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"Slow Down, Pete" MAG
Nobody warned me how easy my life would be, how painless, how full. They didn't bother to caution me about all the fun I would have. They didn't express concern for how I would look, act, feel. People never feel the urge to warn you about the good stuff.
I am nine years old. It's five in the morning, and we're already on the mountain, our faithful Ford F-150 rumbling up the serpentine dirt road toward the ideal location to capture the choke cherry sunrise.
Dad's out of the truck before the dashboard stops shuddering, a smudge of jeans and XXXL button-up blue. He treks up the steep incline, one hand on the tripod (doubling now as a hiking stick), the other on the camera slung around his neck. I trudge behind, a willing pack mule, with the slow patience that has earned me ridicule among my friends.
When I catch up, Dad puts a hand on my shoulder, staring into the blinking eye of a wild flower sun.
“Some day you're going to be miles ahead of me,” he winks. “I'll be yelling, ‘Slow down, Pete! Wait for your old dad!'”
I grin at the nickname and shake my head. “No way,” I say. “That'll never happen.”
Seven years later, Pete's grown up.
Now, living the life that nobody cautioned me about, I must face the sting of the one prediction that somebody did make.
I could stagger behind my father forever. The hours I spent slowly trudging up mountains are worth more to me now than ever. I would give anything to need, just one more time, for him to wait for me while I catch up.
There is a monster called Mystery Arthritis. It begins in the knees, then creeps to the back, then the neck, before finally insinuating itself into every bone in the body. It laughs at the doctors as they try to chase it out. Then it goes somewhere even darker than the marrow: it dwells in the mind.
As Pudgy Pete grew long legs, strong muscles, and a fast stride, her father went through a transformation of his own. His steps faltered, breathing stuttered, arms shook. As Pete finally learned to stand on her own, Dad's knees could no longer hold him. Pete got running shoes. Dad got reinforced braces. Pete finally learned to love herself. Dad's body turned against him, and he against it.
His day starts at 6 p.m.
In the morning, while I am outside working, Dad is asleep. At noon, as I prepare lunch for my mom and brother, Dad gulps down a fistful of prescription medication. In the afternoon, while I am chasing pipe dreams, Dad is eating waffles drowned in sugar-free Mrs. Butterworth's.
Dad doesn't feel well enough to do anything until about 6 p.m. Anything we need his help with – maintenance, repairs – has to wait until then. I've forgotten what his face looks like when it's not in pain.
Then it's back inside. For me, that means back to writing, then off to bed. For Dad, it means watching the Discovery Channel or TruTV, often until six in the morning.
I watch him sometimes. I watch the pain cross his face. He doesn't bother trying to hide it, or complain. He is afraid that he is getting old because he keeps losing things, but I beg to differ. Superman lost an entire planet, after all, and he was half the superhero my dad is.
Nobody warned me how little I would have to suffer as I grew, nor did they warn Dad how much he would. There is a certain bravery in that silence, though. A promise that says he will never give up.
Long ago, Dad told Pete that some day she would be miles ahead of him, and he would call to her, “Slow down, Pete!” But nobody told him that there is more to a mile than distance.