The Improbable Trip to Montauk
He was stuck, trapped really, in a chair made of metal, rubber and plastic. He had once been free, an athlete, ready to take on the world as only a young man filled with hope and promise can. He lived on many different shores, never far from the water. The Maine coastline provided the backdrop for his childhood and Prince Edward Island, Canada was where he became a star basketball player. He still remembered the feeling of jumping, the weight of that orange ball in his hands, his eyes lining up a shot and the roar of the crowd. After his graduation from college he settled on Long Island and although his drive was long to the water’s edge he felt a deep sense of peace in its rugged beauty. This beautiful island, he thought, would now be the setting for his bright future.
The symptoms came without warning; numbness, an unsteady gate, blurred vision and extreme fatigue. The doctors practically ushered him out of the offices thinking he was too fine a specimen to be sick. He still looked like the man filled with the promise of a good and easy life. Still the disease kept tapping him on the shoulder, haunting him and pursuing him like a thief in the night. And finally, after he married and became a father, that disease wrapped it’s warped arms around him and slowly, very slowly, squeezed him.
Of his three children, I was his youngest. I only have a few grainy images of him shooting baskets and walking along the sandy shores of the Long Island beaches we would visit to enjoy the simple pleasures of the east end. It breaks your heart to love someone who is cloaked in suffering. He smiled bravely as he suffered each indignity that came with his illness. He was an a well-read man with a keen wit inside a body that was retreating back to back to childhood. When I learned to tie my shoes, he needed help tying his. We mirrored each other in this cruel way, a child growing into independence and a father losing his.
When he landed in the chair, I thought it would break him. Every outing, mostly to doctors, were an exhausting event that had to be executed with perfect timing and were never without their measure of unanticipated challenges of curbs that were too high or ramps that were too steep. The world became a series of obstacles, a labyrinth filled with the tasks of paperwork and insurance issues from which there was little relief. I never knew my father in his days of glory only in his days of loss.
When I was grown and moved out of my house it was a weekly ritual to spend each Sunday with him. His eyes would light up when I entered in the room and it was daunting to know that I was such a crucial element in his ability to reconcile himself with this world. He would tell me stories of his youth, as we sat together in his Valley Stream backyard. It was a small patch of brick and concrete with only a driveway on each side of the home which separated the house from neighbors. He would sit out there for the fresh air, looking for the occasional bird that would land on the cement.
I could not offer him much at this time of his life, only to provide comfort and companionship. Yet I knew his eyes were hungry to see beyond the walls that encapsulated him and in his mind he wandered outside of the confines of his small yard. There was no gift that could be offered when freedom and relief were the only things his soul craved. On one ordinary day he spoke the word that must have felt like a key that would unlock a dungeon door, Montauk. “Wouldn’t it be great if I could go to Montauk one more time?” he said. This man, sitting hunched over in his motorized wheelchair, had found an antidote. It was one that I could administer.
It was not an easy trip, there was medical equipment to pack, medicines ointments and supplies. There was no real way of knowing if the doorways were wide enough at the ground level condominium we rented at the Surf Club and we did not know how we would get him in the bed. We just pressed on, leaving Valley stream the distance as if we were in a get-away car leaving a crime scene.
It felt good to look in the rearview mirror and see him smiling, almost defiantly. Our mood seemed to change like the scene outside of our van window. As the distance between the houses made way for green space our hearts lightened. We were giddy with the feeling that only comes when you decide to defy all the rules and worry about the consequences later.
That first night was complicated. We had to enlist the help of a groundskeeper to assist my father into bed. I have come to believe that life affords certain graces to those who are willing to brave dangerous waters and dare to be unrealistically optimistic. That groundskeeper showed up every evening to assist us without us having to even ask. On our first day, as I rolled him as close to the sand as I could, we breathed in the briny air. I watched him as the wind lifted his hair and his eyes glanced up and down with the rise and fall of the water. We laughed at the sea gulls, the feathered thieves of the air, as they tried to dive into beachgoers bags and coolers. I could see him receive all that this island has to offer to those who are willing to travel out to its eastern limits and drink in its beauty.
There is a freedom in looking into the ocean that seems eternal. Montauk was a jewel buried down in the bottom of our treasure box. It was a salve for a weary man who had been shouldering a great burden. For those who grow up on Long Island, the ocean is our birthright and the east end is our return home to its glory days. Somehow, that night, I would get him to Gossman’s Dock and we would eat lobster, drenched in butter and continue to look out into the sea and feel infinite in its vastness. We would get ice cream in town and eat the ripe peaches on our deck that we bought at one of the farm stands dotting Montauk Highway. This is how I will remember him. I did not know him in his glory days, but I did catch a moment, a flicker of that man filled with the carefree promise of a good and easy life. It was only a short drive away all the time.