Lucky That Way: Rediscovering My Father's World

Lucky That Way: Rediscovering My Father's World

by Pamela Gerhardt


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“I decide that from now on we should listen to him. His lip may be deflated and his left side paralyzed, but he knows. And he has made terrible mistakes. But he knows. He knows. We are lucky that way.”

Lucky That Way, a nuanced, richly engaging memoir, chronicles the joys and tribulations of a daughter who rediscovers her father as he nears the end of his life. Ernie Gerhardt, an artist and teacher, is largely estranged from his five children, but when he suffers a debilitating stroke, his daughter Pamela must fly to Las Vegas to tend to him. When she arrives to find Ernie newly and shockingly fragile, she is hit by an unexpected wave of tenderness.

As she watches over him in intensive care, she recalls turning points in her family history—the early death of her mother and her father’s turn to heavy drinking—and reflects on the idiosyncrasies that make an imperfect and unique family, on what it means to become old, on what happens when parents are no longer the caregivers but the cared-for, and on how a family copes with their responsibility to the elderly.

Written in a crisp, engaging style, the story is less about the drudgery of finding the right mix of medicines, at-home caregivers, and rehabilitation centers and more about the emotional ramifications of caring for the sick under the weight of sometimes flawed attachments.

People make mistakes, grow old, get sick, and pass on from this world. Lucky That Way examines the irritations and comforts of contemporary family bonds. Gerhardt sifts through the complicated, multi-layered relationships for both wry comedy and high drama and records a string of triumphs and mishaps as Ernie and his five adult children struggle to manage his life and find meaning before their time runs out.

The emerging theme of imperfect humans struggling with life's great mysteries will strike a chord of recognition with the tens of thousands of Baby-Boomers and Gen-Xers who are currently facing similar circumstances with their elderly loved ones. Pamela Gerhardt’s heartfelt story about a family coming to terms with their aging father’s illness and imminent death takes readers on an emotional roller coaster that highlights love, loss, humor, and sadness.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826220042
Publisher: University of Missouri Press
Publication date: 10/01/2013
Pages: 184
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 3 Months to 18 Years

About the Author

Pamela Gerhardt is an instructor of Narrative Nonfiction in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Maryland and has also done freelance writing for the Washington Post, Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle, and other publications.  She currently lives near Washington D.C. with her husband and two children.

Read an Excerpt

Lucky That Way

Rediscovering My Father's World

By Pamela Gerhardt


Copyright © 2013 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8262-2004-2


Part 1

The Smallest Gesture

Day 1 | That Letter You Wrote

I am in the clouds. I am floating.

I am flying to see my father in an intensive care unit, a man I haven't seen in seven years.

Maybe he is dying. Maybe not.

I am simply moving forward, a couple miles a minute, as it were, thirty-two thousand feet above the Midwest plains.

I am vacant. I am mostly dreading Las Vegas, the city where he was hospitalized while on vacation, a city of phony Sphinxes and plaster Eiffel Towers. I am thinking that when I see him I will ask him, "Couldn't you have had your stroke in Paris—the real one?"

He will laugh, edit the punch line, add something funnier—"Could have been worse. Paducah." If he gave his five children a gift, it is irreverence.

When I was a kid he once asked me to make a prank phone call to his boss. He worked as a salesman for a company named G. S. Robins. My two brothers and two sisters and I were well aware of how much he hated his job. Art was his passion. But he had gone to college on the GI Bill, like so many of his peers after the war, and gotten a degree in business. "It wasn't heard of in our family, in those days, to get a college degree, much less one in art," he once told me. "I never even considered it." He found himself driving the Chevrolet long distances during the week to places with lonesome-sounding names like Wichita and Oswego, staying in hotels, returning on Fridays with a backache as he headed to his easel wedged between the washing machine and the tool bench in the basement. His attitude toward his job continued to sour. Sitting at the dinner table, we heard about how much he disliked his boss, a man who smoked fat cigars and pressured Dad to increase sales. One day, when I was eight, Dad decided to go to grad school and get an MFA in art. He graduated in just two years and landed a job as a high school art teacher and quit his job at G. S. Robins. Meanwhile, I had been working on a few bird calls—especially that of the robin.

You might guess where this is going.

The day he quit he dialed the boss's office number on the beige wall phone in our St. Louis kitchen. "Do your thing," he whispered to me and stretched the spiral phone cord so that he could hold the receiver near my mouth. I chirped away, doing my best angry robin call, and he hung up, doubling over with laughter.

"We sure showed them," he said, clutching his stomach, laughing hard enough to produce tears. Even at that age, smiling with my dad as he sputtered over his irreverent joke, I knew I was facing something deeply complicated, a worldview that might cause me trouble in the future.

I am letting the plane ride unfold one minute, one hour at a time. I am thinking of my friends who have gone through something similar in recent years with their own aging parents. How do we find meaning within the sea of statistics on America's aging population? And why does this feel different, less clarified, than watching my own parents care for their aging parents?

So much has changed. For one, my parents lived a five-minute drive from theirs. We will have stories about all this aging. We will have stories about caregiving and the intimacy that comes with it. We might consult guidebooks and websites. We will learn how to interview directors of assisted living facilities by way of long-distance phone calls. We will learn how to monitor blood pressure and blood sugar. But looking out the window during the four-hour plane ride, I already know: that stuff is the easy part. In my case, at least, something far more challenging is at stake.

I haven't seen my father in seven years. A stupid story, it goes like this: I asked him one Christmas to control his drinking. But that's not the whole story. It began after Mom died, when he had decided to fly Debbie, who had been diagnosed with Schizophrenia a few years earlier, to his South Carolina house for Christmas. The oldest of my siblings, she still lived in a small house down the street from our former home in St. Louis. She was stable, but at times believed she was a nun, a prophet, who often tried to call the Pope and the chief of police of Rome to tell them about her prophesies concerning the future of the Church. He, more so than anyone else in the family, struggled in her presence. He said on the phone, "Just don't leave me alone with her. Promise?" I promised. He started out at noon on Christmas Eve with a celebratory bloody Mary. My other sister and brothers and I would have joined him, but our small kids were clamoring to see the new Disney movie at the theater down the road. I had forgotten my promise. When we returned, Dad was swaying when he walked, and by evening he was passed out on the floorboards of his back porch. Afterward, I returned to my home in the Washington, D.C., area and wrote him a letter: Please stop bingeing like that. You are at your best when you are not drinking. You made your best paintings when you were sober. The movie had been Toy Story 2, and on the eight-hour-drive home to Washington I kept thinking: stupid Disney. Had we stayed at his house, maybe he wouldn't have gotten so drunk. But that's not the whole story, is it?

The drinking had begun before that, when Mom was sick. "That's when it began," Dad once told me. "The heavy drinking. And it helped. God, those martinis helped."

I am floating. I am surrounded by revelers pumped up with the prospect of fortune on their way to Vegas, mostly young people who apparently didn't get the memo that they might someday need to help someone walk and eat and pee. Or they might someday stop seeing a parent. The pilot, clearly enamored with the role of cruise director, announces sights along the way—The Rocky Mountains! The Grand Canyon! and our final destination with the enthusiasm of a carnival barker. "Buckle up and sit back. We're on our way to Laaaas Vegaaaas!" he says several times during the flight. The cabin erupts in cheers.

It feels, however inaccurately, as though I might be the only person on the plane with a different kind of agenda. What that is, I am not entirely sure.

A few days earlier, I had been holding a yard sale. A customer wanted to buy our futon and frame, which were sitting on the front lawn, the clean, canary-yellow mattress cover looking perky and inviting against the brilliant green of the grass. I would have bought it, too. My kids were selling lemonade and brownies and offered some to the beloved kindergarten teacher who taught at the school down the street and had stopped by.

"You can't have this," the matronly teacher told the customer, sinking into the futon. "I'm sitting right here, all day."

Anyone could tell: we had made a good life for ourselves.

The customer needed change. I went inside, and in the kitchen, I saw the message light blinking on the answering machine. I listened to various messages from my four siblings: Dad had a stroke out in Arizona. All I could focus on was place. Arizona? What's he doing out there? I went back outside and completed the transaction. We hugged the kindergarten teacher goodbye. I helped the customer get the futon into his truck. I sold a few more things—lamps, an old camp stove, a pair of ice skates, their leather tongues beginning to decay. I exchanged a 1965 edition of the Game of Life, its box badly tattered, a leftover from my childhood, for a few dimes.

Perhaps many people would have stopped in their tracks, shut down the yard sale, and returned phone calls right away. I did not. I had spoken to Dad once a few years after the Christmas binge. Two of my siblings had persuaded me to call one summer when I was renting a beach house for a week just a few miles north of his house. "Tell him you're going to stop by for a visit," my brother and sister told me. They wanted to end the stalemate. I took the house phone and went outside and stood among the wooden pillars holding up the elevated beach house. I was afraid to let my husband see me make the call. I dialed his number. I said hi. He said hi. I quickly explained my reason for calling. "I'll pass," he said and hung up.

I sold a pair of fishing waders to the last dawdling customer as the setting sun began to turn the sky pink and thought, finally: it's time. On the phone I learned that one of my brothers, Joe, had gone on vacation with our dad to Nevada and Arizona. Joe had never seen the Grand Canyon, and Dad wanted to see it for a third time. Off they went without telling anyone—which may or may not be unusual for any family today, scattered across the United States, or the globe, not so much falling out as simply losing touch.

The members of my family, like those of others, had drifted for a variety of reasons. After my mother was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer at age fifty-two and died five years later, everything immediately shifted, each of us a continental plate, heavy, slipping apart, under the force of the epochal change. Dad started drinking too much, and we drifted, to Florida, South Carolina, Texas. Only Debbie remained, alone, in her one-bedroom house, a house originally built for railroad workers in the late 1800s, along the tracks in Maplewood, Missouri.

Now, like so many people with aging parents, my scattered siblings and I suddenly understood that action, teamwork, would be required. Over the next forty-eight hours we made phone calls and sent emails, creating a wobbly action plan, of sorts, a complex beeline that buzzed from St. Louis (my sister Deb), to South Carolina (my sister Barb), to Arizona and Vegas (Dad and Joe in the ICU), to Washington, D.C. (me), to Florida (my brother John), and back again. We settled on a rather loose emergency schedule. Step 1: Barb was flying out west to help Joe and make assessments. Step 2: I would enter the picture.

* * *

"Someone needs to be here," Joe told me on the phone. "I gotta get back to work." Joe is the youngest. Never married, childless, he sometimes seems to me out of element during crises. Even over the phone, I could tell he was pacing. Barb planned to arrive soon, stay two days, then head to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to get paperwork in order at Dad's house. My other brother needed a week's notice to leave his hourly construction job. Our oldest sister, Deb, was obviously unable to help. "It has to be you," Joe said.

A university instructor, I was on break. It made sense. I should be the one. Strictly practical. But an undercurrent was tugging at all of us, threatening to sink the best-laid plan. Over the years, Dad had made it clear that he was not very interested in seeing us. His drinking and the surliness that went with it had driven us away. Barb had seen Dad only a few times over the past several years; Deb had seen him only once in the twenty years since our mother died; and John, the sheet metal worker, had seen him maybe twice in ten years.

There were two grandchildren Dad had never met and one he had seen only twice.

The hard truth is that I had been prepared to see him once more—in his casket. My husband told me in the days after the stroke. "This, your going to Las Vegas, is a much better outcome." I could not be sure.

"The case manager here says he'll be fine until you get here," Joe said. "He's in good hands. It's an ICU, for chrissakes."

Over the years, I had been careful to send Christmas cards, birthday cards to my father. "Just to prove it wasn't me; it was him," I would tell my husband as I licked the stamp. In response: nothing. My guess was that Dad was throwing the cards in the trash. (He always threw away cards and letters. He had few attachments, it would seem, to sentiment.)

"I don't think he will let me in the room," I told my brother.

"I already told him you would be the one, and he said, 'Fine,'" my brother said.

"He said, 'Fine?'"

"He said, 'Fine.' The staff here knows you're coming. He knows you're coming."

In the end, I told my brothers and sisters I would go. "But I'm doing this for you."

* * *

I am in the clouds, wondering about the truth behind that.

My plane lands at 8:57 P.M. Final strips of the day's orange light streak the desert sky. I get the rental car and find the highway. I decide to drive straight to the hospital and get it over with, face this thing head-on.

I must see him—yes, must—before it is too late.

From the highway I spot the hospital's name glowing in blue neon at the top of a building. I stop off at a gas station and buy cigarettes even though I quit years earlier. I smoke one. In the hospital parking lot, I smoke another. I am stalling, perhaps. I am mustering courage. I'll pass.

I have no idea where he is, so I go in through the emergency room. Workers there direct me to the ICU next door. Finally, up an elevator and through a few corridors, I arrive at a set of double doors. Locked. To the right there's a phone on the wall, and a sign posted below it reads: "Dial 20." I pick up the receiver and dial. A voice answers and I say, "I'm here to see Ernie Gerhardt." Saying his name suddenly cuts through the dreamy flight and the fairyland dancing neon of the Vegas skyline that I glimpsed from the highway. His name. Gerhardt.

He is, after all, my father.

My knees feel as though they might buckle. I keep thinking of the one line I liked from that sort of goofy best-seller called "The Shack." Jesus, a character in the book, tells a man, "You will even lose ... to accomplish love."

I like the word accomplish.

There he is, with his eyes closed, lying in the bed with a white sheet pulled up to his neck. I am glad he appears to be sleeping. This gives me a few minutes. His face seems more handsome than I remember, with a sharper nose. My dad is seventy-nine and has lived a rich and varied life. He sweated it out and learned to smoke cigarettes on Guam in the months following World War II, helped raise five children, traveled across the country as a salesman, whiled away evenings jamming on acoustic instruments with his friends and family, went back to college at age forty, got the MFA, won "teacher of the year" awards, traveled to Europe many times, nursed my mom through cancer until her early death, then moved from St. Louis, our hometown, to Surfside Beach, South Carolina and began a new life. People find him interesting. People meeting him for the first time adore him. Ernie. It's a good name. Friendly. There's a reason a Muppet and the beloved cop from It's a Wonderful Life have the same name. It's the name of a stranger you meet at a bar on a Sunday afternoon when you should be mowing the lawn. Ernie, of course, would have already mowed the lawn—at 6 A.M. He always took care of business. I slowly approach his bed. I feel as though I am literally tiptoeing.

Too soon, he opens his eyes. This would be it.

"Barb?" he asks. I had been warned that the stroke has left him temporarily blind in the left eye.

"No. It's Pam. Barb is gone."

"You're Pam?" he asks. Yes, I want to tell him, Pam, your daughter, the one who worked at McDonald's for four years in high school and saved the money and put herself through college and got straight A's and never bothered you for a dime, the one who backpacked through Europe alone and sent you pretty postcards from Lucca, the one who surprised and delighted you when she asked if she could have a few of your old paintings to hang in her apartment, the one who came back from Ghana, West Africa, and gave you a dashiki, which you gleefully wore to parties, the spacey child, the good girl (remember?), the one who sat in sorrow with you on the steps of the old Middleton-Pinckney mansion.

I come around to his side up from the foot of the bed and take his hand.

"Yes," I answer. And then it happens. I am crying. Squeaking out my words like a child who has just bumped her head.

"It's me."

"How are you?"

I can barely speak. I nod. "How are you?"

"I never thought I'd have a stroke in Arizona," he says. "I can't move my arm. At all." He speaks haltingly, as one who must reach deep into the brain to find the words and send them out the mouth.

I wipe away my tears on my sleeve and say, "Show me."

His left arm is draped across his chest, and it's true, there is something about its position that tells you instantly that it is paralyzed. It appears to be a club, foreign, a dead weight. He scrunches the right side of his face in the effort to tell his brain to move the arm. Nothing.

I ask him if he is in any pain. He shakes his head no.

"Just my lower back. Same as ever." The old scars from the life of a traveling salesman. He told me once he actually injured his back after the navy, in college, while working for a furniture-moving business, one that moved pianos.

I find myself needing to sit in the chair to the side of his bed. It is late. I'm feeling the three-hour time-zone change. I don't know if he has noticed my tears. A few minutes later, Dad says, "Come closer."

I stand again and take his hand.

"That letter you wrote," he begins, and I interrupt him, my voice wavering, "It was a mistake."

Our faces are close. He speaks slowly, his words crossing great distances. "You had a right to write it. It was very angry. You were angry. But then you should have rewritten it. It might have been only four sentences long. You could have said it all in four sentences."

"I should have written it and ripped it up," I tell him, surprising myself, acknowledging a regret I hadn't realized existed. Not until this moment. Not until I said it out loud.

He says, "You have an MFA in writing. I have an MFA in art. You know how to do it."

Excerpted from Lucky That Way by Pamela Gerhardt. Copyright © 2013 The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments....................     ix     

Author's Note....................     xi     

Prologue: Got to Feed God Children....................     1     

Part 1 The Smallest Gesture....................     5     

Part 2 Acute Rehab....................     43     

Part 3 Gyros and Beanbags....................     63     

Part 4 The Difference between Matisse and Chagall....................     91     

Part 5 Finding the Time to Read Moby Dick....................     109     

Part 6 Eilean Donan....................     119     

Part 7 Sunshine on My Shoulders Looks So Lovely....................     149     

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