The Runaway

Story appeared in East Hampton Star in Guestwords

The instant e-mail from Miami reported: Dad’s been missing for six hours. At once, I was besieged by a terrifying image—my father’s sun-spotted face imprinted on a quart of skim.

When I called for details, my brother tried pacifying me by reciting some of our father’s prior extended escapes. “Remember his trip to the super mall at Sawgrass and his jaunt at jai alai? Hey, I bet he’s at the ER having that mole checked!” But when Dad failed to return home for the Monday night movie, we made dozens of calls, all futile, pursuing his whereabouts.

I held off speaking to my mother knowing I’d hear how we, the children, should, once and for all, intervene and insist Dad hand over his car keys. But I might prefer a sleepover in a lion’s den, rather than strip him of all driving privileges- his one last bastion of virility. This time my mother surprised me.

“I hope he’s not headed up North…to you.” 

“Why would you think that?” I asked, my right eyelid starting to twitch.

With the authority of a cardiologist, she reported how he’d counted out a thirty-day supply of his Dilantin, Lasix and Cumadin. Not to mention the new Buick, I wanted to add. She said he hung some slacks in the back seat before he drove off into a blinding sun. When I asked if she’d asked about his destination, she hesitated before answering, “Nah, I didn’t want to provoke him.”

I tried to imagine the menu of irritants that could have sent the man packing. Was it my mother taking hours to dress while he paced the eight foot driveway, or her scolding him over the egg yolks he’d consumed at breakfast? Maybe she’d bought another “unnecessary” tchotchke for the home: a faux Lladro or a doomed Bonsai plant—all small rewards she bestowed upon herself for putting up with “that man” for nearly sixty years.

The brushstrokes of this picture might be softer, even serene, had my father not suffered severe brain damage during elective surgery a decade ago. Although he walked within days, even passed a driver’s test, he was left with Global Aphasia. His emotions went to work overtime, substituting for the innumerable thoughts twisted and trapped inside his head. This former Navy man now relied on a woman, to perform tasks he once took for granted: managing money, dealing with handymen and repairs, making social engagements and communicating with friends and loved ones. In her attempt to shield my father, my mother created a chasm between herself and the rest of the world. In her own plight for survival, she became the heavy. 

We suggested she call their credit card company to have them conduct a trace. Within an hour, we learned that Dad plopped down $250 at some HoJo. But until the receipt is processed, we won’t know where. At least, we were able to breathe easier picturing him dozing on a vinyl recliner, the remote control clutched in his hand.

The next day we divvied up a list of motels to call. Some managers cooperated, hearing that Dad was on medication. Others wouldn’t share information, but said the $ 250 was probably a deposit for a four-night stay including his AARP discount. As usual, frugality defined him.

By Wednesday, we considered calling the police. But we’re afraid that if they find him, they might revoke his license on the spot. He might be judged too hastily on his inability to speak, rather than his skill behind the wheel. Thursday brought stark feelings of irresponsibility. Blame flew through the long distance wires perching nowhere in particular. We were worried about our father, and furious he hadn’t called. He carried a notepad with our numbers; surely someone could have helped him phone. I see a collage of freeze frames. Maybe he was mugged; the car stolen. Was he planning suicide, or did he run off with the waitress from Wolfies? the one who gave him extra onion pockets and called him “tootsie?”

Finally, my brother called the police. They needed a description: “He has gray hair and brown eyes. Last seen, he was wearing plaid pants, white docksiders, and an expression of tight-lipped rage. Look for a spotless, white ‘99 Park Avenue.”

“At least it’s not that Town car,” an officer chuckled. Without us signing an affidavit, they couldn’t arrest him; but they’d keep their eyes open.

Mine opened Friday morning expecting to have my doorman buzz to say there was an elderly, unshaven gentleman in my lobby pointing to a photo of me in his wallet. In that fuzzy moment before waking, I saw myself running to him, yelling—then crying.

That same afternoon, four days from when he’d stormed out of his condo, my father strolled back in, whistling Moon River. My mother was on the phone with my brother and me planning the next strategy. She said that Dad “allowed” her to kiss him lightly on the forehead—to make him a cup of tea, and some Bumble Bee.

“He wore this grin,” she said, a sudden lilt to her voice. And I imagined him looking as if he’d mastered some terrific feat—his version of climbing Everest or knocking out Ali in the fifth.

Maybe what my father was trying to say, without saying anything at all, was, with all that had happened to him, he was still a man— a man who sometimes longed for the freedom of the open road.