As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, April 19, 2020. Above, the author and his son Peter at Paradise Cove in Malibu.
The email from my son Peter arrived in a distant world, one that included teens congregating in shopping malls and people watching basketball games in crowded bars. The coronavirus pandemic had yet to change all of our lives.
“I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to figure out what to give you for your birthday,” Pete’s email read, “but really, all I want is to spend some time with you. A long drive to the beach or an early-morning walk feels like a better gift than anything I could find on Amazon, so I’m bringing you to me.”
Attached was a ticket for a premium seat on JetBlue. I was thrilled: my firstborn, now 29, was flying me to Los Angeles in style.
The morning of my flight, I looked in the mirror and saw time markers: graying eyebrows and softening cheeks. On the bright side, aging as a parent can bring new joys.
My son has lived in California for six years. I had always thought his career in music would land him in New York City, but I have since learned that Los Angeles is where the action is, at least for him.
As we drove at 1 a.m. from Los Angeles International Airport to Pete’s place in Hancock Park after my arrival, the region’s notorious traffic was mercifully absent. Kobe Bryant’s face and poignant signs of grief over his recent death were everywhere — from brightly lit billboards to street-art murals on the sides of auto repair garages and sandwich shops.
It was my second trip to see Pete on my own. My wife, Deb, and I have visited him several times together, and our entire family made the trek from Rhode Island last November to celebrate Thanksgiving. Every visit is memorable, but Deb and I both find that our solo visits are singularly sweet.
When our kids were young, one of their favorite bedtime books was “The Relatives Came” by Cynthia Rylant. It’s the story of a big family reunion, with lots of hugging and laughing and “breathing together.” That’s what’s best about any visit to see Pete — having a few days to breathe together again.
This trip brought us to Paradise Cove in Malibu, Venice Beach, the magnificent Getty Center perched on a Santa Monica hilltop, and a host of coffee shops in between. We balanced highbrow culture with everyday fun; two hours at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was followed by a round of mini-golf. We ate cheeseburgers, drank beer, and walked Pete’s dog, Sam.
Through it all, we listened to music. I couldn’t help but think of how when Pete was a boy, we’d deconstruct pop songs as I drove him to school or guitar lessons. The tunes were usually favorite tracks of mine by Bruce Springsteen or James Taylor or The Replacements. Now Pete was the driver and, for much of the time, the deejay as well.
A turn onto Mulholland Drive sparked a conversation about pop music in the ’70s.
“What’s your favorite Jackson Browne song?” Pete asked me.
I cued up “The Road” on Spotify, which we were streaming on the car stereo: “Highways and dance halls, a good song takes you far …” Pete was right. Nothing from Amazon could top winding through Laurel Canyon with him, listening to tunes.
On the morning of my departure, in the pre-dawn darkness, an Uber swept me back to the airport. At my JetBlue gate, a woman diligently rubbed a disinfectant wipe over the armrests of her seat before sitting down. The following week, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti issued a stay-at-home order to his city’s residents. And nine days later, Gov. Gina Raimondo did the same here in Rhode Island.
Pete and I had reunited in the nick of time — safely, I hoped.
And now, who knows how long it will be before we have a chance to breathe together again.