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August 18, 2011

There are more than a few things I wish I’d rescued before my father lost the house.

The red wagon we careened down a too-steep driveway in. The purple tricycle I more often treated like a scooter. The J.C.-Penny-restored portrait of my great-great grandfather, who fought on the losing side of the Civil War.

The second-to-last time I was in the house – the one we all lived in longer than any other – my sister and I disassembled an antique dresser she’d had in her room. My dad had restored it for her years before, and he watched, neck craned and silent at the bottom of the stairs as we struggled to balance its uneven weight across the landing. It should have been a signal of something unraveling when he didn’t offer help, or even yell a warning to us about the light fixture when the upended foot of the dresser almost caught and shattered it on the tile floor.

I took odd things from the bottom of the hallway linen closet that day: quilts made by my great aunt, a collection of matchbook covers my mom gathered from bars before I was born, my baby clothes, handmade Christmas ornaments. They were the kinds of things that would fit in the bottom of a suitcase.

I left the sixth-grade yearbook whose cover art I’d drawn, making my dad so proud I’d inherited some of his talent. I left the small wooden chest I made in shop class and gave him for Father’s Day when I was in eighth grade. I left the yearbook from senior year that I’d worked on every day in second period, learning layout, gaining an eye for photography, discovering how to put words together that people would read, how to edit sentences for space – uncovering skills that have carried my career. I left the scrapbooks I made in college, full of ticket stubs and scissored images of the person I thought I was becoming. I left my grandmother’s blue and white china that hung on hooks above the windowsills in the dining room, cups and saucers and plates I’d always imagined on my own grown-up table filled with fancy after-dinner tea.

Then there were the things I couldn’t take: the clawfoot tub in the upstairs bathroom; the cast-iron stove that left a scar behind my right knee and melted the sole of one of my boots as I roasted myself in front of it like a marshmallow one long snowy weekend when the power was out; the trampoline.

I was sure I’d be back. I was sure there would be time or that time wouldn’t be necessary. I was right, and I was wrong.

I was back, once more. By then what remained of the things of our childhood had been boxed up and stashed in the attic eaves by my dad’s new girlfriend to make space for her kids. My sister and I had no time or inclination to rummage in nostalgia in any case.

The high stacks of full and empty beer cases made it nearly impossible to get to the secret closet that was hidden in a panel in the corner of the sunroom my dad had built on the back of the house right after we’d moved in. That narrow space – in the drafty room with dank brown stains on the ceiling tiles where the tin roof leaked – was where he hid his guns. The long rifles anyway, what was left of the collection he’d laid out on the living room floor the night my first date came to pick me up. The rest of the guns he hadn’t sold were in the top of his closet, which always smelled like the round tins of waxy shoe polish he rubbed into his cowboy boots with scraps of cloth diapers left over from when I’d been born.

He wasn’t there to watch my sister and I carry out the remnants of his arsenal, to grumble instructions on how to make sure the guns weren’t loaded and how to wrap them so they wouldn’t get scratched in the trunk of her car. Or what to do with what we’d carted off in order to ensure he wouldn’t try again to use one of them take himself away from us forever.

He was sent to rehab after that. I wasn’t there when the sheriff’s car pulled up the driveway and backed out with him in the backseat.

Soon, he’d turn 60 in jail for DUI, him unable to afford the fine, us unwilling to pay it for him. The house was lost, of course. He was too depressed to work, too broke to pay the mortgage, too proud to ask for help again after I’d been too set on not getting involved the first time he’d come to me.

This foreclosure happened at the height of the financial crisis and the depth of my father’s personal crisis. His is one he has since stumbled out of, shaking off the fog of a descent into the addiction he had held at bay for 30 years. He’d always told me that my pending birth had gotten him into AA. I was his angel, he said, a role I embraced with a literal fury for years until I decided I couldn’t (wouldn’t) any more.

I sit in the dark in my own new house where my kids will shelter memories and I imagine his addiction like a dragon or a bull and my daddy with a polished cowboy boot on its throat and a Civil War rifle to its temple. His other hand is busy wrestling its head down by a horn. As first his daughters and then his wife left that home to take up lives his efforts every day at saying no probably made way for, I guess it did seem okay for just a moment to take a breath and let go.

His descent was as rapid as a four-year-old girl and her father riding down a hill in a little red wagon, his arms around her, his hands gripping the wild handle, both beyond hope of control. Just try and keep steady. Don’t tumble out onto the gravel where the asphalt ends.

I didn’t. For a few dark years he did.

He’s back on and holding tight, despite the fact that I stopped trying to be the angel. So why does it occasionally feel that his careening began when or because I realized – in what felt like an epiphany at the other end of a phone line – that it was not my job to steer? How did I manage to carve out an existence of peace in the critical years of building my own career, marriage, family – this beautiful little life I am glad to say my son’s Big Papa is again a part of in meaningful ways – just as his peace was slipping away?

I suppose the house could have been saved, and the things I hadn’t taken out of it with it. But I didn’t do that, never offered to, so these empty shelves in my memory are the bittersweet (fore)closure costs I pay.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 18, 2011 2:13 pm

    I love you so much. This made me cry tears of joy and sadness. By the way I have the box you made for me on fathers day. It is one of my most prized possessions.

  2. melaitch permalink
    November 10, 2011 4:36 pm

    What an ironically beautiful story. And then when I read the comment from your dad, I lost it. It was a random search for “virtual water cooler” that lead me to your blog. I’m so glad it did, as I can relate with similar experiences from my childhood dealing with a parent who was suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness. Thanks for making me smile.

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