As I write this, I’m staring at Dad’s jacket. Crafted from heavy, black-and-white flannel, its tartan pattern braided through with tawny stripes, it seems to burst from the stark, white plaster of its backdrop, taking on a larger-than-life quality characteristic of the man who once wore it. Below, a box of possessions Dad once owned rests, coffin-closed, upon a bier of packing crates. Binoculars, a cribbage board, sweat pants, t-shirts, photographs. The false teeth he never deigned to wear. Reading glasses. His retirement plaque.
The coat still smells like him. Senescence and motor oil. Eau de Dad.
The first few weeks after he died, I couldn’t sleep without that jacket. I sprawled upstairs on the old, threadbare couch – a chocolate-clad, secondhand disaster – that rested perpendicular to the chair in which my dad spent the last year of his life. It was oversized, and olive-green, its arms stained russet with dried blood, though it was dangerously close to the newest and most luxurious item that we owned. That chair was his throne and, in many ways, his deathbed. I couldn’t bear to sit upon it.
I dozed beside it, however, with his coat wrapped around me like an embrace. I never fully slept. Every night, for weeks, my mind wandered uneasily through the alleyways of a peculiar municipality that was halfway between Earth and Nod. That limbo of consciousness was the only place I could feel him watching me. It was the only place I could hear his voice. I was convinced that if I truly slept, I would never hear him again.
When the start of winter quarter rolled around, I had only been back at home for four days. From the day of my dad’s death (Christmas; his timing was always impeccable) to the day before New Year’s Eve, I had lolled on my mother’s sofa and proceeded to drink myself into oblivion. I have always been more of a binge-drinker; I have never been a dawn-to-darkness alcoholic. The week after Dad died nearly changed that. Drinking stopped the crying. My eyes hurt so terribly from crying! Captain Morgan, Gentleman Jack, and Jim Beam dried my tears, while my more corporeal friends offered condolences that were tersely rebuffed with the suggestion that they go and spend their holidays with their own families. Dismal as I was, I couldn’t bring myself to ruin Christmas for their womb parasites. “Children,” I told them – my voice slurred, my tone mordant – “should be with their parents today.”
The morning of January the second, 2013, marked a week since my dad’s death. It was also the first day in seven where I had not started the morning with a Bloody Mary. Whether it was the fact that being back home had effectively ended my ready access to liquor, or the fact that some deeply-buried part of me actually gave a damn about making a good impression on the first day of class, I don’t know. I do know that I have never felt as alone as I did upon dismissing my alarm.
Mornings had always been my time with Dad. My routine consisted of taking a shower, making myself a cup of coffee, and conversing with him, all to the soundtrack of the morning news. We would discuss oddball headlines, or politics, or my plans for the day. Sometimes, he would press money on me to ensure I could catch the bus home, or to have something to eat for lunch. That was one thing about Dad. He never let his kids go wanting.
These were the happiest moments of my day – the happiest moments of my life, in many respects, if only because the twelve years since his first diagnosis held little other happiness for comparison. Our mornings began too early for either of us to be encumbered by the stress of our respective circumstances. He was not yet in pain, most of the time, nor was he bleeding buckets from some minor cut that, in a healthy man, would have clotted in seconds. I had not yet been forced to converse with a surly medical receptionist, or to shoulder the disdain of an instructor whose well-earned tenure led him to dismiss my plight as dutiful daughter and caregiver as yet another stream of bullshit contrived by an unscrupulous student in order to earn an extension. Daybreak was soothing and uncomplicated – much like my dad himself, before illness and apathy overwhelmed him. Those sunrise vignettes were my adult equivalent to piggyback rides and pecks on the cheek.
I remember the first time I returned to the house after it was put up for sale. I lived there for two months after he died, skittish, like a rat in a tomb, as I packed up our things and ferreted away those possessions of his with which I couldn’t bear to part. When the truck was finally loaded, late in the month of February, I didn’t look back. I couldn’t. Not right away. Not if I wanted to survive the night.
The melancholy of homesickness engulfed me a few months later, and after a few beers at a bar in the old neighborhood, I had a friend drive down my old street. Though I knew it would be the death of me, I had to take one last look at the place. I had never imagined that there would be a day where I wouldn’t be at liberty to return – that such a sanctuary was now lost to me and my siblings seemed like the greatest crime in the world . If I had my way – if I had been a rich woman – I would have kept it forever, if only to stand as a shrine to the greatest man I ever knew. I cursed my poverty, and the callous medical racket, and the hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt that we had accrued. It seemed like such a vast amount to save a human life, and yet, it was so much less than I felt his life was worth. I let the tears fall unfettered as I stepped out of the car, but I swallowed back the bile that had flooded my throat as I glimpsed the “For Sale” sign, ghostly in the moonlight where it had been driven into the grass.
The realtor had taken liberties with the renovations. A serge-and-snow paint job replaced the familiar, sable-trimmed grey, and the aubergine door, crowned with a cheerful, rounded window, could not have been more different than the weathered door, all storm and cinders, that had served as our portal to the world.
As I sat on the sidewalk across the street, chain-smoking beneath the stars, I mused bitterly about the incongruity of dressing up a crypt – because that is what it truly was, now; the whole of our lives were laid to rest inside. My childhood died there when I lost my grandmother and realized, for the first time, that my parents had made a habit of dishonesty. For two weeks, they told me Grandma was fine. For two weeks, they lied through their teeth. My family died there when my mother, unable to bear the burden of three pubescent children and a moribund husband, walked out the door and left all of her things behind, shedding her skin like a serpent and leaving me to clean up the mess. My dad died there, in spirit, if not in person, the day his doctor delivered the first of many grim diagnoses, and every day thereafter, when he woke up without our mother by his side. My confidence died there when I received the phone call at 1:30 in the morning on Christmas Eve: minor strokes. Neurology ward. Everything’s fine. Go to sleep.
The world ended there, when the phone rang a second time: 7:30 AM. Heart attack. Intensive care. Life support. Come now.
As we pulled away from the curb, we left the house behind in the sepulchral silence of twilight.