The Joy Menu #42: Drive

"It wasn’t a sense of duty. It was a gravitational pull — there was no other place I could have been; anywhere else would have felt like dislocation."

Dear Creators,

When my father was diagnosed, it gave me license to do what I wanted to do without hesitation: like a man in a movie with One Big Idea, I swept my arm across the table of life and knocked everything else to the floor.

I left work every Friday (if I went at all) and drove from Vegas to Irvine to sit with him, to talk to him, to listen to his music. I drove back Monday night (or Tuesday morning).

It wasn’t a sense of duty. It was a gravitational pull — there was no other place I could have been; anywhere else would have felt like dislocation. 

In Irvine, we did normal things: tea, errands, talk. I recorded many of our conversations.

When I listen now, I wish for more silence: I wish for less of the sound of my own voice and more of his. I think: why did I talk so much? Why did I think I had so much to say? I wait for his voice, his laugh, his comments. 

I wait for the silence inside which I can still hear his living breath.

For 16 weekends, I drive four hours there and four hours home. I run out of podcasts. I run out of books. I run out of music. The desert is as silent as the road is straight. 

All week I am filled with a longing so intense that by the time I get in the car on Friday it’s as if I’m racing to disprove an absence I already feel, already know, am already grieving.

A friend says, “But at least the drive is beautiful,” and I’m infuriated by the suggestion. The sunburnt sharpness of the sand, the sparse Joshua Trees, the uninviting flatness seems to say: don’t you dare traverse me

I think: this? This nothingness? This impediment?   

I stop seeing the road. I see only the destination — and the destination, ultimately, is death.

When I arrive and he is there, I wrap my arms around him, feel his heavy warmth, the thickness of his back, each coarse beard hair against my own, and something inside me lifts. My body lightens. I feel calm. I have been given back what I’d lost.

He is the same, and quite alive. It feels miraculous. The grief has been postponed.

On this day, we are driving to the post office. 

It’s bright and warm and then suddenly it’s raining. The rain tickles the roof of my dad’s red Lexus and the windshield wipers do their work.

And then it stops. The wide Irvine roads aren’t slick. The city has prepared for this. It’s as safe as it ever was.

I am driving. For maybe the first time in the entirety of our lives together, he sits shotgun (he even drove on the day I passed my driver’s test). 

He isn’t supposed to drive because he’s had a seizure. And though he hasn’t had another one since that first day when they rushed him to the hospital, and though he still sneaks in a drive here and there when he’s alone with my mother, it’s the weekend, and I am home, and so he lets me drive. 

He’s not adept at riding shotgun. Turn right here, he says, when I’m already turning. Go up Alton. Stop. Don’t forget to turn on Walnut. Slow down. You can pass that car.

These are the roads we’ve always driven together; the voiceover is unnecessary. But it is comforting. They remind me of the day I took the SAT, long before Google Maps; I ended up at the wrong testing center and when I called him in a panic, he narrated the proper route off the top of his head, one turn at a time: “Right on Irvine Center Drive; you’ll pass a Shell station; get into the left lane…” (I made it with minutes to spare.)

I know now that this is one of our last normal days. We don’t know this in the moment.

Except we do.

We know our normalcy is tenuous. That our life as father and son is already the stuff of memory. 

While we drive the familiar roads and head toward our familiar destination, we talk about the unfamiliar other road we’re on.

We know that on that road (turn right, turn left; it doesn’t matter) we won’t arrive together; and there won’t be a post office at the end of that drive (no mail comes and goes from there).

And because of this, awkwardly, I balance my phone on the parking brake, and hit record.

You can hear the hum of the car’s engine, the turn signal clicking on and then off. When I finally stop speaking, his voice begins — clear and strong and full of life (later recordings will not sound this way):

“I wouldn’t claim to have any profound thoughts about it. I mean, it is humbling. In the sense that, for me — I think everybody is different — the fact that I am lucid and can think straight, articulate clearly; I feel it’s a gift. As I’m talking I’m thinking: this is good, this feels right. Lucky.

“That I can think; that almost in itself feels like a way of appreciating the moment. Because what is the moment? It’s not when you stop and think about being something or being somewhere; it’s just about doing. When you’re at work and you’re making and planning and looking at what you’re building and how it’s working and if it’s working right, how it’s impacting kids, if it’s the right thing to do: that’s the moment. 

“That’s the moment that you actually live. That’s the moment you can enjoy.”

I hear a rustle: Am I nodding? Am I shifting in my seat? Am I brushing the phone as I shift the microphone toward the shotgun seat, toward my father’s voice?

“After the fact, in moments of rest, it’s very difficult to even talk about living in the moment — because that’s not ‘the moment’ anymore. That’s respite. That’s something else. 

“OK, sure, thinking about what you did and what you’re gonna do — that’s one thing. But actually being in the moment doing it is where it’s at, for me, in terms of living. It’s the day-to-day. The moment to moment. It’s not even significant in any sense. It just is. It’s good. It’s good, you know? 

“It’s not a big revelation, or a big thing. It’s just ‘tick tock tick tock,’ there it goes.”

The audio cuts off. When it starts again, I'm explaining that a text came in, that I responded without knowing it would cancel the voice memo. I ask him to repeat what he’s just said.

“I don’t remember,” he says. 

I say: “But it was really profound”

He laughs. “Profound. And gone forever.” 

I hear him say: “Get in the left lane, if you can.”

The left lane? I ask. 

“Yes,” he says. “You should merge.”

Click-click, the turn signal says.

“You were saying,” I say, “That you don’t have anything profound to say, but…” I pause. On the recording, again, the soft hush of rain falling. The windshield wipers whispering against our breath. Or is that just the sound of the moment passing — white noise, engine, presence, past?

“I don't know,” he says. “I don’t remember what I said. I don’t have anything profound to say about it. I don’t think any profound thoughts exist. It’s really, it just kind of…is.”

The recording stops when we park the car.

Onward toward creative joy,