One night in the early 80s, my dad and I were driving in his old white pickup down Rt. 128 somewhere north of Boston when it overheated, leaving us stranded on the side of the highway in a thunderstorm.
This was the era when breaking down still meant walking to find a phone. And I was about eight—not really old enough to be left in a truck at night on the side of the highway. So during a pause in the downpour the two of us set off into the long wet grass toward a smattering of dark houses not far from the exit ramp.
Everyone’s power was out with the storm, and it took a few tries before we found someone with a working phone to let us call my mom who was certainly starting to worry. Then we trekked back out to the truck to wait until she came to pick us up.
The truck battery was still working, so we cranked up my dad’s favorite cassette at the time—Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book. The windows were all fogged up and I still remember how the cab of that pickup smelled—a mix of sawdust and orange peels and dirt and coffee. Just like my dad.
I dozed a little in and out, my head lolling on the scratchy woven upholstery, with Stevie singing “I Believe When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever” over and over again and then we’d rewind and listen to it again and my dad would get kind of falsetto and harmonize-y on the “I Believe” part and I was the most contented, up-past-my-bedtime, headlights-in-the-dark-counting, adventure-haver there ever was. And then my mom arrived in our little Volkswagen Rabbit and ferried us home safely to bed.
My son is about the same age now as I was at the time of that escapade.
I’ve been worried about him the last couple months—just a few days after I was diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer, he was hospitalized with a diagnosis of his own: type one diabetes.
I’ve tried to be wide open with him about his disease, my cancer, the treatment, the parts I’m nervous about—to make it less scary. Maybe not the capital F fears, but all the smaller-case ones for sure. I keep scanning him for signs of trauma, distress, anger. I ask him how he’s feeling about 435 times a day, fending off my own topsy-turvy guilt and uncertainty.
The other day he was poking at the latest IV scab on my hand and he said, “Sometimes I miss the hospital so much I could cry.”
The hospital. The beeping machines. The sallow 3am light of the hallway. The narrow vinyl couch and paper sheet. My matted hair. My jumbled belongings on the chair, including the pink breast cancer tote I was handed by my doctor—literally—on our way to admitting Freddy to the hospital and still had with me. The pee jug I nervously watched for signs of ketones in Freddy’s urine. My son tangled in his tubes and wires. The four hours and 12 minutes when they thought he also had an undiagnosed heart problem. The endless parade of techs and nurses and doctors. That hospital?
“I loved playing those video games the whole time,” he said. “And remember how you would climb in the bed and cuddle me at night and we would just talk?”
Oh. That hospital. The smell of his sweaty curls tucked under my chin. The way he would squeeze my hand whenever someone new walked into the room. The steady puffs of his breathing I hadn’t laid awake listening to since he was a baby and I was a delirious new mother.
So here is the thing: is it possible then that my dad wasn’t actually having the time of his life like I was–after driving late at night in the rain, dragging his kid to strangers’ houses and sitting on the busy shoulder of Rt. 128 and eventually having to abandon his blownup truck for the night?
That instead he was worried and exhausted and barely coping? Does “I Believe When I Fall in Love” conceivably not evoke a shimmery world of adventure for him? Does he not now sing it to himself alone in the car and every time feel happy and loved and excited about whatever might happen next?
A while ago, I asked him if he remembered that trip. “Oh, for sure. I was so wiped out when we got home.”
And a little after that I burned him a CD of Talking Book to replace his long ago busted cassette. The other night he had it on in the kitchen at his house and it turns out 30 years later he still sings along in the exact same croony way to “I Believe.”
Which makes my thinking go like this: When you fall in love with your kids, you fall in love forever. And that love forms the exact shape in the world of the cab of a beat-up pickup on the side of the dark highway—filled with safety and Stevie Wonder and okay-ness.
Or the exact shape of a single hospital bed with two figures nestled in it. Which of course proves that no matter what, the kid is going to be all right.