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Francesca Verdad and the Superhero Unicorn

Francesca Verdad and the Superhero Unicorn

I hadn’t planned to drive to eastern Nevada with my father-in-law during the COVID-19 pandemic — just as my 70-year-old parents hadn’t anticipated spending their vacation convalescing in the William Bee Ririe hospital in Ely, NV.

It was a bright Sunday morning in June and I was overseeing a family garage sale on our lawn when Mom texted to say that she had slipped on the floor adjacent to a hotel pool and fractured her hip. She and Dad were one day into a road trip, their first since the pandemic began. I read her messages while pushing off baby clothes on every pregnant passerby. The accident had happened the night before, and now they were in urgent care, awaiting surgery. She punctuated the bad news with border collie emojis.

I didn’t know what to do. Dad lives with Parkinson’s disease. We joke that Mom is bionic because she has a spinal cord stimulator in her back to ease chronic pain. She has let her hair go a natural white-platinum, a color that reads not so much “Grandma” as it does “Superhero Unicorn.”

They are aging but they could never possibly be “old.” Old guys don’t wear board shorts in January. Old broads don’t volunteer weekly for Sister District every year for five years, calling voters from Nevada to Georgia, dispelling election myths and supporting far-flung candidates for progressive causes. The thought of them injured and stranded gnawed at me. When I suggested to Dad that I help them home, I half-expected him to decline, say that they’d be fine. But instead he accepted the help. It was a relief. It also made me sad.

Throughout my life, my parents have advocated for both me and my brother, as well as many of our friends. When a girl on my high school rowing team needed help applying for a summer language intensive in Japan, they agreed to sponsor her, establishing a friendship that lasted years. When I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 16, they joined the research board of our local Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation chapter—and a year later, when I got my first insulin pump, they took turns trying on the medical technology themselves, inserting saline solution via subcutaneous needle. Nobody messed with my family. The least I could do was get them out of that godforsaken town.

Enter my father-in-law Rick, who had traversed Nevada many times as a hunter and safety guide and as a construction project manager. He offered to drive with me while my husband stayed home with our kids.
Because here’s the thing about raising children during a pandemic: Even the thought of driving 600 miles to pick up my injured parents seemed easier than getting both our children to bed before 9 p.m. on a summer night. I hoped that maybe I’d even get more sleep on this impromptu road trip.

My parents met in 1970 in the UC Davis transfer dorm, where Mom was giving away watermelons from her father’s Yuba City farm. Dad had a broken toe from racing chairs down the hallway. Theirs was a complementarity that teetered on absurd: Mom jokes that she married Dad to have more fun and he married her so he wouldn’t accidentally kill himself. Their courtship lasted eight years, during which Dad spent a year working on an oil pipeline in Iraq and Mom began her journalism career at Berkeley.

The same year he met Mom, Dad bought a glittery gold jet boat that we had for more than 25 years. I spent much of my childhood on that boat, observing as Dad crisscrossed the Sacramento River on a slalom ski. When I was 13, he taught me to ski, and when I was 16, he gave me a purple ski I named Tina. My brother, the wakeboarder, taught Mom how to lubricate the wakeboard bindings, pull the ski rope perpendicular to her hips and surf the crest of the boat’s wake.

One summer we camped out of our 1995 Dodge Ram van, driving from Northern California through Nevada, Wyoming and Montana through southwestern Canada. When I studied abroad my junior year of college, they flew out to meet me on my 21st birthday and drove a boxy stick-shift through the cobblestone streets of Granada, Spain. Dad, who had been reluctant to let his only daughter leave the country, announced to anyone who asked that his “hija vive en España,” and that he was on his way to take her home.

This was the same man who earned a black belt in karate on his 50th birthday, who grew a blond ponytail for more than 20 years, agreeing not to cut it until after I got married. This same man created an alter ego, Frank Verdad—a character who demands the truth. When pushed to my limit, I become Francesca Verdad. She helped with insurance companies, pharmacies, mansplainers and micromanagers.

Mom, meanwhile, joined a master’s swim club before I was born and has competed in open water swims for more than three decades. Not only did she encourage me to move abroad, she enrolled in Spanish classes to brush up before visiting. When I was in college, Mom was forever reminding me that I was in my “salad days”—that the world was vast, sometimes surprising, and worthy of our exploration. Even now, years after my solo travels across Europe, as the married mother of two kids, she encourages me to make time for adventure—with kids and without them.

Rick and I left before sunrise a few days after Mom’s surgery. We trekked through the arid, blue sky expanse of the Sierra Nevadas. We drove through deserted towns that looked like the back lots of old western films, passing dilapidated cars, mile after mile of two-lane highway cutting lines through the Ruby Mountains.

In Fallon, we visited Openshaw Saddlery, a destination Rick remembered from his years guiding hunters. We peered inside, where rows of leather goods, saddles, bridles and cowboy hats sat untouched. I wondered if the pandemic had forced the business to close, or if, as the sign in the window indicated, someone had gone to lunch and not come back.

The landscape changed as we climbed in altitude, the gray-brown desert sand transitioning into green brush and bristlecone pines. We passed “the shoe tree,” a tree adorned with hundreds of pairs of shoes, many of them tied by their shoelaces to its tall branches.

We wove through the Shoshone Mountains and passed the most beautiful mine just a mile outside of Ely—gray, gold and silver sand piled in an upturned pyramid. It appeared out of nothing; an oasis. The closer we got, the bigger it appeared, larger than life. I wondered about the men and women who drove down into its belly, upturning earth. What did it feel like to transform our very land?

We arrived in Ely on the heels of a preemptive Fourth of July procession—truck after truck followed by a stream of veterans on motorcyles blaring sirens. Finally, we made it to my parents’ hotel, a national chain that, for the purpose of this story, I’ll call The Pinta Inn.

We found Mom, Dad and the dog in their room. There she was, her right arm purple, her right leg bandaged, a tired but relieved smile, her sense of humor still intact. The Superhero Unicorn, in all her glory.

She told me how they had been admitted to the hospital late that Saturday night, where, in true fashion, she befriended every doctor, nurse and physician’s assistant. Perhaps more infuriating than the injury itself was the fact that she had to lay prone for two days, unable to move, for fear of making the break worse.

“And I just want to say, with all the other crappy feelings that I’ve had about the fact that our vacation is screwed, the people at the hospital were really, uniformly wonderful to me,” she later told me. “When they asked me, ‘Would you be willing to have a blood transfusion? Do you have a religious objection?’ I said, ‘No, I’m Jewish. I’m a smartass.’”

And then I saw the scene of the crime: the slimy, wet surface of the pool deck looked like it had not been touched in years. One look filled me with rage. Francesca Verdad came alive in my itchy legs, my clipped conversations with hotel staff. This was unacceptable.

The floor was covered in black mold. There was inadequate drainage on the concrete. The only signs in or around the pool were printed in size nine gray font. We tripped over a strip of carpeting when walking from the lobby to my parents’ room. The night after Mom was admitted to the hospital, the hotel concierge made Dad move rooms. Weirdly, their first room had handicapped access, but when Mom returned from surgery with a walker, they were relocated to a smaller room, one with a toilet six inches off the floor.

That night, the four of us ate dinner in the lobby, not bothering to lower our voices. I moved Mom’s walker out of the way while we ate barbecue. Every time a hotel guest made their way to the pool, we called out a warning.

The next day, we awoke ready to get the hell out of dodge. We tried to get Mom comfortable in the passenger seat of my 2018 Pacifica, the seven-seater minivan with the Biden/Harris and I Used to Be Cool bumper stickers. Mom’s surgeon recommended we stop every hour so she could exercise her legs to avoid blood clots. And so we did.

We stopped at truck stops and gas stations. I almost bought Ryan a t-shirt at an emporium that said, “I KNOW JACK SCHITT,” and had taken it to the cash register before Rick stopped me to say, “Could he wear that out with your kids?”

Rick and Dad drove my parents’ car, and every time they were passed by a semi, my chest tightened. How was it that the world felt so full of risk? It wasn’t enough that we had to outsmart a deadly, invisible virus. We also had to watch our step everywhere we went.

We spent that night in Winnemucca. I took a walk, eager to do something, anything, with the pent-up anger I’d been holding inside. Nevada looked like the moon. Dry and hot and full of palpable unused energy, the atmosphere charged. There was nowhere to go except an empty lot where I stumbled over an abandoned washing machine.

I felt my tough Francesca Verdad exterior begin to slough off. Some part of me had looked forward to serving as my parents’ protector—it seemed like a small way to pay off the thousands of favors, big and small, that they’ve performed for me. Francesca Verdad always had something to prove. Surely, she could handle 72 hours of project managing three of the most important people in my life. What I hadn’t realized was how draining it was, being her.

That night I washed Mom’s platinum-unicorn hair over the hotel sink, reminding me of when she would curl my hair with a hot iron. She had to move strategically, bending so as not to upset the screw in her side. For a moment I could see it, a rare self-consciousness that betrayed Mom’s humanity, as if she couldn’t or wouldn’t always be my superhero. But the moment was gone almost as quickly as it had come, our attention shifting to their dog Tess, and then to the cowboys in their long blond mullets outside, billows of cigarette smoke congregating a few feet from our open window.

Mom recognized the precarity of the situation, but in true form, she sought out ways to make it funny. She regaled me with stories of her correspondence with the former editor of Mad Magazine, memories of her childhood spent traversing California’s Highway 99, splitting time between her mother’s Santa Monica home and her father’s walnut orchard in Yuba City. She saw a beauty in Nevada’s gray-blue wilderness that I, as Francesca Verdad, refused to acknowledge.

The next day, we crossed the state line into California. My blood pressure decreased the moment I inhaled the deep scent of Tahoe National Forest. We were going to make it. We would survive this trip.

And we did, arriving at my parents’ home that night. We bid adieu to Rick, who had left his car at their house. I helped Mom remove the bandages from her leg, which was dotted in a constellation of overlapping bruises and marks, and stood at the ready while she took her first shower in a week. I argued with Dad when he insisted on getting on a ladder to change the battery in their smoke alarm.

“If you fall, I’ll never forgive you,” I told him. He waved me off.

Frustrated, I wandered into their backyard. Their garden was in full bloom: Tomatoes, eggplants, zucchini, sunflowers and roses. Anger made me active. I hadn’t expected to feel so fragile, a 37-year-old mother sandwiched between growing kids and aging parents.

I went back to my childhood bedroom where, years ago, I would lay awake listening to crickets chirping and imagining that Paul Bunyan pulled the sun down below Lake Berryessa at night. I wondered how to make all of this mean something, if it meant anything at all. Then I lay between my parents on their bed.

“Well, we learned how to spell Winnemucca,” Mom said. “Our dog wants to know why, after we dragged her all the way to Nevada, we are already back home.”

“We should have gambled,” I said. “There are more casinos in Nevada than grocery stores.”

“Dad said he and Rick made a $20 donation to the Winnemucca Inn and Casino.”

“Want to know how to spell ‘Ely’?” I asked.

“E – L – Y.”

“Ely: F – U – C – K – Y – O – U.”

The next morning I drove back to my house, where Ryan and the kids were waiting, hungry and tired. But before then, we went to bed laughing, as we often do.

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