Driving My Father Home

“At last we seemed made of the same stuff . . . “

Russell Martin
Jun 5, 2015 · 17 min read


IT WAS THE early autumn of 1968, that year in which so much of the world seemed to have come unmoored from its moral shore, and I was en route to Barcelona — a sixteen year old bound for a school-year abroad saying goodbye to his family at Denver’s old Stapleton airport. While we waited for my flight, we stood for a time in the warm September sun on a rooftop observation deck, all of us finding those moments a little awkward, I remember, watching a succession of propellered airplanes arrive and depart among the jets and saying only a little. My father — tall, self-possessed, his hair worn in a flat-top in those days — was particularly quiet, which was his lifelong way, and many years later I was surprised when my mother told me that after he rather stiffly had shaken my hand and watched me recede from sight down a jetway, he had begun to cry. Perhaps they simply were tears mixed of pride and hope, but I suspect he also observed how very frightened I was to be heading alone out into a world where he would not be by my side.

It’s certain that my father cried a few more times in his life — on the day his mother died, on the day when a grandson was stillborn — but as far as I know, he cried only once more in a context that had something to do with me. Within days of that second and final occasion, in the spring of this year, by chance I was scheduled to fly to Barcelona again — this time to spend two months at work in a city I still love decades later — but my father clearly was living his last days, and the question of whether it was the right time to leave for Europe was one I necessarily attended to constantly.

My father had been ill for a number of years — a lifetime of smoking had made the essential act of breathing a difficult and always-anxious struggle for him — and in the five months since Thanksgiving he had been hospitalized seven times in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, the town on the California border where London Bridge has been reborn in an unlikely desert setting and where he and my mother spent each winter. I had seen him twice during that time, and his doctors repeatedly had made it clear to him and to all of us that although his life could not endure too long, it was impossible to predict when his last breath would come. His own deep hope was to be able to return to Cortez, the town in southwestern Colorado that had been his home throughout his life — to the house he had built and lived in for fifty years — before he died, but by now his condition had worsened enough that it was difficult to imagine him surviving an eight-hour journey in a car, and his continuous need for augmented oxygen and the myriad complexities of flying him home made that option unthinkable. A further complication was the fact that he had been hospitalized yet again, and his physicians — although mindful of his desire to return to Colorado — argued that he was far too ill to attempt the trip, implying without being brave enough to tell him directly that he might well die en route.

As do so many spouses in similar circumstances, my mother struggled to find a way to attend to both the needs of my father’s body and those of his still-strong spirit until one morning the way simply was clear to her, and she reached me by telephone in Denver with a resolve that had hugely brightened her outlook. Could my wife Lydia and I fly to Arizona; could we get there soon and drive my father to Cortez? Could we help her negotiate a path through a labyrinthine medical bureaucracy that would allow him to leave the hospital against his doctors’ orders?

When we arrived the following morning and my mother met us at the airport, she reported — as if to collectively assure us that we were doing the right thing — that when she had told my father, lying still and wordlessly in his hospital bed, that I was on my way and that somehow we would get him home, he had cried again. This time, however, I suspect the tears came from his own fears — rather than out of a parental concern for mine — and this time the journey at hand was simply a final trip to an old man’s truest and safest home.

We arrived at the hospital at ten o’clock that morning, but it was three in the afternoon before we had met with and assured a succession of nurses, therapists, physicians, and administrators that we knew we were acting against their recommendations, and my father had signed documents attesting to that fact, relieving the hospital of any liability, should his condition worsen. At last I pulled my parents’ car up to the door where a none-too-acquiescent nurse had delivered him in a wheelchair, dressed in pajamas now instead of a hospital gown. He appeared particularly fragile as he squinted against the bright desert sun; he had grown terribly thin except that both his belly and his feet now were shockingly swollen, and his once-thick hair had begun to fall out in distressing clumps.

Getting him transferred and comfortably seated in the car took long and worry-filled minutes, then I drove slowly the few blocks to the condominium where he would spend a final night in Arizona. He was hugely unsteady on his feet, and from behind I wrapped my arms around his chest and lifted him up each step that led to the second-floor condo, then he collapsed into his leather easy chair — his depression at his helplessness and his dying waxing over him like a pall — until it was time to eat the supper of barbecued ribs he had requested, which, together with a stiff scotch, markedly lifted his spirits.

We rented a small U-Haul trailer and filled it with my parents’ winter belongings, careful not to let my father observe that our packing of all of his things proved the likelihood that he would not return to a place he had grown very fond of over the preceding decade. Then, shortly after dawn the following morning, three of us worked quickly to close up the condo, load a substantial supply of oxygen bottles, and ready my father for the long day ahead before we descended the stairs — slowly, laboriously, his breathing and what little strength he had terribly taxed by the effort — then we drove out of town with the quietest kind of ceremony, the desert air sweet and still cool, the craggy summits of the picachos glowing orange in the early light.

It was a measure of the way in which my father planned each day of his life as meticulously as he could that shortly before our departure he asked my mother to call a lifelong friend and retired mortician to ask what, in fact, we should do if he were to die during the drive. The advice we received, and which my father responded to without emotion, was for us to do nothing other than continue on to Colorado — certainly not to stop or alert any authorities — and the friend went so far as to suggest that anyone inquiring might be told that my father was simply, and very soundly, asleep.

And he did sleep during much of the drive, his gentle snoring a kind of assurance to the three of us that all was temporarily well, and I realized as I drove through the encircling desert that in half a century of living I’d never really been able to do anything for my father before. I’d never truly come to his aid in the way it seemed certain that I was now — doing a very small thing aimed at allowing him to be in the place where he chose to be on the day his difficult breaths and his eighty-one years were done. Well into my middle age, the tables had turned at last, and my deep sadness at his demise was mitigated by a satisfying kind of pleasure I took in being needed at that moment by this often-silent man.

CLAUDE VINCENT MARTIN, my father, had grown up on a dry-land farm at the far western edge of the bowl-shaped valley surrounding Cortez, his own parents poor enough that none of the early photographs of him show him wearing shoes. But somehow — and in a way that was echoed by so many men of his generation — he was able over the span of his years to dramatically alter those early circumstances and to make a life for himself and his family that was nothing less than a remarkable achievement. It was his lifelong focus on planning the thing that would happen next that surely helped him survive the Allied forces’ march across France in 1945, and it was his understanding that he ultimately could offer his children nothing more important than opportunities to grow that allowed him to readily accept significant economic sacrifices in order to send me to Spain and give all three of his children the best possible experiences in college. From early jobs shining shoes, candling eggs, and stacking feed sacks, he eventually made his way to the ownership of an insurance business that bore his name, one with branches in several neighboring towns, as well as a position as a director of a local bank he valued highly enough that he faithfully attended meetings by conference call during his winter sojourns in Arizona.

Yet for eighty-one years there was something in his quiet nature, in his lifelong employment of very few words, that made him essentially enigmatic, that made people want to know more of him, and for me, his only son, always there was a desire for deeper connection, for a way to feel a direct link between his life and mine, for proof that he loved this boy whom he had wrought, this man who was so different from him in so many ways. But we get the lives — and the parents — that are given to us, and my father always had proven to me that I could accomplish anything I chose to, even if it remained a bit of a struggle for him to give me an all-embracing hug. I know I thanked him for a mountain of gifts to me, and I wanted to believe that even in my most interior place there was nothing I held against him.

And the wonder at the end of his days was that in a way I cannot yet entirely comprehend, there was emotional linkage at last, a connection that quietly accompanied us in that final spring of his life as I did what I could to get him home. At those times when I would wrap my arms around a chest stripped of all its muscle to lift him from a chair; when he would hold my hand tightly with his own to steady himself as he took a few uncertain steps; when he would turn to me repeatedly from the passenger seat of the car on the day of our long drive to ask in a raspy whisper, “How’re we doing?” and I would nod that all was well, I know I felt closer to him than ever before in my life — not because he was dying, but because he was alive, and he was vulnerable, and I’m vulnerable so often as well, and at last we seemed made of the same stuff.

DRIVING EAST ON Interstate 40, we wound through the sprawling town of Kingman then climbed up out of the Sonoran desert. Blooming ocotillos gave way to twisted juniper trees, and as we crested the Mogollon Rim, tall ponderosas commanded the view, yet we were shocked to see how many of them — hundreds across the sweep of a single hillside — were dying, their needles a tawny brown instead of deep green, the trees weakened first by drought and then killed by an infestation of beetles. No one mentioned the metaphor, yet neither was it lost on any of us, my father least of all, as we looked out at the devastation, at how death stood starkly in the foreground that morning, how much it commanded the day.

But my father’s appetite continued to attest to his ongoing life, and he was eager on the northern outskirts of Flagstaff to stop at a roadhouse called Mary’s Café that he and my mother made a regular stopping point, the kind of place where men with their names tooled onto their belts nurse cups of black coffee all morning, where waitresses who’ve led hard lives call each of their customers “Hon.” It took some time to get my father inside and securely settled in a booth, and my mother was very distressed when she checked to see how low his blood-oxygen level had dropped in the effort for him to hobble just thirty feet. But he was hungry nonetheless, and at eleven o’clock he was cheered that we still could order breakfast, and he heartily ate eggs and bacon and biscuits and gravy and then, in response to something our waitress said, utterly astonished us by offering a few bars of an old folk tune called “I Was Born About Ten Thousand Years Ago” — “and there’s nothin’ in this world that I don’t know” — in the deep base voice with which he very seldom sang.

Perhaps it was the tempting smell of the cigarette smoke that clouded the café’s air; perhaps it was the clatter of plates and cups and its convivial country cadences, but whatever it was, Mary’s Café was a remarkable tonic for my father that morning. Although his hand trembled wildly as he lifted each bite of food to his mouth, he also laughed from his belly a couple of times before we departed, and Lydia, my mother, and I exchanged furtive glances as we slowly made our way to the car, agreeing with our hopeful expressions that we just might pull this project off.

An hour later, however, as we crossed the bald-rock and blowsand sweep of the Navajo reservation — at about the spot where the hoodoo rocks rise out of the earth west of Tuba City — my father’s breathing grew so quiet and so infrequent that I took my foot off the accelerator and let the car slow, then eased it to the side of the road before the changes in noise and motion roused him and he wanted to know why we were stopping. I had to pee, I told him, which wasn’t an entirely manufactured answer, and he decided he would join me outside rather than use the plastic urinal we carried with us, and I remember grinning broadly in the bright sun and insistent wind at the sight we were offering passing cars — an old man in pajamas and his long-haired and barefoot sidekick unabashedly at work watering the Navajo desert.

A spring dust storm blew up as the road wound out of Tsegi Canyon, and by Kayenta it was almost impossible to see, but we pressed on and finally the wind subsided and at last I could point out in the far distance the summit of Ute Mountain — the peak that had been a high and constant touchstone for him, and for me, since each of us was born — and which was landmark evidence that April afternoon that my father was almost home. I tried not to make too much of the accomplishment, but as we descended a small hill and crossed the San Juan River and highway signs announced what otherwise was the subtlest sort of border, I said nonchalantly, “Well, it looks like we’ve made it to Colorado.” A hoarsely spoken “good” was all my father could offer in reply, but there seemed to be unmistakable appreciation in that single word as well.

Driving into Cortez has been a complex thing for me to do for most of my adult life, likely because it’s a place I love and am aggrieved by in nearly equal parts, but on that day, I can attest, our arrival was nothing more than a simple satisfaction for me, evidence that we had accomplished what two days before we’d rather quixotically set out to do. The oilfield yards on the south end of town, the used-car lots and the Sonic Drive-In, the snow-clad La Plata mountains hanging high above Main Street in the east, the “Martin Agency” sign on the narrow building near the corner where we turned and drove the final eight blocks to my parents’ brick and shingle-roofed house — everything I saw and felt was wonderfully welcome, I suspect, because this time my arrival wasn’t at issue. This time, my father’s return was all there was to consider and be grateful for, and I think I saw Cortez through his eyes that afternoon in ways I never could have before.

Once more it took long and difficult minutes for him to negotiate the short distance from the garage to the chair where he could surrender the day. We exchanged portable oxygen canisters for the “concentrator” whose distinctive hum had filled my parents’ house for nearly a decade by now, then began to unpack. My father was deeply tired, and he napped while the three of us scurried around him, but before long he was awake again and alert and obviously more at ease than he’d been in some days. He studied the maple cabinetry and the fireplace he had built back when he remained a robust and constantly creative man, and I was pleased when he said something aloud and with obvious pride about how well they appeared to be aging.

Neighbors kindly supplied us with supper and once more my father ate like someone who had lots of living to do, but he was utterly exhausted soon thereafter and my mother took him to bed. Moments later, I rushed into their bedroom in response to her call for help and found him lying naked on the carpet beside the bed. He had fallen as she tried to dress him in clean pajamas for the night. She was terrified that he had injured himself, but he weakly said he thought he was fine, and I bent down on a knee to pick him up. He had lost so much weight over the course of the winter that I simply cradled all that was left of him in my arms, then got to my feet and lowered him to his bed. My mother was quick to cover him, then he whispered a thank you that sounded both defeated and very sad, and something in tucking him in seemed to speak of the fundamental circularity of things.

I was a very colicky baby, or so the family folklore goes, and my mother says my father walked miles through that same house with me in his arms on hundreds of repeated nights before at last I would grow comfortable and calm and he finally could lower me to my bed. I don’t remember those nights, of course, but I know the recent night when I laid my helpless father in his bed is one whose memory will be clear to me — and important — for a very long time. The turning of tables, the doing — quite literally — for him what he had done countless times for me was sacramental, I think, a simple physical act whose meaning somehow arcs outward and grows large. I know that picking him up and putting him in bed offered as much help to me as it did to him — offering, in my case, the kind of insight all of us depend on to make some sense of our complex lives. And I like to think that half a century ago I played a role that presented a similar kind of meaning-making to him, a man who kept so much inside himself and who seldom used words to sort things out.

MY FATHER WAS deeply depressed on the day we said farewell to him, and the words we mustered were brief and simple ones. For him now, the days alternated very predictably between good and bad, between a bit of optimism and a kind of exhausted despair, and it was impossible to know how long into the spring or summer he would live. Still the planner he always had been, he repeatedly asked by telephone about our preparations for the trip to Barcelona, and in part because it didn’t feel fair to simply wait for him to die before we departed, we finally made the decision to go as planned, and were very excited. But as we waited for our first flight at Denver International Airport at midday on Monday, May 12, suddenly I grew inexplicably tired. Moments before, I had been full of adrenaline and the lively juice of anticipation, but now I was completely exhausted, my energy spent, and I didn’t have a hint of the reason why until two hours later when we reached O’Hare airport in Chicago, where news was waiting for us that my father had died.

His death was quiet, and he was spared the fighting for his final breaths that I know he long had feared, and his family and friends mourned his death and celebrated his life throughout the following week. Then eight days after my father’s death, we resumed our trip, and Barcelona was the right place for me to begin to grieve his loss. That visually captivating and wonderfully unconventional city was the first place I lived without him — a city in which I began to move from the paralyzing fear of the unknown toward true delight in the wonderfully unpredictable world at large — and the year I spent there as a sixteen-year old was, without question, the most formative gift he ever gave me. I don’t suspect that my father would have become enchanted by Barcelona in the way I long ago was and have remained, but we were rather different, my father and me. Yet I discovered as we drove across Arizona on a wind-swept April day something I wasn’t otherwise wise enough to understand.

What a gift of strange and mysterious magnitude it was to learn at last how much he loved me only through my efforts to be of assistance to him — helping him struggle to climb inside a car, holding him upright as he so unsteadily made his way to one last smoky café breakfast, simply driving him home, then laying him down for the night that single time before all his nights divinely fused into one.

This essay first appeared in 5280 Magazine in January 2004, eight months following the death of the author’s father. Russell Martin is a filmmaker, novelist, screenwriter, and nonfiction author, and the principal of Say Yes Quickly Productions.

Copyright © 2015 Russell Martin. All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews, no part of this essay may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the author.

Russell Martin

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Russell Martin is a filmmaker, novelist, screenwriter, and nonfiction author, and the principal of Say Yes Quickly Productions.