Nov 9, 2021

The day after my abortion, I boarded a bus to Tucson, where my dad had moved a few years before. I’d tried to reach him at the university to let him know I was coming—he lived out in the desert and didn’t have a phone—but a secretary had told me he only came in to the department a couple of times a week. I arrived early on a Sunday morning and wound up at a police station, asking where the street address I had was located. Instead, one of the cops drove me out into the desert in a patrol car.

Twenty miles beyond the city limits, at the end of a meandering dirt road, we came to a modern ranch-style house surrounded by sand and saguaro cactus. I rapped on the door several times, more loudly with each repetition, but no one answered. So I started circling the house, peering in windows, trying to determine if this really was my dad’s place. When I pressed my nose against a sliding glass door, I saw a study strewn with books and papers—and, to my astonishment, a coyote looking warily back at me. “This is it,” I told the officer. And resumed pounding on the door until I finally raised my father.

He had moved to Tucson for his health, he’d written, thinking the climate would help his arthritis—but he wasn’t much better than before, he now admitted. He still had, I was able to make out, the few pieces of handsome modern furniture and the colorful throw rugs my aunt Nat had helped him pick out after the divorce (the new furnishings my mother had so resented), as well as the artifacts he’d brought back from Mexico—onyx bookends of Aztec gods, tin masks, and ceramic animals—though both furniture and objets d’art were all but buried in the general disorder.

An architect had designed the house to his specifications, he said, so its floor-to-ceiling windows faced two mountain ranges. The rocks of the massive fireplace he’d also brought back from Mexico. With his power tools, he’d built a stand for two huge aquariums. In one was a beautiful orange-striped seaworm like a candy ribbon, as well as several baby octopi the size of your thumb. He’d caught their mother, he explained, but she’d died after they hatched. He had an expensive stereo system and a huge record collection, and he played me his favorite pieces, among them a Mozart violin concerto that he said always made him weep. I thought it was the most beautiful piece of music I’d ever heard.

When I arrived he’d been preparing to take another trip to the Gulf of Mexico, where he hired boys to catch marine specimens for him—and he invited me along. But suddenly I came down with a fever. The doctor Dad took me to told me I’d developed an infection, apparently due to unsterile conditions during my abortion. He said I could either check myself into a hospital or monitor my urine output myself; if it dropped below a certain level, I should head for the nearest emergency room. My father was angry at me, then, because I’d spoiled his vacation.

Nevertheless, since he was still mostly bedridden, he let me take his car to go exploring on my own when I’d recovered. I found my way to the desert museum where he’d taken Doug and me when we were kids—and saw, among other creatures, hideous sun spiders like the ones we’d caught during our trip through the Southwest when I was twelve. They brought back a flood of memories: Capturing a couple of them and thoughtlessly putting them together in a glass jar; when we checked them next, they’d completely dismembered each other. Crossing the border into Mexico amid clouds of yellow and gold Mammoth Sulfurs—tropical butterflies we’d never seen before. Driving through a tiny town where the women hung their embroidery out the windows of their poor adobe huts to display them to tourists—I bought a shawl with lavender flowers. Trying to catch tiny crabs on the beach at Mazatlan—when one no bigger than a quarter grabbed my dad’s finger, he let out a howl of pain. Happening upon a white witch, a giant moth with a 12” (!) wing span, on a shaded rock on a trail to a waterfall in Monterrey; my father trapped it in a butterfly net, but when he reached in to grab it, it managed to fight its way free, it was so strong.

Speeding through the desert in my dad’s car, I saw magnificent sunsets, the entire sky a vault of flaming clouds; the moon rising blood-red, doubled in size; storms coming off the mountains, traveling across the desert until they enveloped me, a light show of lightning barbs piercing the sky. And for the space of a few days, I felt a sense of expansiveness—of relief—because I’d finally come to know that, despite my father’s incapacity, he had a full life. He had his books, his music, his love of wildflowers, and he wasn’t so disabled he couldn’t do woodworking, go on excursions in his boat, and more… He’d even had lovers, he assured me.