In 2015, at the height of my father’s homelessness, he took me on vacation. By “height,” I mean that shelters were a thing of the past. He lived on the street and didn’t have a car, so we took mine. The hot, white Florida sun shone down the corner of the windshield as we looped around Fort Myers Beach.
Dad knew which meters were out of service, so we parked for free. From the backseat he grabbed two sturdy garbage bags full of his life’s goods.
In the lobby of the Lani Kai Island Resort, in line to check in, I saw the lady behind the counter looking at me, Dad, at the garbage bags. Unabashed in her stare, I wondered if she would come up with a reason not to give us a room.
Anticipating an embarrassing moment, I turned my back on her and pretended to admire the tropical wallpaper. This was a common behavior of mine in public with my father. Being oblivious to embarrassing interactions was a courtesy I began to show my father in my late teens, when his credit cards were being declined at restaurants. At that point, at age 38, I had perfected it.
When Dad’s prepaid credit card went through, I could have passed out with relief. After a quick high-five in the elevator, we threw our bags in the room and headed to the sundeck for happy hour. In an instant my father was not homeless. He was just another dad in his bathing suit, waving his gin and tonic to the waiter: Keep ’em comin’.
For most of my life, my father’s philosophy was that life was meant to be celebrated, however unstable. This struck me as profoundly Floridian, the existential equivalent of a hurricane feast.
Growing up, my father sold cars. The stress of supporting a family of four with a commission-based sales job, compounded by long, erratic work hours, exploitative management, and Dad’s quirky style (he once hit his boss for raising the sales target after lunch), created instability in our house . My father had changed jobs, which led to significant credit card debt, and all the fighting and drinking that came with it. But Dad managed to juggle debts and loans in such a way that we never ran out.
The first thing Dad did when he got fired or resigned was to take us on a family vacation. They were never planned. He would walk in the door with his box of personal belongings from the dealer and before we knew it we were on our way to Key West, Key Largo, Islamorada, Siesta Key. Bahamian resorts with water slides and welcome snorkels where my sister and I swam with dolphins. Our suites had manicured lawns and tennis courts, jacuzzis and silver buckets of ice-cold champagne. Dad popped the cork so it bounced off the ceiling and bounced off the wall. My sister and I would look for it and he would give $100 to whoever found it first.
As Dad grew older and the impact of his choices grew, he kept his Floridian mindset alive. After the breakdown of his 37-year marriage to my mother, he treated himself to two months on Paradise Island, traveling strictly by WaveRunner. When he blew through his 401(k), he got right to work on his new retirement plan: the Florida Lottery.
During the Great Recession, Dad lost his job at Plattner Automotive. He assumed that he would be ‘picked up’ by another dealer, as he always did. But that’s not what happened. The economy was in ruins. He had two mortgages on one house. Moreover, he was 69 years old.
In the long, hot months leading up to his home’s foreclosure, windows covered with sheets to prevent debt collection agencies from peeking in, dad Shania Twain shot into the air and sunbathed on the poolside chaise longue. It had once been a perfect turquoise with a hot tub and swim-up bar, and now it was green. I was there to help him pack and was reminded of the first house we rented in Florida, in 1984. It also had a fuzzy green swimming pool. Those who lived there before us had no money for chlorine and maintenance. And now, all these years later, neither did Dad.
Somewhere along the way, I inherited Dad’s philosophy. However, I no longer view this thinking as Floridian. A friend of mine gave it a new name: adaptive delusional.
That’s why I gladly and eagerly took out $120,000 in student loans to get an MFA at Columbia. That’s why I spend months working on essays and book proposals that may never sell. After all, writing is not really a profession. It’s a casino. That’s why I think “No problem!” when my credit score drops from 650 to 632 to 619. Adjustment delusions allow me to believe I can survive on as little as I have (last year: $47,864), allowing me to be a writer and a single mom in Manhattan.
In times of housing insecurity and economic precarity, adaptive delusion is a godsend. Because buried in delusion is the hope that, despite all odds and evidence to the contrary, things can just go your way. If all signs point to a life of overwhelming and impending crisis – a vicious cycle where you inherit and bequeath an algae-covered pool forever – why not risk making some of your dreams a reality?
By the time my father and I vacationed at Lani Kai, the most difficult conversations had taken place between us. He preferred the homeless lifestyle and I couldn’t help it. “Don’t worry about me, Pumpkin. I was employed. In a side tent in the wilderness. This is no different,’ he must have told me a thousand times.
Three days and two nights on Fort Myers Beach, we did what we always did when we were on vacation: we ate key lime pie. We woke up early and searched for shells, and gave each other the finest we found as peace offerings. We even went parasailing, which I’m really afraid to say, given that many people are adamantly against poor people enjoying themselves. It’s a deeply ingrained American feeling that those who are in financial trouble shouldn’t have things like iPhones or home births, or eat organic foods. Imagine how they would feel if a homeless person glided through the clouds.
My father died during the pandemic. I was not home when his ashes were delivered. My 3 year old son and I returned to a pink USPS sign on our door that read “Remains”. The next day we picked up the box, sat in the living room and opened it. I had never seen anyone’s ashes. I was surprised that it wasn’t really ash, but powdery sand and bone fragments.
I held his remains in my hand. I guess I always knew we were made of stardust, but this seemed like proof. It was also proof that the imprint of a parent’s existence on a child’s existence is eternal.
In January, I was approved for a Mastercard with a $6,000 credit limit and an APR of 29.99 percent — a miracle, given my low credit score and maximum Visa and Amex. With the Mastercard, my son and I were able to fly to Florida and look for the perfect place to drop off Dad’s ashes.
We settled on a sunny stretch of South Beach with seagulls gliding and cruise ships glowing gold in the distance. This was not the funeral my father wanted. He had asked to be buried in a coffin complete with a 21-gun salute. But I just didn’t have the money. And it’s not like Dad had funeral insurance. He died with one possession: a can of Armor Treet Luncheon Loaf.
For a man who has worked 40 years in the auto business and worked 12 hours a day (often with a day off per month) to come to the end of his life with so little property may seem tragic. But somehow I found it inspiring. With his ties to this world severed so deeply, he was truly free to move on to the next.
Water up to my waist, I held my son and the two of us sprinkled daddy’s ashes into the ocean. We said goodbye and then went back to the hotel.
Just in time for happy hour.
Beth Raymer is a writer, a journalist and the author of the upcoming novel ‘Fireworks Every Night’.
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