Dad's camper in front of our Arizona house

Dad’s camper in front of our Arizona house

May 8, 2003, Gilbert AZ—I idled down Loma Vista in our minivan—unlike my usual Mrs.-Miller-gets-airborne-over-speed-bumps reputation from the neighbor kids. One block till home. Twelve-year-old Annie sat shotgun. The back end of the van was stuffed with our sleeping bags and duffles of dirty laundry from sixth grade science camp. My chest was stuffed with Jim’s pique. I’d forgotten to call for three days.

“I didn’t know Grandpa was coming to visit,” Annie said.

My gaze shot to our house at the end of the street as acid funneled into my stomach.

Sure enough, Dad’s rattletrap camper parked in our drive.

Blood blanched from my face, then a thousand acupuncture pricks rolled south through my body—the same physiological reaction I always had to Dad’s arrival.

He never called first—just descended like a desert dust storm.

I’d spent the last two hours motoring down I-17, sorting out my collection of first world problems. Was my nineteen-year-old ready for marriage to a girl I hadn’t met? Tomorrow I’d hit craigslist to hunt a trailer for Mom and Ralph’s relocation from Florida. I ticked off sixteen short-fused days of premenopausal PMS.

Then bam. Dad. And a face full of dust—blown from the boxes of baggage better left buried at the bottom of me.

I rolled into the drive beside Dad’s battered camper, instinctively holding my breath against a battalion of Dad smells—BO, bad bananas, and unnamed bacteria.

I gritted my teeth, opened the car door, and stepped onto our gravel front yard. Instead of stink, one hundred degree heat suffused me. I wanted to jump back into the car and re-climb the 4,000 feet from the East Valley of Phoenix to Prescott’s perfect seventy six degrees, pine scent. Peace.

Photo by Logan Adermatt

Photo by Logan Adermatt

Jim hugged me on the porch. I clung to him—always needing him a little more when Dad materialized. We’d work things out. We always did.

Annie scrambled out. Her tennis shoes hit cement an instant before her oversized T-shirt—worn by all three of her older brothers—floated down over her shorts in a soft cotton cloud. “I wonder what Grandpa brought us!” Singing “rocks (magnets) that whistled when thrown into the air, sheep fleeces—it could be anything.

But this time Dad dragged in a houseguest named John—a Ph.D. in chemistry who had dug a vehicle-sized hole on the New Mexico-Mexico border, deposited his pop-up camper, and covered it with dirt.

I yanked Dad onto the porch.

David, Dad, Bryan, Annie, Luke in our Arizona house several years before this story

David, Dad, Bryan, Annie, Luke in our Arizona house several years before this story

“What are you thinking bringing in some strange man to sleep in my house where I have vulnerable children to consider?” I shocked myself, raising my voice to Dad for the first time ever. Anger propelled me. “Without even checking with me first!”

Fear of Dad’s reaction and indignation wrestled in my belly. Outside, I tapped my foot and stared Dad down.

Silence pulsed between us. My nerves twisted taut as newspaper rubber bands.

Dad met my gaze, gave me the wounded look I’d memorized a lifetime ago. He looked away. Cleared his throat. “I’m sorry.” That was the first and last time I ever heard those words from Dad.

The air whooshed out of me. Well, okay then.

That evening, Dad and John and Jim jawed in the family room, something about Dad’s burning off skin cancer with a magnifying glass. I cleaned up the dishes from the chicken Jim had grilled for supper. The kids disappeared upstairs with Swiss army knives Dad had distributed.

The doorbell rang.

What now?

Carol Rivers

Carol Rivers

I let in Carol Rivers. She, along with Susan Westhouse, had seen me through every crisis from a toxic church lady to a pregnancy scare for the past five years since we moved to Arizona.

“I missed you!” Carol gave me a hug, and I felt strangely touched. I’d only been gone a few days. The reason our triumvirate, all born in 1957, worked so well was that we skimmed by on the barest bits of time shaved from our busy lives—diving zero to deep in seconds.

I slid onto the soft nap of our green corduroy couch across from Carol near the front door.

My Dad tale spilled out in low tones between us and Carol blotted it up with, “You’re kidding me!” and “You really did have a crappy day.” Gratitude fanned through me—to Carol and God for getting her to my house when I didn’t know I needed her. What would she say if I told her I thought God motivated her to walk over to my house tonight?

Susan Westhouse

Susan Westhouse

When the three of us met at our kids’ school bus stop, Carol had only been to church for weddings and funerals since jumping out of the Catholic nest of her large farm family decades earlier. And Susan hadn’t been to church in 17 years. A week or two after our first cup of coffee that became a daily ritual, I told them Jim was a pastor.

Susan sputtered. “But you’re so normal!”

That was my favorite compliment ever.

The first Christmas after we met, Carol and Susan dreamed up a Christmas gift for me—attending my church’s candlelight service—a huge deal for Susan who was terrified of fire. The next Christmas they did the same. Eventually, they joined their kids at church whenever they could.

I’d prayed for them when they hit their own crises. Susan said I had a holy voice just for praying. Not true, I still contend. I told them my story about folding my life into Jesus at 19. But we didn’t talk religion much.

Carol shifted on the sofa and changed the subject. “Hey, I have a question for you.” She leaned toward me, eyes bright. “How can I help my kids catch faith?”

Photo by Aaron Burden

Photo by Aaron Burden

I was stupefied. What Carol told me—without knowing she told me—was that she had connected emotionally with Jesus. And now she wanted to pass it on to her children.

How like God to skywrite good news through my no-good-rotten day.

As Carol and I talked, my cells guzzled great gulps of good news serotonin. All the aggravation of the day gave way to joy.

The men’s voices carried from the family room through the archway, talking about next summer’s Olympics—when Dad would camp on my couch for the duration, his one concession to the “boob tube.”

Carol glanced warily through the doorway and stood. Picturing, no doubt, an earlier visit when Dad hit on her—adding an item to the short list of things he had in common with my stepfather. And the long list of ways he embarrassed me.

Carol made her escape. Dad hauled John off for a weekend of camping. Jim and I kissed and made up. And the good news buoyed me through the rest of Dad’s visit—and into meeting the pretty girlfriend Bryan brought home from Canada a couple weeks later.

Bryan introduced his future fiancé to the family as Dad stood outside the sliding glass door wrestling out of his shirt.

“And that would be my grandfather.” Bryan shrugged a what-can-you-do shrug and slid open the door.

Photo by Rick Waalders

Photo by Rick Waalders

Dad—in ratty cutoffs and boots, seventy-five-year old skin sagging over his ribs—smiled his brightest smile. “Hidey Hi!”

Dad stood there in all his nearly naked glory, grinning like a garden gnome.

And I wondered if this caliber of mortification could ever be cured.

Ten years later, when I started writing memoir, my storehouse of mortifying Dad material spun into pure gold. Now I wish he’d been a little weirder—just a couple chapter’s worth, so I could finish this book!