I’m driving my parents’ car down a two-lane desert highway, my father in the passenger seat. Chauffeuring him feels a little odd, but despite his fierce independence he seems to acknowledge that it’s a kindness.
From my parents’ house in the Arizona outback to the suburban Phoenix hospital is an hour’s drive. My father is 81. A year ago, nearly to the day, he had a pretty severe heart attack. He doesn’t have much energy to begin with, and what little he had this morning he depleted at my mother’s bedside.
My dad has always been a storyteller. My mother would retreat from a room as he regaled the guests with a favorite anecdote — entirely new to the appreciative crowd, but one she had heard dozens of times before. These days, his short-term memory in disrepair, he repeats those oft-told stories even more than he already did.
The car stereo is off for the entire drive. A child of the pre-rock era, my father has no interest in the music on my iPhone. And I’m not interested in listening to his preferred political talk-radio programs just a few days before a presidential election.
So instead, he tells me stories. And to my amazement, after knowing him for 42 years, he tells me one I haven’t heard before.
Half Moon Bay
It’s 1963, just months before Kennedy will be assassinated, and the man who will one day be my father has finished a long shift at the Victor Equipment Company on Folsom Street in the grungy, industrial South of Market area that four decades later will host gleaming conferences put on by Macworld, Apple, Oracle, and many other companies not yet founded.
The neighborhood will change a lot, but the weather won’t. It’s July in San Francisco, which generally means cold fog, but not today. Today, it’s sunny and warm. Driving south toward his house on the Peninsula, my father impulsively detours to Half Moon Bay. He’s never been there, but he knows it’s got a beach, and today he can have that rarest of things for a San Francisco summer: a walk on the beach with no jacket.
He parks his blue MGB and walks out on the beach. There’s a blonde in her early 20s sitting on a blanket, her nose in a book.1 The woman who will one day be my mother has come to the beach as a reprieve after several days of entertaining her parents and teenaged brother, who had come from Pennsylvania to visit her and her sister.
She doesn’t want to talk to this strange man — she wants to be left alone. He’s persistent and apparently somehow successful, because they talk for an hour or two. But the ultimate prize eludes him: She doesn’t give him her full name or her phone number and drives off in her Corvair. He thought they had hit it off, but in the end, it’s an opportunity missed.
I had known bits of the story before. I knew my parents had met on the beach at Half Moon Bay. And I clearly recall the moment when I was 18 that they mentioned the meeting had happened a full five years before they were married. My half brother, the youngest of the three children from my father’s first marriage, was born in 1964. But if they had been married in 1968 and met five years before that…
In that moment, my understanding of my relationship with my older half-siblings changed completely. Before, with barely any inkling of the complexities of adult relationships, I just knew they had a different mother, and that it was awkward when they came to visit my dad and his new family.
What I hadn’t understood was that my mother was the Other Woman, and that my father met her nearly a year before my half-brother was born.
My father is free to drive to Half Moon Bay and chat up a skeptical blonde reader because his wife and two daughters are spending a few weeks of their summer vacation with her parents in Southern California.
From the perspective of the far future, when the Other Woman would be his wife of 44 years, it’s easier to forgive his actions. I have no doubt he was unhappy in his marriage. Was there some special spark with that blonde 24 year old on the beach, right from the start? Or is that too much to project onto a 32-year-old father of two trying to pick someone up while his young family is safely out of reach?
Regardless, my father doesn’t shrug off the conversation with the blonde girl. He’d learned that she works for county health, and that she drives a rear-engine Corvair. In those innocent days, car registrations had to be in public view, so once he finds her car by checking out public-health parking lots, he gets her name by simply looking at the steering column. He calls the health department, finds out where she works, and leaves her a message, using a fake last name so she can’t look him up and discover that he’s married.
Now the ball is back in her court. She can ignore him again, but he’s shown his interest. She must have been interested, too, or maybe just intrigued by his persistence. In any event, the girl with the Corvair relents, and returns the call of the man with the MGB.
Prepared for the worst
My mother is the healthy one. She’s eight years younger and has a statistically longer life expectancy. Women on her side of the family are extremely long-lived. My father was diagnosed with serious carotid blockages in the late 1980s and has been talking about his imminent demise for the intervening two decades. He’s had four major surgeries and two month-long hospital stays.2
So, in a sense, I have been preparing for my father’s death since 1988. My wife and I talk about what we can do to support my mother after he’s gone. We always figured she’d outlive him, maybe by decades.
I think about this as we pull into my parents’ driveway and unload the shopping bags from the car, and I prepare to make us some dinner. An hour away, my mother is in intensive care, recovering from her emergency triple bypass.
Four years after meeting my mother, my father is planning his exit strategy. He and his wife are enmeshed in the professional community of Walnut Creek, a suburb at the eastern edge of the Bay Area. But he plans to open a second orthodontic practice nearly a hundred miles away in the rural Sierra Nevada foothills, a move to leave his old life behind for a new one.
His wife knows there’s another woman. One night, my mother had picked up the phone at her apartment, and a woman’s voice had said, “May I speak to Dr. Snell, please.” My father took the phone. It was his wife. The cat was out of the bag.3
It’s 1968, and it all still hangs in the balance. Even if his marriage is over, does he know he really wants to flee to the countryside and marry his girlfriend? She wants children. He’s already fathered four and raised three. Does he want to be a parent again at nearly forty?
This is all going through his mind as he’s setting up his new office, a small space built directly over a creek in downtown Sonora. He’s installing the furniture and equipment himself. My mother goes off to do some shopping downtown as he installs Formica countertops using contact cement. When she returns, opening the front door creates just enough air movement to waft the contact cement’s fumes over the office’s gas pilot light.
There’s an explosion that bows the office’s windows outward and creates a fireball that engulfs my father. He crawls across the burning countertops and out the door, then drops 20 feet off a deck and into the creek below. There’s enough water in the creek to put out the flames, but not enough to insulate him from smashing into the rocks and cracking his ribs.4 He climbs out of the creek and helps put out the fire in the office.
Hours later, my mother knocks on the front door of my father’s house. “Your husband is in the hospital,” she says.
A moment of clarity
Forty-two years after my birth, my father tells me that this is the moment that led directly to him divorcing his wife, selling his practice, giving her the house and custody of the kids and a monthly support check, and marrying my mother. In that moment he’s on fire and dropping 20 feet into a rocky creek. And he knows what he wants: He wants to marry my mother, and have children — well, maybe one will be enough — and leave his old, successful, unhappy life behind. Three months later the divorce is final and my parents are married.
He’s telling me this part of the story at the kitchen table in their little retirement house, while 40 miles away the woman he married, the one he’s always expected would outlive him, is heavily sedated after having her ribs cracked open and three veins grafted to her heart to save her life.
Two days before, I was in San Francisco and she was going in for an angiogram to find out what was causing her some chest pains. Now the two of us, husband and son, are eating breakfast by ourselves in the middle of her kitchen.
What he’s telling me is the story of his true love, a story in hindsight of nearly 50 years together, no matter how messy it might have been when they were living it. What I’m hearing is the complicated chain of events that explain my existence.
In the landmark comic-book series “Watchmen,” the nigh-omnipotent character Dr. Manhattan can see the entirety of space and time. To him, humans — even his long-time girlfriend, Laurie — are no more relevant than ants in an anthill.
But in this dark work of fiction, set against the backdrop of Cold War-era nuclear annihilation, there comes a surprising glimmer of light. Laurie discovers that her biological father is the man who had once attempted to rape her mother. She believes this proves her life is a meaningless joke, but Dr. Manhattan views it as an affirmation that every human life is itself a miracle:
Thermodynamic miracles…events with odds against so astronomical they’re effectively impossible, like oxygen spontaneously becoming gold. I long to observe such a thing. And yet, in each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive; meeting; siring this precise son; that exact daughter…
Until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you, that emerged. To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to gold…that is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermodynamic miracle.
But the world is so full of people, so crowded with these miracles that they become commonplace and we forget…I forget. We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from another’s vantage point, as if new, it may still take our breath away…For you are life, rarer than a quark and unpredictable beyond the dreams of Heisenberg; the clay in which the forces that shape all things leave their fingerprints most clearly.
It’s 1963, and a man impulsively decides to go to a beach he’s never been to.
It’s 1967, and he’s on fire, falling into a shallow creek.
It’s 1970, and a baby is coming into the world.
It’s 1989, and a new chain of circumstances is created when I’m introduced to the woman who will become my wife.
It’s 2012, and I’m serving Thanksgiving dinner in the kitchen of my parents’ house in Arizona. My children are there, both with their own stories of a series of choices my wife and I made that led to their existence. My father sits at the head of the table, turkey and mashed potatoes in front of him. And next to him, home from the hospital for three weeks and recovering from her heart surgery, is his wife, my mother.
There we sit, eating dinner. Thermodynamic miracles all.
My father never shied away from chatting up girls, and apparently had quite a lot of success with it. Sadly, I did not inherit that trait. Instead, I inherited my mother’s propensity to stick her nose in a book. ↩
He’s twice had surgery on his carotids, had an abdominal aortic aneurysm that burst during surgery and led to him being in the hospital for more than a month, and most recently had a heart attack that led him to another month-long hospital stay during which the doctors determined he was just too weak for open-heart surgery. ↩
My father recollects that at some point in the 1960s, AT&T started to itemize every call outside a limited local area on his home phone bill. This presumably exposed countless straying husbands and wives who called their lovers while their spouses were out. ↩
In the end, the fall does more harm than the fire. My father’s damage from the fireball ends up being relatively minor, thanks to the dip in the creek. He acquired just a scar up one arm from crawling over the burning countertops. ↩