Travels with My Father

Teenagers! Make a pact with your parents before it’s too late. Agree to happily travel with them now if they’ll absolve you of the responsibility of travelling with them later in life-when you’re an adult and they’re something beyond adult. Trust me. I’ve done both. You may think it’s painful and embarrassing now but it’s nothing compared with the sad aggravation and agony of travelling with your parents when they’ve reached the age of semi-senility, impaired senses, and limited limberness.

I recently traveled with my father to London. He had never been overseas and I have been to Europe several times. I thought a quick week or so in a country similar to ours would be no problem. A little light bonding in the twilight of our relationship would be as quaint as a stroll through Miss Marple countryside. I had no idea, no concept, and no clue of what was in store for me. But realization raised its specter quickly on the flight over. If I could have turned the plane around, I would have.

“What did he say?” my father cried out loudly from his window seat. It was a phrase I would eventually hear before it was spoken during the next 10 days. My father had two new hearing aids. I had failed to realize that hearing aid technology had advanced so little since WWII. The male flight attendant had merely asked what my father wanted to drink. The barely noticeable British accent must have thrown off my dad’s ability to read his lips. So, I translated.

“Do you want coffee?” I knew the answer.

“Yes. With Equal.”

Well, of course, the attendant didn’t understand what Equal was. At least we got the black coffee, which would turn out to be a major daily endeavor after arriving in England.

I’ve seen other older people behave quite properly on planes and elsewhere. Maybe it was the diminished hearing, the excitement of going to a foreign land, or the 9-hour confinement on the plane that caused my dad to act, well, like a spoiled kid. If something wasn’t just right, he wanted it fixed immediately. He didn’t understand that the flight crew had 300 other weary travelers to take care of. There was yelling and waving of arms and poking me and grabbing the attendant. It wasn’t pretty. It was a long flight made excruciatingly longer. Shortly after landing, I called the airline and changed my seat on the return flight. I could blame it on the airline. I could take the blame myself if I had to. I just wasn’t sitting through that again. It could only have been worse if a crying baby had been across the aisle from me. But we’ll save the “put all babies and mothers in the cargo hold” diatribe for another time.

We had some time before being able to check into our London hotel. I thought a short walking tour would be good for the circulation after the long flight and a safe, brief orientation into London life. Like most of my assumptions during this trip, I had failed to account for the age factor.

I chose a nearby walk of Mayfair. I had taken walks with this same personable guide on other trips to London. He was even, I assumed, about dad’s age and physical ability. A good match. Wrong, ye olde Monte Python breath.

Walking speed was impossible. Duration, not likely, old chum. During the walk I heard little of what Spencer was saying. I heard complaints about tired feet, aching back, inability to hear, and the traffic on the “wrong” side of the street. Cars have the right of way in England, not pedestrians. Another lesson my dad was slow to learn. I had to watch him and the traffic and the group and listen and translate. My head was beginning to ring and throb. I needed a large G&T. Didn’t I see the Ritz around the corner?

The tour left us several blocks from a tube station and I was stranded with Mr. Whaddidhesay, who was now complaining that the hotel or at least the tube station wasn’t following us around the back streets of Mayfair. It was during those three blocks when we were walking alone together that I first noticed another disturbing trait. My dad can’t walk a straight line. He kept bumping into me. No matter how far over I moved on the sidewalk or even into the street, he constantly and carelessly careened into me. Perhaps years of moving closer to people to hear them had caused this misbehavior. Whatever. It was annoying to get run into buildings or gutters or unsuspecting tourists. No matter how much I swerved out of the way, collision alarms kept sounding in my head.

This initial experience taught me, at least, a valuable lesson. Walking, in this city that cried out to be walked in, would be hazardous to the health and safety of us both. I was bruised and dirtied. He was seriously winded after three blocks. I would have to devise other modes of operation for our sightseeing and keep walking to a minimum. So, we began to take cabs and bus tours or break up any walking with a pastry and coffee stop after a few blocks. We actually had to stop every few blocks since jolly old dad couldn’t understand that the English did not serve that famous American favorite-a bottomless cup of coffee. One of the first times I left him alone in a cafÃ?© while dashing off to get tickets for a play or something, I came back and found him surrounded by four empty coffee cups. I explained that he had to pay for all four. It didn’t matter to him. He had his precious coffee. And besides, it only cost so many dollars. No matter how many times I repeated it, he never did figure out that the English used a different currency called pounds.

At one B&B, he frantically insisted, almost before we introduced ourselves, on learning if the owner could do a load of wash for us. Mrs. Owens assured him that it would be no problem. We just needed to leave our dirty clothes in a bag they provided and by the time we returned from our stroll through the village, the laundry would be back and neatly folded on our beds. There would just be a nominal charge of five pounds per load of wash.

As I stuffed the clothes into the bag, my dad asked, “Do you think we have more than five pounds of clothes there?”
I expected some anxiety from him, his first trip abroad and all that. But the fear and trembling were more than even a saint or a philosopher could handle. And unfortunately for both of us, he wasn’t traveling with either. He worried about everything.

“Should we get the tickets? We better get the tickets. May as well get it out of the way. Don’t want to worry about it.”
“Who’s worrying-besides you?”

“What?”

“I’ll get the tickets.”

Of course, he never had a clue where he was. Landmarks and street names didn’t mean a thing. I tried going over the map of the underground system to give him an idea of how everything was connected. But I don’t think he ever understood. He just watched me and jumped up when I went for the door of the train. It was just a magic carpet ride to him. Climb down into a hole in the ground in Knightsbridge and come up in Covent Garden. Somebody just moved the scenery. Our conversations were mind numbing.

“Where are we going?”

“To the tube station.”

“We’ve been walking a long time. Are you sure it’s in this direction?”

“Yes,” I’d reply with steam seeping from multiple orifices. “We came from it just 30 minutes ago, and you’ve been there every day for the past week. Doesn’t any of this look familiar?”

His hearing aid whistles. He isn’t listening. He just bumps me into the building and keeps on walking, oblivious to where he is or where he’s going or that I’m not limping after him.

The worst walk was when he asked to return to a shop we had ducked into earlier that day. We were still in the general area. I could have found it blindfolded. I went straight for it but stopped several times to admire the architecture or look at something in a shop window. Every time I hesitated or looked around to enjoy the surroundings, I heard his panicky voice.

“Is this it? This isn’t the shop. Maybe we should ask someone.”

About a block from the store, he said, “We don’t have to go to the store. There’s no need trying to wander around and find it.”
“I’m not wandering. I know right where is. We’re a block away.” More steam.

You have to understand that it wasn’t an easy chore for me to try to enjoy this stroll with the constant whining from my ancient companion. While trying to soak up some of the foreign ambiance, I had to constantly watch my dad with one eye to make sure he didn’t slip into the mean streets of London. It didn’t matter how many times I reminded him to look down and read the message in the pavement telling the pitiful pedestrian which direction to look for the traffic. Look left. Look right. It’s not a bloody foreign language!

The recurring nightmare of eating out could only be compared to being trapped in a Wes Craven sequel. I believed that with a menu, he had to be able to communicate with the waitperson. My faith was sorely tested.

“Would you like something to drink, sir?” the waiter would always begin.

My dad would look quizzically at the waiter, at me, at the menu and then declare boldly something like, “Yes, I’ll have the lamb tikka masala.”

“No, no, no. Drink! He asked you what you wanted to drink.” Not a sound from my dad. Just the dumb, blank stare I had grown accustomed to.

“He’ll have black coffee, now please.”

The waiter would nod and scribble and then ask my dad, “Would you like a starter?”

“Coffee. Black coffee,” would be the reply.

The waiter would then turn to me, and sympathy would pour from his eyes. He would smile at me with the knowledge that his ephemeral experience with my dad would last only a couple of hours. Come back soon-but alone.

Near the end of the trip, we stopped in a music store. There were guitars in the window and my dad had once played the guitar. He eventually started strumming on one. The tune brought a store clerk over to circle the potential sale. My dad spotted the clerk and held out the guitar.

“Who makes this guitar?”

“Korean, I think.”

“Who makes this?”

“IT’S FROM KOREA,” the clerk yelled loud enough to be heard throughout the shop and the pub next door.

There was no response then from my dad. So the clerk continued, “May I help you?”

Still no response from dear olde dad. He just grinned, a maniacal Jack Nicholson grin.

The clerk tried once more with feeling and decibels, “Do you need any help?”

“No,” I whispered while nodding yes.

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