" ... age, like a cage, will enclose you."
-- From "My Son Has Birds in His Head," a poem by Alastair Reid
The idea of traveling with an aging parent didn't appeal to most of our friends when we told them that our trip to Greece and Turkey would include my 80-year-old father and my wife's 57-year-old mother. Mother-in-law jokes aside, why would I spend precious time off on such an ill-advised and possibly dangerous adventure? Even my father warned that, at 80, he would be "a millstone."
My wife, Rande, had legitimate fears. What would we do if my father needed medical attention in some remote place? If we encountered bad weather, particularly if it turned hot, how would it affect my father and how much would it curtail our ability to get around?
Perhaps I brushed these considerations aside too quickly. I had always been close to my father. He'd plunged headlong into parenting an only child at age 44. When he turned 80 in May, I knew what gift he most wanted -- my time and attention, without distractions. As a "Hill rat" who'd poured too many hours into my work, I'd let my time with my father become clipped, monosyllabic, almost unfeeling.
At about the time these thoughts crossed my mind, my wife asked how I'd like to take a short vacation to an out-of-the-way Greek island just off the Turkish coast. One of her mother's friends had offered the use of a beach house. Rande described the island, Lipsi, and the accommodations in terms that danced along my overcooked synapses.
Lipsi, a seven-mile-square crag in the southeast Aegean Sea inhabited by less than 600 sunbaked Greeks, reportedly offered solitude, a beach-front house with veranda, sea breezes and a surf's-eye view around an island without so much as a tire track. Telephones also were conspicuously absent. It seemed the perfect place to take a newly minted octogenarian with a halting gait.
Overcoming my father's natural inertia proved amazingly simple. "Dad," I said, "how would you like to get me alone on a Greek island for several weeks, no interruptions?" He asked his usual set of 20 Questions about logistics -- where would we stay, how did my wife's mother know the people who owned the house, how would we get from Athens to such an isolated place?
Weighing my answers, he floored me with his matter-of-fact "Okay."
He knew, as I did, that we couldn't give each other a better gift. My mother had died of a sudden illness, with too much left unsaid and undone between us. I wanted to let my father know just how much I care for him. Without saying so, we also realized that we'd both have to make sacrifices. For me, that meant giving up freedom of movement. For my father, it meant discarding his network of safety.
By the time we arrived at Dulles, I understood that my father would need a special sense of security that could come only through physical proximity. Throughout the trip I stayed close to him; frequently we would walk arm-in-arm. As it turned out, this system worked well, because it enabled him to accept the challenges of walking over the beautiful, but treacherous, uneven terrain that Greek islands offer without respite.
The rule of our trip, one step at a time, served us well. Had my father known what he'd have to do to get to Lipsi, he'd no doubt have stayed home. We spent eight hours in the air from Dulles to Frankfurt, where we had a two-hour delay, followed by three more hours in the air to Athens. We did arrange a two-day stopover in Athens so that my father could catch his breath and discover, early on, the pleasures of Greek yogurt. For someone who regards yogurt as a dietary mainstay, the butterfat fullness of creamy Greek yogurt is a preview of heaven, cholesterol notwithstanding.
The late May weather in Athens also buoyed his spirits. The days were still crisp and the nights refreshingly cool -- sweater weather.
At home, a can of beer amounts to a major indulgence for my father. So when he joined us that first night in Athens at the taverna beside our hotel in a full bottle of white retsina, I knew we'd landed on the right foot.
Hustling family and baggage to the Olympic airline terminal in Athens for the 50-minute trip to the island of Le'ros, Rande and I kept a keen eye on my father. We'd brought along a cane-chair -- a cane with a seat that slides down to form a tripod chair -- that allowed him to rest, out of harm's way, while we checked the bags, presented our tickets and established seating on the prop-engine plane. That exercise reminded me that every trip to the airport, every boat and bus ride, would involve a certain amount of juggling.
Getting my father safely on board always came first. Dealing with the indecent amount of luggage we carried came in a close second.
Rande and I had loaded our gear in backpacks to leave our hands free to manage our parents' conventional luggage. Throughout the trip, my father kept offering to buy us a set of the luggage of our choice, to befit our mid-thirties professional status. He joked that as we manhandled him through airports, the gendarmes would think he was being abducted by terrorists. I compromised by promising that some day he could buy us Gucci knapsacks.
Olympic's low-flying 16-seater seemed to skim the tops of a dozen Greek islands as we crossed the Aegean to Le'ros. Each had its own shape and color -- some craggy, some green. Moments later we touched down on Le'ros' tiny new landing strip, collected our baggage and grabbed a cab for a cross-island ride to the port city. We'd learned at the airport that we just had time to catch the daily boat to Lipsi. (I made it a point, now and throughout our trip, not to tell my father when we had to hustle to catch a boat or plane, because I did not want him to feel rushed. As it turned out, we made all our connections on time.)
The caique to Lipsi carried much more than passengers. We had to share space on the tired, single-motor-driven craft with breakfast foods, laundry detergents, heavy engines, crates of local sodas and retsina, toilet paper, and everything else including a kitchen sink. Finding a place to stash the baggage -- without exposing it to a mid-sea drenching -- was tricky. Barely passing that test, I then had to navigate my father from the pier and onto the rocking boat, with no place for him to find a safe foothold. But a number of strong and willing arms offered by crew and passengers did the trick, and before I could blink, they had him on board and in the small passenger's cabin.
Crossing to Lipsi took about an hour and a half. Once we arrived, we soon learned -- as we surveyed the unweeded, half-finished town square -- that not all dreamers share the same vision of paradise.
Lipsi crops up in Greek mythology as the home of the demigoddess Kalypso, who sheltered and loved the shipwrecked Odysseus and cared for all his needs. She even offered him immortality if he would stay with her. Odysseus stayed a while, but soon built himself a raft of cypress wood and set sail. It didn't take us long to empathize with his motives.
The turn-of-the-century whitewashed frame house that awaited us had a veranda and a breeze, as billed. But the master bedroom was thick with mildew, and the second, one-room sleeping area had a floor so creaky that it moaned with each footstep. The toilet and promised hot-water shower stood at the bottom of four steep stone steps that seemed to invite disaster. Rande and I decided to find other lodgings for my father and her mother, Gloria.
Needless to say, the Greek islanders had a "grapevine" (no pun intended). When our plight became known, a neighbor generously offered the third floor of her immaculate house. The furnishings were sparse -- only a cot in each room, and nothing at all in the kitchen. But hand-painted tiles added an airiness to the rooms, and sunlight streamed through the shuttered doors, which opened onto a balcony. We were charmed by the house, and with the echo of canaries that reverberated whenever someone pressed the door-chime.
Rande and Gloria fell in love with those electronic warblers, and my father and I explored many a hardware store to try to find a chime to lug home. None of us knew enough Greek to ask an island shopkeeper whether he or she stocked a canary chime. I resorted to pantomime -- a fair imitation of a canary's whistle while alternately flapping my arms and pressing an invisible button in front of me. To my surprise, they got the message, we bought the birds, and we now are proud owners of a metal box that only runs on 220 volts of current. I continue to perform my canary imitations to console Rande.
One of Lipsi's major selling points had been its white-sand beach -- amply documented in a photograph Gloria carried next to her passport. We set out on foot to find it.
We skirted the debris-strewn village square, made our way through the village, and looped around to what remained of the beach. Its skinned-alive look brought us up short. We spread our beach towels, pushing aside bottles, cans and bits of plastic. We later learned that villagers from a neighboring island, in need of sand for construction, had helped themselves to all they could cart away.
Making the best of it, my father stretched out for a nap under a lonely palm tree. At about the time he'd drift off to sleep, the sun's descent would steer the shadow away from his air mattress. We'd have to wake him and make adjustments.
During those first days on Lipsi, my father became so disoriented that Rande and I feared our trip would turn into the mistake of our lives. He literally seemed helpless without us. At home, we hadn't realized just how well he'd measured out his environment. Here, without points of reference, he depended on us to guide him. The transformation from self-sufficient senior to near helplessness startled and troubled us.
Lipsi's late-lamented white-sand beach sealed our decision to pack up and move on to Turkey. Three years earlier, we'd taken Gloria on a memorable trip through Istanbul's Grand Bazaar -- a spree that took us from Kusadasi, a resort town on the west coast, to the harbor town of Bodrum. Those memories beckoned, and we were off.
We managed the trip to Bodrum, to our surprise, in less than 12 hours. We hopped the caique from Lipsi to Le'ros at 7:30 a.m., crossed Le'ros by cab without a moment's pause, boarded the prop engine plane on time and landed 50 minutes later on the island of Kos after another scenic, low-altitude flight -- just in time to catch the 4 p.m. ferry to Bodrum.
Moving my father at such a pace required a good deal of planning -- we made him rest a full day before leaving Lipsi -- but it also demonstrated the results of our walking campaign.
I had suspected that what inactivity had eroded in him, measured activity could partially replenish. He'd always like to walk, but a bout with radiation therapy that rid him of cancer had also drained him of his strength. I'd brushed that problem aside for months; now I could really do something to help.
As we walked arm-in-arm, the sights, the shops, the people, the food and the bustle provided plenty of distractions, and the support of my arm provided my father with the security he needed to move more confidently. As he relaxed, he began to lose the halting uncertainty in his step, and his pace improved dramatically. His sense of balance returned as well -- so much so that by the end of the trip I could leave him to roam a bit on his own.
At Bodrum, once the ancient capital of Halicarnassus, the ancient castle built by the Knights of St. John during the Crusades dominates every view. An armada of magnificent hand-tooled yachts fills the port. These pleasure craft come in all sizes. Many are fully stocked with vibrant Turkish red wines, mezzi salads and other foods for grilling on the beach along with a fresh catch of fish. Seaside restaurants line the docks.
We chose our third-floor walk-up in Bodrum for its strategic location in the center of town. It was less than a block from the water's edge.
During our 10 days in Bodrum, we made sure that my father got plenty of rest, stayed out of the midday heat entirely and had plenty of reading material. I laid in a fresh round of daily provisions -- fresh fruits, yogurt, ekmek (fresh baked bread) and ayran (the local buttermilk brew that only my father could stomach).
Food proved one of Bodrum's most important charms for my father -- tastes and smells rediscovered after nearly 65 years away from his boyhood home in Eastern Europe. Sampling these delicacies -- visnye (sour cherries) fresh off the vine or beaten into a luscious, smooth ice cream mixture, fresh-baked breads with crispy crusts, kiflis (little pastries) -- filled him with small pleasures.
At home, my father eats sparingly and sticks to foods he knows. On this trip, he went, quite unconsciously, on an eating and drinking rampage. He plowed through yogurt-based salads, tomatoes laden with fresh dill, moussaka, pastitsio, eggplant, greens laden with goat cheese and drenched with olive oil. Each evening, we marched him out for a shopping tour that had him tramping up to three or four miles -- so it wasn't surprising that his appetite increased accordingly.
Before leaving Turkey, Rande, Gloria and I wanted to see to Kusadasi, a seaport that, three years earlier, had offered the charms of a small-town bazaar by the sea. Giant cruise ships had avoided the small harbor, just a stone's throw from ancient Ephesus.
But the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts of Turkey had become a beehive of development; construction was everywhere, modernization rampant. People seemed infused with the energy of possibility. Harbor reconstruction, we discovered, now beckoned high-rolling passengers. By the seaside, permanent structures had replaced the open-air, dirt-floor restaurants. The quaint leather-goods shops had multiplied into the hundreds, with wares to suit the haute taste and pocketbooks of the holiday makers.
Rande and I lamented the change we found in our Turkish hosts. Younger people no longer seemed to share the ready warmth of their elders. We would approach a tempting shop ready for tea, good-natured bargaining and story swapping, only to have denim-clad teen-agers impatiently inform us that fixed pricing had taken hold, along with other unpleasant cash-and-carry Western ways.
Still, most of the Turkish people we met continue to venerate older people -- a trait they share with many cultures, but long lost to ours. The mixture of respect and affection many of our hosts afforded my father struck a deep chord with him.
For me, just seeing him laugh with strangers made the trip worthwhile.
He had little to laugh about during our trip's worst miscue. Our 135-mile return trip to Bodrum from Kusadasi took three torturous hours. Two days earlier, an airy and pleasant ride to Kusadasi along the Aegean coast had buoyed our spirits. Now the heat hit, turning the bus into a broiler, with all of us planted on the charcoal-hot rear wheel at the back of the bus. By the second hour of our ride, my father had clearly become overheated and dehydrated. But he kept his pluck throughout, insisting that if we could bear the poor ventilation, so could he.
That brush with heatstroke taught us a great deal. From that point on we minimized our walking, and made sure my father had lots of liquids, whether juice, mineral water or local beer.
We'd recognized that no element posed a greater hazard than the growing heat of the day, and had timed our trip accordingly for late spring -- so that while we enjoyed a swim, my father could take in the views without wilting. The weather had accommodated our plan for the first two weeks, but then the first of several heat waves hit the Aegean and southeastern Europe.
To beat the heat in Turkey, my father napped in our rented apartment at midday, while the rest of us hopped a dolmus (a group taxi or minibus) for one of the Bodrum Peninsula's endless crystal-water beaches. When he did go with us to the beach, we made sure he had the proper shade, breeze and drinks.
We tempted fate once more during the trip, when a boat we'd rented one day dropped us off at a beachside restaurant. The docks amounted to thin, half-rotted slats, tacked onto a driftwood frame. With no handrails to hold onto, the walk to the beach amounted to a 1,000-foot tightrope walk across the narrow, poorly spaced slats. I got my father across by walking myself backward across the docks while holding him under the armpits. I think Gloria hated the dock even more than my father did.
At times, Gloria chafed at the constant attention we gave my father -- and in which, in truth, he reveled. Rande and I tried not to overlook Gloria's needs, but finances and logistics made them hard to meet. In Bodrum, we had arrived during a seasonal festival, and found rooms at a premium. The four of us wound up sharing one bathroom and two rooms. When my father dressed, Gloria had to sit in the small anteroom reading, and vice versa. One evening, my father simply forgot about Gloria and when he'd put on his pajamas, simply turned out the light and went to sleep. That faux pas nearly led to bloodshed!
Much to our friends' surprise, we pronounced our trip a rousing success when we returned home. We'd enjoyed taking care of one another. Even the hardships had brought us closer together. We had pried open the cage door, and learned to operate in my father's very fragile world.
Only later did it strike me that I'd really taken this trip as much for myself as for my father. In a sense, the trip had been an effort to hold onto him just a little longer -- and to insulate ourselves from the feeling that each day we slipped a bit further apart. Each day of our trip presented a common gift to all of us.
Our trip took a large dose of fatalism on all our parts -- when we arrived home safely, we realized just how lucky we had been.
But we also knew how much we would have missed, if we had decided not to go at all.
Robert Honig is a free-lance writer.