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The Test

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By: Justin P. McCarthy   |   March 30, 2022


My step-mother lies almost completely still, her head and most of her slight torso strapped into a bulky plastic brace. The nurse comes in to let us know her L1 vertebra, sternum and three ribs are fractured, on top of the four broken cervical and one thoracic vertebra we already knew about. “Her osteoporosis makes all this worse,” he said, “she’s lucky to be alive. Must have been some crash.”

She wiggles a free finger toward me. I stoop to listen. “Justin,” she whispers, “every time you come here, something terrible happens.” She wheezes out a laugh.

Florida gets a bad rap. Sure, you have the oppressive heat, unpredictable traffic, biting insects, dysfunctional politics, endemic invasive exotic pets, pervasive strip malls, strip clubs, chain restaurants, fireworks stores, liquor stores, divorce lawyers, personal injury lawyers, timeshares and more pawn shops than any other state (though not the most per capita–that dubious distinction goes to Alabama), but there’s Disney World! And the Everglades! And…I don’t know…oranges?

When I first visited Florida, I was around seven. I flew unaccompanied and got a lot of attention from the crew. They let me have something like five Pepsis, and the captain gave me one of those plastic pin-on TWA pilot’s wings, which I kept for years. My mother was already down there–I didn’t know why. We had a hotel room in Orlando and tickets for three days at the Magic Kingdom and Epcot Center. It rained the whole time, which I didn’t mind, but it put my mother in a dour mood.

When we got home to New York, we found her live-in boyfriend waiting in the driveway, most of his things in the plastic cartop clamshell carrier we’d use for camping nights and fishing trips. “Peter’s leaving,” she said. “Why?” I asked. “It’s a misfortune.” Turns out, they’d choreographed the trip to spare me the agony of watching him pack, but for a long time I resented her for turning Disney World into an emotional Trojan Horse.

Florida left me and my loved ones pretty well alone across a few visits over the next three decades, until 2019. My father had moved there a while back, and I hadn’t been to see him in three years, so I decided to take the kids solo for the second week of winter break. I ended up catching the actual, confirmed-by-a-lab-test flu on the flight and spent the whole time in bed at our hotel while the kids played on their iPads and ate room service.

At some point I ruptured an eardrum and lost most of the hearing in my right ear. Katie had to come out to bring the kids home since my doctor hadn’t cleared me to fly. To this day, if you ask them, it was “an awesome trip! We got so much junk food! And screen time!” While all of this was going on, my dad had something like a TIA–we were never sure–and fell off a stool, damaging the nerves in his leg, which needed surgery to repair. He’s had trouble walking since.

You might imagine, then, the combination of vigorous mental gymnastics and focused self-soothing it took to convince myself, earlier this year, that we should fly down again–all together, this time–for another visit. We spent the first half of the kids’ February recess on Key West, and had a great time. We chartered a boat, ate Mattheessen’s Ice Cream (twice), and even met Judy Blume at her bookstore!

Then, on the drive to meet my father and step-mother at their place in Pompano Beach, we got the call: they’d been in a car accident, hit by a pickup which had run a stop sign. He was fine, Roberta was in the ICU. We went into crisis mode. Katie took care of the kids, despite having to work remotely from our hotel, and I went to the hospital to be with my dad and Roberta, comforting them, driving him around, helping him deal with the salvage yard, the body shop, the insurance adjuster, coordinating communication among the extended family.

Eventually, two of Roberta’s daughters arrived and it was time for us to go home to California. She was doing better and would be heading home soon. My dad was grateful for my help, and said as much–which was a big deal for him. To me, it was just the thing to do.

What struck me was how the kids had behaved. Once they learned of the crash, they were kinder to each other and to us, listened better to Katie and me, and offered to help. At the hospital to visit my step-mother, my promise of the girls’ good behavior convinced the charge nurse to make an exception and let the too-young children into the ICU. They lived up to it. Jack stood next to Roberta’s bed, listening to her patiently and holding her hand for half an hour.

Katie and I were surprised by how well the kids came together, by how much compassion they showed, but we shouldn’t have been. We’ve been sharing our values with them their entire lives. Distilled into slogans like, “The McCarthys help!” but backed by lots of modeling and teaching. This was a test for them, a chance to see what they would do when it mattered, and it was such a joy to see them pass, even in Florida.

Justin P. McCarthy lives in Tiburon with his wife, Katie, and their three children--Jack, Ali, and Claire. He’d be delighted to hear from you at
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