Life Lessons Essay Contest second-prize winner Liz Gordon, during a drive to the airport, reflects on her aging father in this touching essay.

By Liz Gordon
Updated March 17, 2014
JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

My father cries, “Honey, please!” as we pull out of the driveway onto the street. What he means is “Don’t talk.” He’ll want to answer and can’t, because he has to concentrate on his driving. “I don’t see well anymore, and sometimes my right foot goes numb,” he has said.

So as neighborhoods and shopping centers, mapped with sculptured grass and lampposts, fade gracefully behind us, Dad, who hasn’t driven much of anywhere in the last five years, except to the Safeway two blocks from home and the First Baptist Church, sits straight-backed, angled forward like a jackknife, his mottled hands locked on the steering wheel. He’s ready, at any hint of danger, to snap open.

I’m not completely insensitive. I offered to drive this rambling, 14-year-old Buick boat, with only a couple of thousand miles on it, to the airport, but Dad is uncomfortable with anyone else at the wheel. So here we go, jettisoned into North Dallas traffic at high noon. This angled pose is the same one he took when he tried to teach me jujitsu out on our lawn by the garage, the same spot where he showed me and my sister, Cookie, how to change a tire, in case we were ever alone on the road and had one go bad.

When he was a lot younger than I am now, Dad trained for combat, not with a battalion of men slicing through jungles unearthing malaria, but in Quantico, Virginia, at the FBI Academy. There the bureau taught him how to shadow baby-faced killers and crack high-seas crime but offered nothing about how to confront domineering wives and old age.

Look! Now he slows to a student learner’s pace to read another stack of elevated signs, and, with a crooked finger pointing in the air, he browses for the green arrow that points to the Dallas–Fort Worth Airport. Three lanes of vehicles going in our same direction swoosh past. Paper trucks bound for New Orleans waul by. Drivers honk or gesture when he lurches into the frenzied flow. While he decides which lane to take, I practice praying.

Before we left his house, he had asked if I would feel better taking a taxi or having one of my friends take me to the plane. But when I explained that most of my childhood friends had moved away long ago and that a cab would cost more than the plane ticket, he plucked his floppy tweed cap off the hat rack and waved it toward my suitcase.

Oh, why didn’t I bring an extra $50 or so to take a cab? Why didn’t I think to ask one of Dad’s neighbors if they could do us a favor?

I didn’t because I can’t get used to the fact that Dad is no longer the same man who would take the corner bus crowned DOWNTOWN, then get home and mow our lawn in 90-degree heat before sitting down to a martini and the six o’clock news. I should have reconsidered letting him take me to the airport when he asked, right after breakfast, if I was packed—and if I had kissed my mother good-bye.

Now he’s blinking much too much—at the road, I think—and he’s slowing again to park on the shoulder beneath the sign that says no shoulder parking. I breathe deeply, then let it out gradually and say in a voice much lower, much heavier than usual: “Dad, we have to get back on the highway for about three more miles.” He looks at me like I have a dagger in my hand, then, with a frantic look in all directions, we are back on the highway, wedging our boatmobile between two California-bound semis. Dad’s eyes seize on each vehicle that passes.

Finally we are there, and he pulls in under the American Airlines sign, turns off the ignition, and melts back into the driver’s seat to look at his lap. He pats the eyeglass case in his shirt pocket and licks his lips.

“I’ll get your bags,” he says, knowing full well that he probably can’t lift them. “You go on over and check in.”

He emerges from the car, head out, like a downy baby bird emerging from his broken eggshell, peering at a new world. He looks down for the asphalt before lifting a leg out. Testing every joint, every muscle, to see that they are working correctly, he clings to each handrail put in at the factory, then braces against the doorjamb once he is out. A long breath later, he hikes up his flat-bottomed Dockers and reaches into his back pocket for a clean, pressed hankie to wipe his upper lip. He’s thrilled that we’ve made it but already anxious about the return.

In the shade of the check-in stand, he starts to tell me about the trouble he’s having making Mother understand why he can’t take her places anymore, why they can’t go to dinner at Tony’s like they used to or the concerts in the park downtown. And that one day, after mailing a letter at the post office, he forgot how to get home and it frightened him.

I want to talk to him about this inside, where we can sit down, have a soft drink, and watch the planes glide in and out. We have plenty of time. There’s a two-hour wait before my plane even arrives. But while I’m thinking about what I can say to comfort him, he tells me he has to get going. The porter waves me in to check my bags, and Dad tips him a dollar a bag. When I turn to kiss Dad good-bye, I see fear masking his face.

“That line of cars is growing,” he says. “And it’s only going to get worse.” Then he wipes my lipstick kiss off his stubbled cheek with his limp hankie and says, “The next time you come to visit, maybe you should rent a car from the airport or just drive down from Virginia.” He wipes his brow and upper lip again, then asks how long my flight will take. We both laugh when I tell him it should be landing in Richmond at just about the time he gets back home. When he laughs, he’s a young man again, eager to solve the world’s problems, and I’m 12, just learning to cope with some of them.

After Dad’s car jerks away from the check-in area, and he squeezes it between motorists bolting for the highway, I find myself tucked safely inside the terminal. Then, cordoned off with other travelers going in my same direction, I pull out the pills that my doctor prescribed for flights to see how many I should take and when. He promised they would take all my fears away.

Read this year's Life Lessons Essay Contest winning essay by Meloney Dunning and third-prize winning essay by Katie Schroder Bond.