My dad had a car accident a few weeks ago, and it’s all he’s talked about since. Every phone call, he tells me the story again. And every time he does, the story changes. Remember playing telephone – where everyone sits in a circle and each whispers a message to the next kid, and at the end, the message is totally different? Well, that’s what this game of telephone’s been like, but my dad’s the only one playing.
The original story was this: He came home; pulled up to the mailbox; got the mail; backed up to the foot of the driveway, hit the gas and shot backward into the neighbor’s yard across the street, blowing a tire and taking out a tree.
This is what he told me this week: “So I got the mail, and backed up. I need a running start to get around the bushes and up the driveway.” (It’s a CAR. It has an ENGINE. A running start?) “Then the car went haywire. I didn’t know what was happening, and when I realized it, I stepped on the brake. I wound up in the girls’ yard, right on top of a wall in their driveway. Good thing I didn’t go off the wall.”
“You told me about that, Dad.”
“Yeah, my front tire was flat. That’s what caused it.”
What? In what universe can a flat tire cause a car to race backwards out of control?
In my father’s universe. The one he creates. The one he creates every time he talks about his lawsuit. The one he creates where he falls asleep “sometimes.” The one he creates when he tells me about a guy who’s more of a tightwad than he is.
A year ago, my Dad sued a woman for hitting his car head-on, while he was stopped, supposedly shattering two of his vertebrae, and leaving him hunched over “for life.” He’s 82 and he’s been hunched over since the 90s, steadily getting worse, but he spent the past year trying to convince doctors to blame the two shattered vertebrae on the accident. He won the lawsuit, unfortunately reinforcing his belief.
A couple of months ago, my dad asked me if I watched the presidential debate. He loves politics. He’ll spout his political beliefs to anyone, without regard for their own. Anyway, he told me he turned on the TV to watch the debate, sat down on the couch, and fell asleep. “I do that sometimes,” he said. My father sleeps 90 percent of “sometimes.” When he visited us, he was awake for fifteen minutes for each meal, but the rest of the time, he nodded off sitting up on the couch, undisturbed by screaming children, blaring TV or the smoke alarm.
A few months ago, he told me about a guy from the senior center who’s so cheap he sneaks through the side door of the Chinese Buffet so he doesn’t have to pay. My father just reduced his grandchildren’s birthday and Christmas gifts by 50 percent. Since he won his lawsuit, he’s been telling me how his ample settlement “isn’t very much money.”
Initially, his story about the accident was that “I got mixed up between the gas and the brake” so he backed into the neighbor’s yard. In fact, he got mixed up between gears. He thought he was in drive when he was still in reverse. I can understand the initial confusion, — he called me the day it happened. But I can’t figure out how he never understood that he was in the wrong gear, and now it was the tire that caused the accident? How does my father survive?
He had more to say. “I got a bill for the girls’ tree. Eighteen hundred dollars. They say it’s not just a regular tree. It’s a specimen tree. It’s not just a maple. It’s got more than one trunk or something like that.”
What’s a specimen tree? At my husband’s coaching I baited, “Good thing they’re not suing your insurance company.”
“I SAID GOOD THING THEY’RE NOT SUING YOUR INSURANCE COMPANY!”
“GOOD THING THEY’RE NOT SUING YOUR INSURANCE COMPANY!”
“Insurance? They can’t sue the insurance company. I caused it.”
“I don’t know how much money they have, but what am I gonna do? Ya gotta keep up relations with the girls.”
So my father is saying that if the neighbors had money, he’d feel justified in not paying them for their tree. And the only reason he’s paying the bill is to maintain a good relationship with the neighbors. At least he understands enough reality to know he’s got to play nice with the neighbors. I am surprised he knows that much.
Once we got off the subject of the last car accident, he told me, “Your cousin read your article in the Costco magazine. Do you have more than one article in there?” I showed him at least five stories in that magazine when he visited us, and I told him it’s got eight million readers, but it wasn’t valid to him until he found out that my cousin’s a subscriber.
“Yes, Dad, I have one in most issues.”
“They pay you for that?”
For the millionth time, “Yes, they pay me.”
“Is that the only magazine you write for?”
Again, for the millionth time, “No, right now I write for two more.”
“Well, good. I’m glad you were able to become a writer, of sorts.”
Of sorts? This is the guy who can’t express enough admiration of the local right-wing hack who sells his own advertising and delivers his three-page stapled newsletters to all the supermarkets. Of sorts?
“Yeah, Dad, I did,” I said. The more I think about that remark, the madder I get. I’ve been writing professionally for seventeen years. But I guess I’ve got to look at it in terms of his reality – the one he makes up as he goes along. In his reality, I’ll always be a disappointment. But as long as I love what I do and I’m happy, in my reality, I couldn’t be more of a success.
Breaking news: Spoke to my Dad last night. He was upset that his computer was “not working,” because he wanted to read the article about the Toyota lawsuit over uncontrolled acceleration. THAT’S what caused his accident now. And he wants to find out how to get in on the payout. Of course. Since they’ve already settled, that’s gonna be kind of impossible, but hey, it gives him something to do for the next six months.