The Longest Journey

Even in his most-Parkinsonian, most-demented, most-psychotic state, my Dad’s vocabulary is impeccable. When he got on the phone last night, he said, “You know the ones who have been… my captors… I perceive that they have released me from prison… so I’d like to be taken home now.” His speech was slow and halting. He sometimes has to search for the words he wants to use. But when the words come, they can come in complex clauses. And they can speak of strange adventures (and misadventures). Alternate realities. The longest journey that covers the shortest distance. So, my mind raced with possible angles to crack the case and figure out what was happening in his world.

I’d gathered from Mom that he’d had a rough day: extra napping punctuated by extra restlessness, with increasing confusion and disconnection from reality as the day wore on. I also know that it’s common for people with Parkinson’s Disease to develop the sort of dementia where he sees people who aren’t there and hears whispers about conspiracies that aren’t real. I’ve also learned that my Dad has some recurring characters in his psychotic breaks: a younger man and a younger woman who talk like Baptists but are crooked as sin. My Dad believes they are continually scheming to take his money and freedom. So I figured this current “Release from Prison” situation was some variation on wandering down that same old path again.

But I also gathered a greater sense of urgency at this particular moment. Like this was his one chance at ridding himself of these tormentors, once and for all. My Mom added her voice to the telephone call, saying that Dad was on the edge of tears.

So, I said I’d be right over. I parked on the side of the road across from their condominium and let myself in at the front door. And when I walked in, my Dad was standing between the living room and the kitchen table, fully prepared to go: blue bucket-hat on his head, fleece jacket on top, slip-on shoes on his feet. He couldn’t tell me any more about where he wanted to go, but it was abundantly clear that he wanted to go.

So, I walked him out the front door and pointed towards my car: “It’s that red one over there.”

“I might be crazy,” he replied, “but at least I know that much.” He said it in a self-deprecating way, not in a way that would indicate the giving or taking of offense.

I helped him get in the passenger seat and click the seatbelt across his lap. Then I settled into my own seat, turned the key in the ignition, and turned to ask: “Where do you want to go?”

He muttered something, sotto voce, about the way that “these people don’t understand geography” like the two of us did. He rambled for a little bit, not making much sense. But I did gather a few key data points that I used to plot our course. He wanted us to head towards downtown Kent, by Main Street… Then he wanted us to head south… And at some point, we’d go past my house… These coordinates couldn’t possibly connect in a straight line. But all in all, he said, he knew he could trust me, and he felt fine with leaving things up to me.

So, we drove east on Fairchild, south on Water Street, past Main Street in downtown Kent and down towards the southern edge of the city. I kept asking to make sure we were on the right track. As we approached Ohio Route 261, I asked, “Is the place that you’re thinking of in the city of Kent, or someplace else outside the city?” Dad seemed confused at that point, so I went with the “Leaving Things up to Me” proviso and hooked to the west on 261.

Dad was disoriented by this section of the journey. He didn’t recognize many of his surroundings. In retrospect, I wonder if that sense of wandering through the southern hinterlands of Ohio Route 261 helped our overall quest, serving as something of a hard reset for his brain. At the time, though, I worried that we had veered off-course.

I ultimately decided to return to Kent via Middlebury Road. And when we got back to more familiar territory, I had my Dad help to make decisions about where we would or would not turn: straight from Longmere onto West Main Street… left onto Bryce Way (right past my house!)… left onto Fairchild… and then right into the Cottage Gate housing development!

When I pointed out his house and asked if we should pull in there, he shook his head, “No.” Instead, he directed me to park in the cul-de-sac at the end of the street.

When we got out of the car, he shuffled to the nearest driveway and seemed to be eager to reach the front door. But I told him, “We don’t know anybody in this house, Dad. I think we should go further this way.” I gestured in the direction of his house with a questioning look on my face.

“Is it the next driveway?” he asked.

“No, I don’t think we know anybody in that place either.”

He scanned further up the street and asked, “The one after that?” So, I started walking that way, with a wordless suggestion that it couldn’t hurt to wander in that direction.

As he shuffled along to keep up with me, my Dad’s mind seemed to shift further up the street, as well. “Have you seen Tillman lately?” he asked, referencing his next-door neighbor.

I told him I hadn’t seen Tillman, but I took this question has a hopeful sign of his brain getting back on track. And then, at long last, we were back in his own driveway. My Dad seemed to recognize their vehicle parked on the pavement and quickened his steps towards the front door. He opened the door and walked into the entryway with a smile on his face. I used my birthday-announcement voice to chime, “We’re back!” in such a way that I hoped it would communicate the actual situation to my Mom and the alternate-reality situation to my Dad. He hurried across the living area to my Mom and greeted her with a big hug. Again, it seemed like he was on the edge of tears. But this time it was tears of joy, not sadness.

It seemed to feel like a genuine homecoming to him. He sat down to rest on a couch, while I told my Mom an abbreviated version of our adventure. And when I asked my Mom if there was anything else that she needed before I went back to my place, she said, “I don’t think so. As long as you’re not planning on going anywhere else, Dave.”

We looked to him, and he smiled a broad, unguarded smile. “No, I don’t think I’ll be going anywhere else for a long time.” It felt like the longest journey he’d ever taken. But it ended in a happy place for him. And even if it was just for that evening, or just for that hour, I felt happy, too.

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