Tending to the Rituals of My Lost and Found Father

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He says it’s his lucky bottle and not to touch it.

I’m peering into the bright glow of my father’s refrigerator. Each shelf reserved for one item. Boxes of peach muffins that the ladies at Vons bake for him special. An army of French-style Yoplait — vanilla with blue foil caps. A half-drawer harboring one package of thin-sliced deli turkey — the only meat he eats anymore. The bottom shelf — once a place for brown bottles of beer — is empty except for a clear plastic bottle of water with a faded Lake Arrowhead label and a push-pull drinking cap.

“Whatever you do, don’t throw it away,” he says from his chair at the glass-top dinette table. He gives me his aw-shucks cowboy smile.

I know then that he must have won big at the track while drinking from that bottle. I’m not sure what “big” means to him anymore — $1,000? $10,000? Whatever it is, a come down from the days when he drove a silver Porsche and got paid to play a cowboy, his gleaming Hollywood smile gracing billboards coast to coast.

We were both surprised when I volunteered to fly out after his back surgery. Only when I was driving the rental car away from the airport did it hit me that we’d never been alone overnight, just us.

I did not meet my father until I was 17, which I used to think was a unique story. But the lost and found parent is more common than you think. Adoption and divorce — or in my case a mother who ran from my father — sever bloodlines. You graft onto a new family the way I did when my mother remarried.

Yet like a phantom limb, the missing parent lingers. An itch you can’t scratch.

Then one day he finds you. Despite what you know about him, something deep within you seats itself. The sinker on the line you’ve been casting your whole life settles in silty depths.

I’ve agreed to be his caregiver for five days and four nights; to drive him to Starbucks, to prepare his turkey sandwiches, to help him navigate the stairs to his bedroom, to stand by as he showers (my eyes averted, yet hoping to pre-empt a fall), to change the large white bandage along his spine before it oozes.

When I first arrived, rental car in the driveway, ready to push the doorbell, my stomach squeezed with the panic of a small child left with a new babysitter — anticipating the uncertain hours between the scent of her beautiful mother’s goodbye and the silk rustle of her return. But now I am the babysitter.

My finger hovers near the microwave buttons. “Thirty-three seconds,” he says. I hit “3” twice and watch his peach muffin circle. When the oven dings I carry the muffin on three napkins, as instructed, to his place at the table. There, his Starbucks coffee cup sits with three sugar packets and three stir sticks. After he finishes his breakfast, he will ask me to dispose of all food trash, replacing three layers of kitchen trash bags with three new bags.

“So he really is O.C.D.,” my daughter texts after I detail his rituals at the end of my first night. “I’ve always suspected.” She’s a college junior. When I was her age, I simply thought he was superstitious.

He cultivated superstition while growing up in Texas, with dreams of being the next DiMaggio. As a boy, he never stepped up to bat without wearing his lucky socks with their blue stripe across one toe.

If athletes, actors and gamblers are the most superstitious among us, my father hit the trifecta. Recruited out of high school for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ farm team, he quit baseball to make his first movie. He starred opposite Robert De Niro, then unknown. Later, when acting gigs were few and far between, he learned he had a talent for handicapping horses. Now he lives on the outskirts of Vegas. His Screen Actors Guild pension and carefully placed bets pay his bills.

My mother used to tell me that my father was “particular.” Particular about the seam in his trousers, the shine on his shoes, the people she spoke to. Particular about invisible lines he expected her to navigate to avoid his wrath, especially when he was drunk.

After the new had worn off from my meeting him, I, like my mother, learned to tiptoe the borders of his rage. For most of my 30s and 40s, after I had a family of my own and lived 3,000 miles away, I avoided him altogether. I’d come to see his idiosyncrasies as just another way to bully me.

Now, I find his routines a godsend. A boat we can climb into and row together.

For three days we’ve done well. I’ve learned to leave my shoes by the front door, to lower the garage door a foot from the ground, and to line up the bottom edge of the bedspread so it just grazes the carpet.

He sits at the foot of his bed and lifts his arms so I can pull the Nike “Keep Rockin’” T-shirt up and off. His once handsome head totters and his nakedness makes us both shy. At 78, the athlete’s beefy pecs are now loose crescents sparsely seeded with pale hair.

I work one of his arms into a pajama sleeve and then the other. He has little strength to handle the bottoms himself but insists. Relieved, I hover beyond the bedroom door’s threshold, waiting.

When he calls me back, his pants are on but he’s short of breath. “Rub my feet,” he says, “will you honey?” He hands me a bottle of lotion.

As I kneel in plush white carpet, he says, “You know why everything is three, don’t you?”

I cup his cracked heel in my palm, the scent of peppermint lotion fresh between us.

“I was born in 1939,” he explains. “Three-nine. Each divisible by three.” He gives me a knowing look, waiting. Waiting to see if I of all people — flesh of his flesh — will understand.

I nod solemnly, keeper of a child’s secret.

I know that if not for his weakened condition he wouldn’t have let me in. Unable to do for himself, he needs me to keep his demons at bay. I am his eyes and ears, his hands and feet, stewarding his good luck charms and talismans. I am a mother checking under the bed for monsters.

How could I have known that one day I would be well loved enough to no longer crave my father’s love? Hungry no more, I would be free to feed him instead.

I reach for the athletic socks lying near him on the bed, gathering one with my thumbs like pantyhose and sliding it over his minty foot. Our remaining hours feel more certain now. His winning bottle is in the fridge, three is watching over us, and I’m learning to position the lucky blue stripe on the toe of his left sock just right.