was my father. I was a man now and I needed to accept that my life as a boy no longer mattered.

I grabbed his hand in both of mine and said, “Dad. We are clear. You and I are clear. You don’t need to take any of this with you.” A couple breaths later he sighed deeply, as if some familiar, ancient burden no longer pressed on him. He didn’t acknowledge me in any way that I recognized and his breathing and heart rate continued to drop until they both fell to null.

My dad was dead and I was with him. I was emotionally blank for some time. Maybe a few moments, maybe several minutes.

Then I felt an intense rush of jealousy but I didn’t understand why.

Then I realized: he knows. He knows what I don’t know and what I long to know. He’s on the other side.

It strikes me that the muteness between the dead and the living is perhaps the greatest distress that the living have to adjust to. In a moment he was gone and in that same moment or some other moment not far away, he had moved into the next phase, not a chrysalis any longer and hopefully as someone free to live without pain and hardship.

My reaction to his death was not sadness but jealousy and that jealousy emerged from a sense of wonder that I was with someone who made that transition as it happened. If it weren’t true that the dead and the living are forced into an aching muteness, a sudden separation from communication, then we could know what is on the other side of death. Yet, there is only silence. We are left with myths and stories that try to fulfill our desperate need to know what is on the other side of death. We long to believe that there is something on the other side that makes all of this sorrow, pain, glory, beauty, strife and love worthwhile. We all carry enormous quantities of emptiness, lovelessness and loneliness and we ache to know: is it worth it?

Several weeks later, Vicky flew out to San Jose to spend a few days with me and Tanya. We drove down to Monterey to a beach not too far from Laguna Seca to spread his ashes. Vicky went to the water first with a plastic bag filled with dad’s remains. She stood in water up to the middle of her thighs and held my dad’s ashes above the waves for a while. Her back faced us as she talked with her husband. Then she turned her back to the breeze and slowly poured some of my father’s ashes into the Pacific Ocean.

I walked toward her as she returned to shore. She handed the remaining ashes to me and I walked parallel to the shore for a while. When I stopped, I reached in to the bag for a fist of his ashes and opened my hand as I lowered it into the water. The motion of the water ebbed across my hand to carry his ashes away each time I lowered a fist full of ashes. When there was nothing left, I tipped the bag upside down, rinsed out the bag and walked back to shore.