Just to be clear, my dad is the best person in the world. He’s hilarious, a classic, and I’m lucky to know him. I moved back home under the guise of helping him through a prostate cancer scare two years ago. In reality, I’d broke up with my boyfriend and needed to move out of our apartment so the timing worked out well. If I had to measure who’s helped who more over the last two years, the scale would tip hard in his direction. What I have done is lend a hand in the project department.
A “Papa Project” can span anywhere from one week to 25 years. I’ve earned my keep by: turning wrenches, applying discount paint, twisting bolts, holding pails, passing screws through walls, waiting for leaks, spinning handles and more. We have a system. My dad heads to one floor and I go to another, we both have our cell phones on us. He rings me up and says something along the lines of:
“Aaaaaright, I’m going to turn the valve, when I say when, you twist the wrench, hold the bucket and tell me if anything comes out.”
Then I say, “Is it going to be hot?!”
“Hot. If liquids do come out are they going to splash up and burn me?”
“Welp … they shouldn’t. Ready?”
Either some strange liquid will spill out of the valve or it won’t, but the results are rarely as expected. Pops comes down to assess the situation. He places his hands on his hips, shakes his head in confusion, questions the findings and gets back to work.
Right before I moved back home, I heard two different comedians talking about ladders, fathers over 60 and horrific accidents. My sisters and I lost our beautiful mother suddenly to a brain aneurism four years ago. So I’m a fan of attempting to reduce user error where our father is concerned.
After a good seven months of hearing me run my mouth about the dangers of old men and ladders, my dad asked me if I could help him with something in the attic. There’s a freestanding, old timey, seven-foot wooden ladder that goes from the third floor to the tippy-top attic.
I asked, “Do you want me to go up there?”
It was meant with a firm, “Nope.”
The plan was that he was going to lower some sort of box down to me. So I’m standing there waiting when I hear a harrowing scream. A giant treasure chest – I’m talking a 2ft by 4 ft chest – came barreling towards my head, missing me by a few inches. I yelled, “Daddy, are you okay?” He screamed back, “NO!”
Okay, so the phrase “chicken with its head cut off” would best explain how I conduct myself in situations like this. Several years ago, I was rehearsing a little dance bit with my sketch group Public Pool. I was supposed to bend while fellow cast mate Drew kicked his leg over my head. I bent, Drew kicked and his knee popped out. Thank god our choreographer was there to calmly pop his knee back into place, because my response was to run screaming, in circles, around the theatre.
I ran up the ladder to find my dad doubled over in pain, holding his leg and letting out horrible sounds. I’m flapping around saying, “Oh God, oh God, oh God.” Apparently when he went to pick up the chest, he stepped down hard and something in his leg popped.
I said, “Okay, Papa, hold on!” I ran down the ladder, down the stairs, got bags of ice, frozen peas and ran them up to him. I ran back down raided the medicine cabinet for any pills that looked helpful. Forgot water. Ran back down got water and grabbed Bengay. During the last run, I frantically called my friend Deb Quinn’s mom Marge. Marge is a nurse and lived around the corner. She happened to be home and said she’d be right over.
My dad could barely stand, no less rub Bengay on the back of his thigh, so he dropped his pants and I rubbed the ointment in. As a kid, I had watched my father change his incontent father-in-law’s diapers. So I was taught by example that when your parents get old, you handle whatever nastiness their oldness has brought with kindness and respect. My dad, helpless in his tidy whities, seemed like a window into the not-so-pleasant future. He quietly said he didn’t think his he’d be able to make it back down the ladder. This is where I started to lose my mind. What if I wasn’t there?! My father would be stuck in a tippy-top attic with no phone, no food, no nothing. He could be stuck up there for months!!!!
Marge, who’s as reliable and sturdy as her name would suggest, made her way to the attic. Her eyes bulged when she saw my father was stuck up in the tippy-top. From the bottom of the stairs, Marge diagnosed him with a popped hamstring. She called her fireman son, Little Larry, to help spring my father from the attic like a cat stuck up a tree.
My dad sent us down to the garage for rope. I took this opportunity to crazily beg Mrs. Quinn to have a conversation with my father about no longer going up ladders. She hemmed and hawed and wouldn’t commit. It was that moment I learned that people over 60 ban together like a pack of Teamsters. They’re not going to pipe up about someone else’s limitations because they don’t want anyone putting limitations on them.
While Little Larry, (6’1″, 260 lbs) placed my father in a harness and secured the harness through the attic’s rafters, Marge and I cleared a landing space. We grabbed comforters and pillows and wrapped piles of installation in bed sheets to soften the blow if this little experiment went awry. But Little Larry lowered him down to the third floor in one piece.
I believe I was crying – not a sobbing ugly cry, just a nice little light stream of tears. Since my mom passed away, I’ve had several anxiety attacks. They kick in like clockwork whenever I feel my family is in danger.
I said, “Wow. That was really something. Whooooo. Guess you won’t be going up to the tippy-top anymore.”
A look of genuine shock washed across my father’s face.
‘Uhhhhh…I wouldn’t say that. No, I wouldn’t say that at all.”
I spun around and glared at Mrs. Quinn. She shrugged her shoulders. I continued to glare. Finally she said, “Well John, you’re lucky your daughter was here for this.”
My dad came back with a matter-of-fact, “I wouldn’t have tried to get that box down if she wasn’t.”
I couldn’t even look at him. In silence, I put his sneakers on him, got him into the car and took him to the doctor. He tried to make some kind of joke. My response was, “I’m mad.” The moment he was called into the office, I ran to the window and pleaded with the receptionist to have the doctor advise him not to climb up ladders. She was totally weirded out by me but said she’d relay the message. Still not speaking, I secured my dad into the passenger seat and we drove back home.
Finally, I quipped, “I guess Dr. Halper advised you not to go up ladders anymore.”
“Noooooope. He said nothing of the sort,” my father replied looking straight ahead.
I spent the next few months aggressively begging his friends for help convincing him not to go up ladders. Apparently, they were all in the Teamsters union. The most support I got was from a long time family friend who said, “John you’re upsetting your daughter.”
Being a pain-in-the-ass wasn’t my only job. I was also fielding some really hard to answer questions like: “What’s a Kardashian?” Pronounced (CAR-Deh-JHIN )? And “What’s a Lady GaGa?”
All seemed calm until my father asked me to help him move the mother of all ladders.
“Who’s going up this one?” I asked.
“Me.” he responded.
I burst into tears. I continued to cry as we situated the ladder, secured the base and raised the rungs until they reached the second floor. I was being helpful and weeping openly at the side of the house. I was begging my 70-year-old father, WHOSE KNEES WERE SHOT, to stay off the ladder. I believe I wept the words, “Why are you doing this to me?!”
My father yelled, “You’re trying to keep me in a glass box!”
I threatened to lie down in front of our house and pitch a fit in front of all the neighbors if he stepped foot on that thing.
I carried on enough for him to not get on the ladder that day but we were in an official fight.
My dad is the most active person I know at any age and that’s the real-rap-raw. He goes out, travels, rides a bike around town, fishes, builds things, makes holiday-wood-lawn-items and so on.
I wrote him a letter trying to clearly express my admiration and love for all he does and who he is. I also tried to plea my “ladder case” in the most calm and rational way I could muster.
A few days later, I called to find he was out fishing with George Rafferty. George lives across the street and is 25 years younger. During my meltdown, I suggested he ask George to do whatever needed to be done on the ladder. My dad said he already spoke with George. I asked to be put on with George. I needed confirmation. He was laughing at my craziness and wouldn’t confirm.
I can’t say for certain that my dad outsourced that job or not but in my heart of hearts I believe he did. What I do know is that he can correctly identify a Lady Gaga. A Kardashian has been harder to explain.
* That is my actual father pictured above wearing a twenty year old t-shirt.