June 23rd, 2011 on a plane to Seattle:
I am flying across the country on a 737 Alaska Airlines jet to Seattle to visit my friend and fellow writer, Erika Sanders. We will be staying on Whidbey Island, a long sliver of pastoral land off the coast of Washington State. Erika grew up on the island, with its giant evergreen trees, expansive farmland, and spectacular seascapes of Puget Sound. This will be my second visit to see Erika in a year. We will catch up, reconnect, and write: a renewal of friendship and a mini writing retreat, a little trip to paradise.
I have one carry-on, a black gym bag, and I’ve checked one suitcase for the nonstop flight from Boston to Seattle. As the plane ascends, a vision, my father’s face in his later years, draws itself before my eyes: his hawk nose, his small, snarly mouth, and (given all that) his unexpected, sensitive brown eyes. He died more than five years ago, but today would have been his 81st birthday. I don’t think of him so consciously, or this vividly, very often. I was sad when he passed away, but I moved on quickly. My parents divorced when I was young, and I saw him on Sundays only. The weekly visits weren’t always easy; he was a good person, but he was the kind of parent you manage rather than one in whom you find comfort. It was he who gave me the suitcase that sits beneath the plane.
The suitcase I checked is a tortoise beige hard shell that he bought for me back in the 1970s when I was a teenager experiencing my first bouts of roiling panic attacks, soon to be diagnosed as full-fledged panic disorder and agoraphobia. I couldn’t go anywhere. I couldn’t travel a mile down the road, never mind hop a plane. The hard shell suitcase, an American Tourister brand, which a gorilla used to throw around and stomp on in old TV commercials, came complete with a matching faux-leather carry-on bag with over-thick carry straps. These days, such a carry-on could never fit under the seat or in the overheard compartment of a plane, so I brought only the hard shell suitcase and my gym bag for my trip to Whidbey.
When my father gave me these gifts decades ago, I thought: How stupid are you, giving luggage to a girl who can’t even go to high school because she can’t travel two miles to get there or sit in a classroom if she could? It would be another twenty years before I took my first airplane trip at age thirty-four. The paralysis of panic disorder and agoraphobia kept me close to home, and for a long time, while my father was still alive, I’d look in my closet and note the tortoise-shell luggage and think again: how stupid, what was he thinking?
Since my first trip in 1996, I’ve taken more airplane rides that I can count on both hands, and every time, I bring the American Tourister suitcase. One of the great things about it is the shape and color – it stands out, ugly and odd in its hardness and varying shades of orangey-beige. No one uses such a suitcase anymore. I can spot it easily as it pushes through the conveyor belt in baggage claim. It’s a bit of an embarrassment, but I don’t have to sort through the multitude of dark black or green or blue canvas traveling bags as they roll along in the belt after every flight. There it is: the bright ugly, hard thing! I grab it and I’m off!
I never thought of my father as visionary in any way. He was a difficult man. This is how I usually describe him in writing: overly emotional, erratic, on the brink of screaming or crying, held together by a thin glue of sanity, applied daily by my stepmother, Fran (who is also gone.) How could such a mess of a dad ever be considered visionary?
When he gave me the luggage, we both had plenty of emotional baggage. I couldn’t stand him when I was a teenager, because he was so overwrought, easily shaken to screams or tears. One never knew from one moment to the next whether he’d laugh or cry. I broke his heart because I stayed away from him by the time I was fifteen. When he bought the luggage, I’m sure he didn’t say, “I’ll give her suitcases because someday I dream of her traveling across the country; I know this agoraphobia won’t keep her down forever. I have a vision for her.” More likely he said, “What the hell is wrong with my daughter?” Which, by the way, I did hear him say out loud plenty of times during my life. Out of desperation to make me the perfect daughter he thought I should be, he picked up the luggage, with the frantic hope that I would someday use it, especially to visit him on Cape Cod.
As the Alaska Airlines jet cruises at 35,000 feet, I begin to wonder if somewhere in his tortured soul my father was visionary. His face keeps re-drawing itself before me during flight. It’s almost as if I see him peeking at me from heaven. For the first time in a long time, I miss him. He had his good qualities – humorous, smart, driven, and sincere. I see his face before me, smiling on his 81st birthday as his daughter jaunts across the country, where once she could not drive down the street.
Perhaps he did have vision, knowing that someday the skies would open before me, and being a dad, he wanted to make sure I had sturdy luggage as I flew into the world.
Happy Birthday, Dad.
To view the 1971 gorilla commercial and what appears to be an exact replica of my suitcase, see: