When parking the car, leave enough room on the passenger side so he can place one foot on the roadway. Too close and he teeters on the uneven edge of the curb. It’s difficult enough with his uncertain balance. When setting the table, give him a salad fork. His wrist is stiff, his shoulder tight, and angling both is a challenge. Larger tines of a dinner fork guarantee that at least half of the meal will land on his lap. Oh, and if possible, cut his meat in the kitchen before serving him. He’ll never ask you to do it but he’ll always appreciate the effort.
“I’ll go around,” I say after trying the door closest to the handicap space and learning it’s locked from the outside, the force of my tug rattling metal against metal. A guy at the soda machine looks up, sees me through the window, and goes back to filling his cup.
I break into a trot and skip down the sidewalk. My father adjusts his walker, places one foot on the curb. His other leg locks straight, the toe of his shoe tapping the arc of the cement until he wills his knee to bend. My mother stands behind him with one hand on his back, the other on the hood of the car.
“I could’ve gotten the door,” a woman says as I pass her table.
I glance at her half-eaten salad, wisps of frisee and blue cheese crumbles glistening with dressing. A small pile of discarded pecans sits off to the side. I smile. “Eh, it’s okay. Thanks though.”
For an hour, we sit together picking at our food. We discuss the details of Christmas in Sarasota. We talk about books we’ve read, movies we want to see. We list the ways Panera could improve upon the texture and taste of their chicken.
“Is your tea sweetened?” My dad asks with his eyes focused on the lip of the plastic cup in front of me.
“With a Splenda. But Mom said you didn’t want anything to drink.”
“I don’t. But I have some medicine to take.” He reaches into his shirt pocket, presents colorful capsules that look like confetti. “I only want a sip,” he continues. “You can have the rest.”
“It isn’t about the sip.” I shift in my seat, study the lines that slice across my palm. The nail of my index finger rides along the deepest ridge. “Dad, what if your condition is a virus?”
My mom turns her head, observes my face, and then shifts her gaze to my father and awaits his response.
“They know it isn’t a virus,” he calmly argues.
“They don’t know shit. There are what, six hundred people with PLS? Not to sound negative but no one’s funding research. So, as of today, some random doctor in Minnesota ruled out a virus. He also said it wasn’t hereditary but there are two brothers with it.”
I push the cup further away, collapse against my seat back. My shoulders roll forward, my chin drops lower. Because, though the words came from my mouth, it feels like I am hearing them for the first time. Everyone is still, the restaurant suddenly quiet. For one solid second, it feels as if someone hit the pause button.
I am looking into a void but can feel my mom rest her hand on my forearm. My lips part and I expel a deep breath, blowing out until my lungs are empty. My father places a pill on his tongue and reaches for the tea. I stand up, stack our dirty bowls and drop them at the designated counter. When I return, my mom helps him to his feet, leads him to the exit. And when my father isn’t looking, I take the half-filled cup of tea he left sitting on the table and toss it in the trash.