In 2015, at the height of my father’s homelessness, he took me on vacation. By “height,” I mean shelters were a thing of the past. He was living on the street and didn’t have a car, so we took mine. The hot, white Florida sun ran along the corner of the windshield as we drove in a loop around Fort Myers Beach.
Dad knew which meters were out of service, so we parked for free. From the back seat he grabbed two heavy-duty garbage bags stuffed with his life belongings.
In the lobby of the Lani Kai Island Resort, in line for check-in, I watched the lady behind the counter eye me, Dad, the garbage bags. Unabashed in her staring, I wondered if she was going to come up with a reason not to give us a room.
Anticipating an embarrassing moment, I turned my back to her and pretended to admire the tropical wallpaper. This was a common behavior of mine when in public with my father. Acting oblivious to shameful interactions was a courtesy I began extending to my father in my late teens, when his credit cards were declined at restaurants. By that point, at the age of 38, I had perfected it.
When Dad’s prepaid credit card went through, I could’ve fainted from relief. After a quick high-five in the elevator, we tossed our bags in the room and headed to the sun deck for happy hour. In an instant, my father wasn’t homeless. He was just another dad in his swimming trunks, flashing his gin and tonic to the waiter: Keep ’em comin’.
For most of my life, my father’s philosophy was that no matter how unstable, life was meant to be celebrated. This struck me as profoundly Floridian, the existential equivalent of a hurricane party.
When I was growing up, my father sold cars. The stress of supporting a family of four on a commission-based sales job, compounded by long, erratic work hours, exploitative management and Dad’s maverick style (he once punched his boss for raising the sales target after lunch), created instability in our home. My father job-hopped, which led to substantial credit card debt, and all the fights and drinking that went along with it. But Dad managed to juggle the debts and loans in such a way that we never went without.
The first thing Dad did when he got fired or quit was take us on a family vacation. They were never planned. He would walk in the door carrying his box of personal belongings from the dealership and, next thing we knew, we were off 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 groomed lawns and tennis courts, Jacuzzi baths and silver buckets of iced champagne. Dad would pop the cork so that it ricocheted off the ceiling and bounced off the wall. My sister and I would search for it, and he’d give $100 to whoever found it first.
As Dad got older and the impact of his choices grew more dire, he kept his Floridian mind-set alive. Following the disintegration of his 37-year marriage to my mother, he treated himself to two months on Paradise Island, where he traveled 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 he’d get “scooped up” by another dealership, just like he always did. But that’s not what happened. The economy was in ruins. He had two mortgages on one house. Plus, he was 69 years old.
In the long, hot months leading up to the foreclosure of his home, windows covered with bedsheets to keep debt collectors from peeking inside, Dad blasted Shania Twain and sunbathed on the chaise longue beside the pool. It had once been a perfect turquoise with a hot tub and a 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, too, had a furry green pool. Whoever lived there before us didn’t have the money for chlorine and upkeep. And now, all these years later, Dad didn’t either.
Somewhere along the way, I inherited Dad’s philosophy. However, I no longer consider this thinking to be Floridian. A friend of mine gave it a new name: adaptive delusion.
It’s why I happily, eagerly took out $120,000 in student loans to get an M.F.A. at Columbia. It’s why I spend months working on essays and book proposals that may never sell. After all, writing isn’t really a profession. It’s a casino. It’s why I think “No problem!” when my credit score drops from 650 to 632 to 619. Adaptive delusion allows me to believe I can survive on as little as I do (last year: $47,864), which in turn allows me to be a writer and a single mother 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 the odds and evidence to the contrary, things might just go your way. If all signs are pointing toward a life of overwhelming and impending crisis — a vicious cycle in which you forever inherit and bequeath an algae-covered pool — why not take a chance on willing some of your dreams into reality?
By the time my dad and I vacationed at the Lani Kai, the hardest conversations between us had taken place. He preferred the homeless lifestyle, and there was nothing I could do about it. “Don’t worry ’bout me, Pumpkin. I was in the service. In a pup tent in the wilderness. This is no different,” he must’ve told me a thousand times.
For three days and two nights on Fort Myers Beach, we did what we always did when on vacation: We ate key lime pie. We woke up early and looked for seashells, giving each other the most beautiful ones we found, like peace offerings. We even went parasailing, which I’m kind of afraid to mention, given that many people are adamantly against poor people enjoying themselves. It’s a deeply held American sentiment that those experiencing financial hardship shouldn’t have things like iPhones or home births, or eat organic food. Imagine how they’d feel about a homeless guy gliding through the clouds.
My father died during the pandemic. I wasn’t home when his ashes were delivered. My 3-year-old son and I returned to a pink U.S.P.S. notice 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 they weren’t really ashes but powdery sand and fragments of bone.
I held his remains in my hand. I guess I’ve always kind of known that we’re 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 everlasting.
In January, I was approved for a Mastercard with a $6,000 credit limit and a 29.99 percent A.P.R. — a miracle, considering my low credit score and maxed-out Visa and Amex. The Mastercard allowed my son and I to fly to Florida and search for the perfect send-off spot for Dad’s ashes.
We settled on a sunny patch of South Beach with gliding sea gulls and cruise ships glowing gold in the distance. This was not the burial my father wanted. He had asked to be laid to rest in a coffin, complete with a 21-gun salute. But I just didn’t have the money. And it’s not like Dad had burial insurance. He died with one possession: a can of Armour Treet Luncheon Loaf.
For a man who spent 40 years in the car business, working 12-hour days (often with one day off per month) to arrive at the end of his life owning so little may seem tragic. But in a way, I found it inspiring. With his ties to this world so deeply severed, he was truly free to move on to the next.
Water up to my waist, I held on to my son and the two of us sprinkled Dad’s ashes into the ocean. We said our final goodbye, then headed back to the hotel.
Just in time for happy hour.