My dad has MS. Why watching 'Wheel of Fortune' together means so much to me
My dad is a TV dad.
Not one of the fictional fathers, like Danny Tanner, Philip Banks or Mike Brady, who helped raise generations through wholesome sitcoms. My father, Mike Jensen, is a dad whose love language (without administering Gary Chapman’s test because feelings, ick!) is most certainly acts of service, with an emphasis on television.
My dad was diagnosed with MS (multiple sclerosis) about 20 years ago when I was in high school. I remember walking in on him researching the disease, in which the body's immune system attacks the central nervous system. The website, which he connected to through AOL dial-up, played a version of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” the theme song from “Titanic.” We made a joke about the choice and the inference that he’s going down with the ship.
MS affects everyone differently. Over time, my dad (who turns 66 next month), developed a limp. Then he relied on a cane to get around. Then a motorized scooter. Now, he spends his time in a recliner in the living room pointed at his primary source of entertainment: a television as big as the stand will hold that is developing bright white spots on its screen due to use. My dad surfed waves in his younger days; now he now surfs channels.
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The TV is also one of the ways he shows his affection as if he spells love “D-V-R.”
“I recorded that comedian you like,” he says, pushing buttons on his remote – Dad, Mom, and I each have our own for the living room TV. He brings up Bill Hader’s April appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” I tell my dad John Mulaney is the comedian I like – sorry, Bill! – and my dad deletes the talk show episode. Without ever asking him, he records appearances from my favorites: Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Aniston, Kim Kardashian, Mindy Kaling. It’s sweet, and I don’t have the heart to tell him I can (and have) already watched some of the clips on YouTube.
What he can do for those he loves is largely limited to what he can access from his recliner. So these DVR'd interviews and the organic chocolate bars he ordered for me from Amazon after I complained about the local grocery store’s selection are precious to me. So are his TV habits.
My dad refuses to start a program until everyone is able to give it their undivided attention so that no one misses a thing. If my mom is cleaning up the kitchen after making him a snack, he waits. If she has to go to the bathroom, he pauses without being asked.
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In recent months, watching “Wheel of Fortune” has become a nearly nightly ritual for the three of us. Mom announces, “It’s almost time for ‘Wheel,’" anywhere from 15 to 90 minutes before the program starts. “Turn it up!” I shout excitedly. “Give the people a chance,” my dad tells me when I solve the puzzle, merely seconds before a contestant.
We listen closely for the adjectives the players use to describe their spouses, words like beautiful, wonderful, amazing, talented, supportive, and even stubborn. We take note of the contestants who don’t use any descriptors at all. Their marriages must really be in trouble, I assume.
It might seem like such a small thing, but I savor every bit because it’s one of the few things we can do, actively engaged, as a family.
My dad has stopped going to family functions because it's too hard for him. He misses dance recitals, birthday parties and Christmases. At first, it was sad that he was missing; now it's sadder that his absence feels normal.
"Grandpa used to surf," my brother tells his 4-year-old daughter, knowing she'll never see it for herself.
My dad's MS skewed my perception of what a man his age can physically do. I'd be in awe when a friend said they went hiking or fishing with their dad. I forgot men his age can still move.
No, my dad won't walk me down the aisle for my intimate, dream wedding on the Amalfi Coast (for which the role of groom is still open). He won't twirl me for a father-daughter dance. But those 30 minutes of “Wheel” – in which we groan over some of Pat Sajak’s dad jokes, complain about the uncommonness of the answer to a phrase puzzle or celebrate a contestant’s impressive ability to pull out the final round – remind me of my very good fortune.
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