I hadn’t ever really considered coming back to live in my birth state of California after college. Like so many kids, I’d craved the opposite of what I’d known growing up in Pasadena and Irvine. Among other things, I wanted to live somewhere with changing weather so I could wear seasonally appropriate outfits that included hats.
New York City fit that bill, so in the 1980s I moved east, finished my journalism degree and landed a job. Magazine publishing was thriving, and as a young woman starting her career I felt I’d found my forever place. My dad and I wrote postcards back and forth each week. On mine, decorated with scenes of Central Park in the snow and the like, I’d share my day-to-day life. His postcards were like the art he enjoyed making: decorated with collages he’d create with colorful scraps of contact paper, magazine images and whatever pieces of castoff rope, foil or steel wool he’d find around his house. He’d write about volunteering at the library in Yucaipa, where he’d recently moved, his adventures reading news stories at a local radio station for the blind and his job at the golf course down the road.
I’d try to visit twice a year, budget and time allowing, and we’d browse thrift stores — clothes for me, picture frames for him — and sit on his porch to talk while the sun set over the San Bernardino Mountains. Then, although it felt as if my trip had barely begun, it would be time for me to leave. Pulling out of his driveway, I’d always feel like our conversation had been rudely interrupted. But I was returning to a life I was excited by, a city that still thrilled me.
I did occasionally wonder whether a girl could live on career highs and lows alone. After 20-plus years of riding New York City’s roller coaster of loves lost and found, then inevitably lost again, I met someone whose heart beat in time with mine. Dennis, an actor, music lover and builder of beautiful things (also able to remodel houses), shared his stories, I shared mine, and we began to weave some together. A few months after finding each other, we were winging our way across the country so he could meet my dad.
One year rolled into the next and Dennis would come with me for the dad visit, each too-short long weekend making me a little more grumpy around the subject of time. We’d celebrated my dad's 90th birthday, then I was on a plane the next day because I had to work. And even though my dad didn’t stand on any ceremony around these markers, I felt a deep ache of missing.
But in 2019, when my dad began to talk about selling his place because there was too much maintenance to keep up with, something clicked in me. The magazine industry was in flux, and suddenly my priorities were shifting. Dennis and I explored what a move would mean for our careers. I’d decided to dedicate myself to my writing again as a full-time venture. He talked about reconnecting with actor friends in L.A. and seeing what the West Coast scene might hold for him.
So we sublet our NYC apartment, packed up our truck and hit the road as 2020 clicked over on the calendar. Driving west, the string that had been pulled tight between my dad’s home and mine began to loosen.
I knew there would be the issue of how to be in my dad's life without being too much in his life. He’d been a solo flier for decades, since my parents’ divorce and before that as an only child, so his sense of independence wasn’t in question. He went to three aerobics classes a week, stepped into his arts studio nearly every day, read a short story with lunch and mixed himself a martini each night. It was coaxing him to stay off ladders, put down hammers and hand over weeding shears that would become the challenge.
Six weeks after we’d unpacked our last box in our new apartment in Redlands, a location close enough to my dad’s to be there in a jiff but a fair enough distance as to not be underfoot, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued his stay-at-home orders.
My dad, Dennis and I quickly formed a COVID-19 pod. The only road we traveled was the one connecting our place to his while we worked on adapting to the wonders and frustrations of home-delivery everything. For my dad, this way of shopping was not his style. He enjoyed his every-few-days grocery excursions. They were social — neighbor spotted in aisle 24 — and practical since, as he says, “At 95, I don’t even buy unripened bananas.”
I streamed his aerobics class onto our living room TV, and he’d come over so we could march and balance together behind our dining room chairs while using cans of soup as weights. A couple of times a week, we’d shift the party to his place, sitting on the porch watching blazing sunsets and, one terrifying time, keeping an eye on an actual too-close-for-comfort blaze. We got to know a couple of noisy Western scrub jays who live in his trees.
We told stories — about the graphic arts studio in L.A. where my dad worked when I was young and how much I loved to visit and use all the marking pens. My dad reminisced on childhood baseball games in his Moline, Ill., neighborhood and what Los Angeles was like when he first moved here to attend art school in the 1940s. Dennis would connect the dots of his own California birthplace to his brief spell as a kid in the Midwest.
I’d look back and forth between my father and Dennis and see past, present and future — relaxing into our silences because we didn’t have to pack every thought into a long weekend. I saw how my love of reading fiction and listening to music was born out of my dad’s passion for stories and willingness to take a chance on sounds that weren’t mainstream. Even if I hadn’t particularly understood the jazz he listened to when I was growing up, I recognized it as diving deeper than Top 40, and that was something that would inform my music journalism career.
The future would open up as I watched him negotiate the space between what he wanted to do and what his body would let him do. A chance for me to learn how to be with whatever was happening, not try to figure out a way to fix it. He was giving me the gift of observing age in all its messy realness.
There were many times during our quarantine while weeding his yard, Dennis changing out a sink, my dad blasting his jazz and working on a collage, that I’d be hit with happiness. Even during the terror of an airborne virus that preyed most on people my dad’s age, I’d find myself floating on a raft of joy in our being together, appreciating these moments while a river of terror rolled just underneath. I never let go of my fear that COVID might sink us. I daydreamed about designing a full-body life jacket to zip him up in until the whole thing passed.
At the turn of the year, the vaccine opened up to folks his age — 95! — and I dedicated myself to getting him an appointment. Every time I’d get close, the page would freeze or the site would crash and I’d grit my teeth and start again. When, after the millionth refresh, I managed to book an arrive-in-an-hour slot, I didn’t quite believe it. The confirmation email seemed like being invited to a party hosted by a golden unicorn standing under a double rainbow. But as we pulled into the drive-through vaccination area, I began to realize this scientific miracle was happening. I started to breathe. And smile. Cry a little.
When the nurse handed him his vaccination card, he passed it over to me for safekeeping, and as I tucked it away in my wallet, the day’s date resonated.
I’d been in such a frenzy making the appointment, I hadn’t realized the symbolism. But as I stared at that date, it hit me. It had been one year earlier, almost to the hour, that Dennis and I had pulled into my dad’s Southern California driveway from New York. It was not lost on me either that paper is the traditional marker for a first anniversary.
The piece of card stock in my hand couldn’t have been a better gift. One that would extend our conversation on the porch, at the dining room table, in front of his fireplace and sitting in our backyard. A gift science brought to us, that I could deliver to him, that he can now share with Dennis and me, by continuing to show us what it means to live moment by moment, appreciating how life is fragile but never boring when filled with creativity and love, plus maybe a few perfectly ripe bananas.
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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.