There was a chair in the front window of my teenage bedroom, but I almost never sat there. It faced into the room, because all there was to see outside was the house across the street, with its dirty-blond buzz-cut of a yard and a security system sign staked by the door. The chair was next to my bookshelf, and as such, it mostly collected books I was too lazy to shelve. The only time I sat in it, that I remember anyway, was the day before I left for college. It was late afternoon, maybe early evening. My dad was standing in the doorway, one shoulder against the frame. He’d been keeping me company while I kneeled on the floor in front of a gaping black suitcase, the biggest one we had, folding clothes and stacking them into its corners. I was tired and cranky and nervous, preoccupied with how much was left to do and how little time there was for it. I clambered up onto the chair.
“This is too hard,” I announced, slumping over my thighs. I was afraid of leaving home and afraid of where I was going, but I never would have said it aloud.
“You’d better get used to it,” Burg replied. “Life is hard. That’s how it is.” He never talked like that. Surely, I figured, he was ribbing me. I looked for the telling smile. It wasn’t there. A weird, crackling silence filled the room. He shoved off the door jamb, walked across the hall to his office, and shut the door.
I was about to turn 19, and I had a plane ticket to northern California, where I would in theory start a new life, my adult life, away from my family. My father was 68. He was still seeing patients, in seemingly good health, living in the house that he and my mother had always wanted. He was happy. But the man wasn’t young. Born in the year of the stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression, the oldest son of Polish Jews who’d immigrated to Canada and later an immigrant himself, he dragged around all the aches and pains and piles of personal garbage that a human accumulates over seven decades of living. I was supposed to believe him, even if I didn’t want to.
But that thing he said has stayed with me, and I wonder at it sometimes, bat it around, tug at it, like one of June’s hair ties in my pocket. I think I wrote about it in A Homemade Life, actually, though I couldn’t find the passage when I went searching for it. (Maybe one of you knows where it is?) I always think about Burg in the midst of Big Life Stuff: marriage, birth, death, divorce – the moments, I guess, when my story feels too big to hold by myself. I never mean to, but there he is. It occurs to me that I am haunted. I wonder what he would say about who I am now, about June, about Brandon, about the woman I love, about Donald J. Trump in the Oval Office, about Russia. Can you believe we are still talking about “the Russians,” like we’re stuck in a loop of Dr. Strangelove? I wonder why Burg walked away from me that day. Given everything, my life at age 38 and the world we live in, the abyss of which he seemed to be peering down that afternoon, do I get to be happy? How often? How?
I live in the house that Brandon and I bought six years ago last month. Until last August, I had never lived there alone, or as its only adult resident. I can hardly let myself think about what it must have been like for Brandon to leave behind our house and all the plans we had for it. He tells me it’s okay – that it was hard, but it’s okay. “You know me,” he says cheerfully, “I’ll have fun finding a new house someday. I like a new project.”
After the awful strangeness of our separation had started to give way to something different, still strange but strangely less awful, I started to move things around in the house, my house, to make it my own. I stopped waiting for someone else to take out the trash, change the lightbulb, put away the ladder. I threw out the expired prescriptions from the medicine drawer, and the creepy-looking earwax removal kit. I got tired of seeing the hose lolling next to the driveway like a reptile with wasting disease, so I went to Fred Meyer and handed over $29.99 for one of those plastic wheeled caddies you wind a hose around. No one has ever so jubilantly installed a hose caddy.
In January, there was a blockage in the sewer, and it backed up into the red-carpeted bathroom in the dungeon-slash-basement. There might be a metaphor in there somewhere, but I’m going to leave it where it is. Two months later, I can now correctly use the words water mitigation, asbestos abatement, concrete aggregate and trenchless sewer replacement in a sentence. It is not fun to spend money that you don’t really have on something you only appreciate because it means the absence of something you don’t appreciate. But I do now get to replace the carpet, and I don’t worry about the sewer anymore.
Last week, while scooping old ashes out of the fireplace, I noticed a thin, warped sheet of metal on the hearth, and when I lifted it, I found a rectangular hole set into the bricks. I texted Brandon a photograph of it, asking if he knew what it was. “You’re supposed to brush ashes in there,” he texted back. “And then clean them out in the basement by that little door.”
“Wait. There’s a little door in the basement?” I yell-texted into the phone as I ran down the stairs, hoping to find my own private doorway to Narnia. Sure enough, I found a small steel door in the wall of the laundry room, maybe six inches square and rusty. And though it was full, absolutely overflowing with cubic foot upon cubic foot of fireplace ash from the previous owner, the first thing I thought was, Laundry chute! I’ve always wanted a laundry chute – mostly because I want to be tiny like a human Stuart Little and slide down said chute, but also because: laundry chute. For the past six years, I’ve called the stairs to the basement my laundry chute, as I gleefully heaved dirty clothes, towels, and sheets over the railing. As it turns out, I had one all along! Almost! And really not at all! But I have an ash chute, and it thrills me. I intend to use it.
A couple of hours later, as I was coming down from the ash chute discovery, Brandon texted me a photo of June in the living room of his apartment, crouched inside a plain cardboard box that she was calling a puppet theater. There was some sort of frothy tulle situation wrapped around her lower half, and she was waving one of the three dolls she’s named after herself. I guess we’re all building the houses we want to live in. Whenever I’m at the grocery store that stocks the dishwasher detergent that Brandon and I both like, I buy an extra box for his apartment.
I hung a portrait of my dad in the front hall, a black-and-white close-up in which he wears a straw hat and a very knowing, dad-like look. I like having it there, though I don’t actually see it much, the way we stop seeing the walls or the floor. I think he walked away from me that day because he had to. Otherwise, he would have had to watch his last kid leave home. Now he gets to watch me leave every day, and at the end of that day, he gets to watch me come back.
Today it’s been 14 years since my dad died, and in most ways, it seems like longer than that. I’ve done a lot of living – maybe too much? – in those 14 years. But I can still hear his voice in my head, and I can still feel the hug he gave me in our driveway before I left to drive to Seattle for graduate school, in September of 2002. Burg would be 87 now, and I’m sort of glad I never had to see him diminished by old age – or, at least, not more than he was diminished in his last weeks, as cancer had its way with him. He would be glad to know that Mom and I now…Read more