THE LEISURE SEEKER is one of those books that stays with you, from which deep personal conundrums spring and linger: What will you do at the end of a life long lived when your physical circumstances undermine the luxuries of free will and personal decision? How does one remain at the helm of one’s own life when the reality is they have little or no control left? I read an advance copy of this moving novel several months ago, yet I find myself still thinking about it and these subsequent dilemmas.
John and Ella Robina are at the ends of their ropes --- literally and figuratively, mentally and physically. Married for almost 60 years, they have spent a large part of their adult lives traveling around the country in their trusty Leisure Seeker, a vintage camper with requisite harvest gold and avocado green décor. In the early days it gave them safe passage on family vacations to sites like Weeki Wachi, London Bridge and California. Later, they traveled with friends to picturesque lakes, mountains and even Florida to visit couples who have fled the icy winters of Michigan, their home state, for sunnier climes. Against their physician’s advice (“[they] only want me to stick around so they can run their tests on me, poke me with their icy instruments, spot shadows inside of me. They’ve already done plenty of that”) and their grown children’s wishes (“it’s really none of their business”), they have taken off down Route 66 one last time in an attempt to recapture a 1966 family trip to Disneyland. According to Ella, the family memory keeper, “It wasn’t the last time we were there, but it was the best time.”
John is in that last lucid, capable stage of Alzheimer’s. He’s capable enough to pilot the Leisure Seeker through the many detours and inner city schisms that is today’s Route 66, but not quite lucid enough to remember that his daughter is divorced, his best friend J.J. is dead and, in those illness-specific “sundowning” moments, a tacky pine-paneled motel room is not his own. “This is nice,” says John. “Is this home?” To the 80-year-old woman riding beside him, his wife and lifelong partner, he asks, “Are you all right, Miss?” because her name and even identity escape him. Personal hygiene and social graces are no longer as important to John as locating his next hamburger or, unfortunately, checking to make sure his ailing wife has clambered into the camper before pulling off from the latest Stuckey’s.
Ella must leave the piloting to John as she has not driven in over 30 years, besides which the physical constraints resulting from an upcoming doctor-prescribed final date with metastasized breast cancer, advanced hypertension (stroke) and kidney failure precludes her from taking the wheel. Ella gets along with a cane (towards the end of the book, she gives in to her motorized You-Go), a wig (soon discarded), too many medicines to count (the pain is getting worse all the time) and a much-looked-forward-to nightly cocktail (which becomes two as her “discomfort” grows).
Stopping at diners, barbeque joints and McDonalds along the way (always careful to pop a Pepcid first) and hitting all the requisite Route 66 museums, aforementioned pecan log emporiums and forlorn, forgotten “Must See’s,” John and Ella’s days are punctuated by an evening campground ritual. They settle into side-by-side webbed lawn chairs and watch their life, projected via slide projector onto a sheet strung on the side of the Leisure Seeker, march by courtesy of John, the official family photographer. Random passersby pause from time to time to enjoy the show --- teenagers marveling at ’60s fashions, young mothers and fathers sadly glimpsing a scene from their empty nested future, and right there reliving every glorious, faded Kodachrome moment with their ever gracious hosts.
Within its atmosphere of gentle humor and melancholy, readers of THE LEISURE SEEKER will find themselves experiencing moments of sheer helplessness and terror that arise when people’s faculties are less than intact. Ella herself says in the beginning that “between the two of us, we are one whole person.” As the miles roll by, so too, it seems, does more and more of John’s mental acuity and Ella’s physical strength. Let me just say, to Michael Zadoorian’s credit, that it is not clear until too late exactly where this trip is headed.
Zadoorian uses a Ford Madox Ford quote to preface his novel: “The world is full of places to which I want to return.” The realization upon putting this wistful story down, that comes unbidden to us as we age, is that there are places we would like to, and can, revisit. However, most of the reasons behind these desires lie more with returning to the exact moment in time when we first stood in that place. Just as John and Ella can no longer travel to the West Coast on Route 66 in its original entirety, neither can they recreate the vacations of yesterday --- when children were little, friends still alive and their own minds and bodies young and whole. Yet they remain good people, strong of character, humor intact and, above all, really great buddies with whom to take this wonderful journey.
Reviewed by Jamie Layton on December 30, 2010
The Leisure Seeker