The Next One After Last
After Dad could no longer defy logic or the inevitable, I moved back home. Lars and I were shell-shocked, having suffered personal wars separately. Lars couldn’t fathom my experience during Dad’s final days, and I couldn’t fathom the pressures of our home over the summer with a child who Lars reluctantly allowed to raise himself in front of video games, walking a dog he begrudged, and constantly reminded of my absence in Moxie’s endless eagerness for affection and time.
Milo began first grade two weeks later. We dropped him off at school that first morning, two diligent parents saying good luck, we love you, we’re proud with a kiss on each cheek.
The sky was overcast, fall dropping on Portland like a blanket. We got in the car.
“I’m bummed I didn’t put in for a class transfer,” said Lars. Milo was placed with a kid we weren’t sure was a good fit for him. “I think I’ll try to get him moved anyway.”
“There’s always going to be that kid in his class,” I said. “He’ll have to learn how to deal with kids like him sometime. It doesn’t matter which class he’s in.”
Lars turned to me. “I think I’m going to request the transfer. I know a spot opened up in another room.”
“We should just let him be,” I said. “He likes that kid. He just gets his heart broken every now and then because the other kid is so damned cool.”
Lars hardened. “You know what? You’re right. I’m just going to cave because you’re railroading me. Again. You fucking railroaded me about the dog, and I caved then too. You asked, but didn’t care. ‘I don’t want a dog,’ I said. ‘I DO NOT WANT A DOG.’ But you didn’t give a shit! You got your fucking dog! And now I have a fucking dog!”
I began to shake. It was clear, in a moment, what Lars’s summer looked like: walks with Moxie every single night, resentful, steaming. No time for his own son, and the person who had forced upon him a pet he had, not only no interest in, but told numerous times he didn’t want—she was gone. Abandoned to a responsibility he hated. Those walks must have represented a massive failure in our partnership.
I told Lars we could get rid of Moxie, wept that I was sorry. I don’t know why I wanted a dog so badly, I said. We’ll find him a home where he’s happy—not a burden. I cried for over an hour, Lars bitter and scowling, me contrite and demoralized and embarrassed.
“You don’t have to get rid of Moxie,” Lars spat.
I told him I would ask friends if they would like to take him.
“No, you don’t have to get rid of him,” he said, “because despite everything, I actually like him.”
I told him we could think about it, but I would ask around for a good home.
I wasn’t sleeping where I fell, like a cat passing from surface to surface anywhere there was open space. But sleep was restless, full of “I need to…” and “what do I do now…?” Milo, relieved that I was home, couldn’t understand why I wasn’t opaque, solid to the touch; Lars said, “You’re home now, but you’re not here. You’re somewhere else.”
I wanted to scream, “Can’t you see? Don’t you know?” But he did see, he did know.
Our house, never one to embrace achtung tidiness, burst at the seams to accommodate the papers and detritus of another man’s life: photos and bills, bank statements, life insurance policies, books, more books, paintings, more paintings. Legal documents, scary ones, like the single sheet of paper which Dad signed to turn his house over to Chris and me, and was all that proved we were the owners. Impenetrable ones like Dad’s will and his health directives: where should they go, what purpose did they serve now? Dad, by turning the house over to us before he died, skillfully allowed us to avoid probate, but now I had his will. Do I keep it? Do I put it away in a box so I forget where it is, and hope no issues come up?
Papers straggled over every flat surface; we needed file folders. I was designing invitations and an epitaph for Dad’s memorial, which was not a memorial but a party, or an art opening, but not a memorial. I called yet another charitable organization to cancel Dad’s autopay withdrawal; so many, so many organizations. Dad lived on a teacher’s retirement salary and paid out to arts and NGO’s as if he was wealthy.
I walked through the hole that Dad filled at surprising times and my heart tightened, or the hole passed through me like smoke and I stopped, forgot my next step. My stomach clenched. I was distracted, moved to ask Dad for advice. Where does the light go when the light goes out? Dad could not help me any longer. Dad could not help Chris. We were orphaned at last.
To step into the light again, this was the hardest part. I had been away for so long, it felt, as life had continued on its way. Chris and I were in twilight for two months, a strange citadel of illness and laughter with Dad, away from the bustling life of the rest of the planet. Quiet sanctuary married with isolation, our most frequent visitors hospice workers and Lars and Milo. We couldn’t leave; Dad was helpless. As a result, strange juxtapositions presented themselves to us: one night when Jane sat with Dad, Chris and I went to a housewarming party filled with people and music and light, followed by a long walk home, and laughter: what-oh-what were we going to do with Dad’s collection of “adult entertainment?” Then back into the dusky solitude of Dad’s house, quiet and far away. Dad listening to classical, musing on his amazing good fortune, loving everyone, wondering that he was still here, still clinging to the last pieces of his frayed body.
Then Dad was gone. I had come home. I was a writer because I wrote for Dad, my most ardent fan and dedicated reader. How to write for Dad when he was no longer in the audience?
How to step into the light again? What was the right note? Too jocular, it seemed abrasive or defensive; too somber and I wasn’t being honest. I was embarrassed, felt naked, the hole Dad left unfilled exposed all my inner workings, hanging like sprung clockwork gears, unsorted and with no hope of repair. Would the room fall silent when I walked in, everyone waiting to see what I’d say, how I looked, the stranger come from other shores, Orpheus back from the edge of darkness? Or would there be no pause in conversation and I’d simply be swept up again, into the stream of life, tumbling and jumbling along? Would I forget? Would I forget him?
We came through the dark into our dawn, having shared summer with Dad. Then fall, and relief that Dad couldn’t feel the chill of the first rain. At least he had summer at the last.
We open the door back into our lives, where the light is harsh. We step into it and squint.
Next: In Memoriam