Lucky That Way: Rediscovering My Father's World by Pamela Gerhardt will be available in just a few weeks. Preorder it today!
Lucky That Way, a nuanced, richly engaging memoir, chronicles the joys and tribulations of a daughter who rediscovers her father as he nears the end of his life. Ernie Gerhardt, an artist and teacher, is largely estranged from his five children, but when he suffers a debilitating stroke, his daughter Pamela must fly to Las Vegas to tend to him. When she arrives to find Ernie newly and shockingly fragile, she is hit by an unexpected wave of tenderness. The emerging theme of imperfect humans struggling with life's great mysteries will strike a chord of recognition with the tens of thousands of Baby-Boomers and Gen-Xers who are currently facing similar circumstances with their elderly loved ones. Pamela Gerhardt’s heartfelt story about a family coming to terms with an aging father’s illness and imminent death takes readers on an emotional roller coaster that highlights love, loss, humor, and sadness.
I am in the clouds. I am floating.
I am flying to see my father in an intensive care unit, a man I haven’t seen in seven years.
Maybe he is dying. Maybe not.
I am simply moving forward, a couple miles a minute, as it were, thirty-two thousand feet above the Midwest plains.
I am vacant. I am mostly dreading Las Vegas, the city where he was hospitalized while on vacation, a city of phony Sphinxes and plaster Eiffel Towers. I am thinking that when I see him I will ask him, “Couldn’t you have had your stroke in Paris—the real one?”
He will laugh, edit the punch line, add something funnier—“Could have been worse. Paducah.” If he gave his five children a gift, it is irreverence.
When I was a kid he once asked me to make a prank phone call to his boss. He worked as a salesman for a company named G. S. Robins. My two brothers and two sisters and I were well aware of how much he hated his job. Art was his passion. But he had gone to college on the GI Bill, like so many of his peers after the war, and gotten a degree in business. “It wasn’t heard of in our family, in those days, to get a college degree, much less one in art,” he once told me. “I never even considered it.” He found himself driving the Chevrolet long distances during the week to places with lonesome-sounding names like Wichita and Oswego, staying in hotels, returning on Fridays with a backache as he headed to his easel wedged between the washing machine and the tool bench in the basement. His attitude toward his job continued to sour. Sitting at the dinner table, we heard about how much he disliked his boss, a man who smoked fat cigars and pressured Dad to increase sales. One day, when I was eight, Dad decided to go to grad school and get an MFA in art. He graduated in just two years and landed a job as a high school art teacher and quit his job at G. S. Robins. Meanwhile, I had been working on a few bird calls—especially that of the robin.
You might guess where this is going.
The day he quit he dialed the boss’s office number on the beige wall phone in our St. Louis kitchen. “Do your thing,” he whispered to me and stretched the spiral phone cord so that he could hold the receiver near my mouth. I chirped away, doing my best angry robin call, and he hung up, doubling over with laughter.
“We sure showed them,” he said, clutching his stomach, laughing hard enough to produce tears. Even at that age, smiling with my dad as he sputtered over his irreverent joke, I knew I was facing something deeply complicated, a worldview that might cause me trouble in the future.
I am letting the plane ride unfold one minute, one hour at a time. I am thinking of my friends who have gone through something similar in recent years with their own aging parents. How do we find meaning within the sea of statistics on America’s aging population? And why does this feel different, less clarified, than watching my own parents care for their aging parents?
So much has changed. For one, my parents lived a five-minute drive from theirs. We will have stories about all this aging. We will have stories about caregiving and the intimacy that comes with it. We might consult guidebooks and websites. We will learn how to interview directors of assisted living facilities by way of long-distance phone calls. We will learn how to monitor blood pressure and blood sugar. But looking out the window during the four-hour plane ride, I already know: that stuff is the easy part. In my case, at least, something far more challenging is at stake.
I haven’t seen my father in seven years. A stupid story, it goes like this: I asked him one Christmas to control his drinking. But that’s not the whole story. It began after Mom died, when he had decided to fly Debbie, who had been diagnosed with Schizophrenia a few years earlier, to his South Carolina house for Christmas. The oldest of my siblings, she still lived in a small house down the street from our former home in St. Louis. She was stable, but at times believed she was a nun, a prophet, who often tried to call the Pope and the chief of police of Rome to tell them about her prophesies concerning the future of the Church. He, more so than anyone else in the family, struggled in her presence. He said on the phone, “Just don’t leave me alone with her. Promise?” I promised. He started out at noon on Christmas Eve with a celebratory bloody Mary. My other sister and brothers and I would have joined him, but our small kids were clamoring to see the new Disney movie at the theater down the road. I had forgotten my promise. When we returned, Dad was swaying when he walked, and by evening he was passed out on the floorboards of his back porch. Afterward, I returned to my home in the Washington, D.C., area and wrote him a letter: Please stop bingeing like that. You are at your best when you are not drinking. You made your best paintings when you were sober. The movie had been Toy Story 2, and on the eight-hour-drive home to Washington I kept thinking: stupid Disney. Had we stayed at his house, maybe he wouldn’t have gotten so drunk. But that’s not the whole story, is it?
The drinking had begun before that, when Mom was sick. “That’s when it began,” Dad once told me. “The heavy drinking. And it helped. God, those martinis helped.”
I am floating. I am surrounded by revelers pumped up with the prospect of fortune on their way to Vegas, mostly young people who apparently didn’t get the memo that they might someday need to help someone walk and eat and pee. Or they might someday stop seeing a parent. The pilot, clearly enamored with the role of cruise director, announces sights along the way—The Rocky Mountains! The Grand Canyon! and our final destination with the enthusiasm of a carnival barker. “Buckle up and sit back. We’re on our way to Laaaas Vegaaaas!” he says several times during the flight. The cabin erupts in cheers. It feels, however inaccurately, as though I might be the only person on the plane with a different kind of agenda. What that is, I am not entirely sure.