To my father on his 69th birthday
I think you tried, dad. I really do.
In the dark I can move through the old farmhouse. Easy. Quiet. My muscle memory knows every corner, every light switch location, the subtle slope of the living room where the foundation is sinking into the earth, and where the trim has been worn down from three generations of our family’s hands lightly touching the edge of doorways.
I wonder what it was like for you when you brought my sister into this house, old even then, for the first time, new parents. Mom told me you almost passed out when she told you she was pregnant.
The sleigh bells on a leather strap that hang on the front door are still there. The old refrigerator finally gave out. I’m having a hard time getting rid of it. It’s still sitting on the porch, probably irritating mom. It's real classy.
When I walk around this house I can’t help but run into you. You are always here. I just have to hit play in my head and can watch you struggle to put on your work boots with five hunting dogs vying for your attention or watch you stand over the stove frying up some sausage you just made in the butcher shop, me coming in from behind snatching pieces.
When you died, I worried I’d forget you. And now, three and a half years later, I’m starting to lose some of the exactness of my memories; grief sharpened them, time is now softening them. But the house holds them for me.
Do you remember that time we both fell asleep on the couch listening to Kris Kristofferson on vinyl when I was around eight? When you were eight your dad was making you fight bigger neighborhood boys. You got beat up until one day you were stronger than everyone else.
A friend of ours who met you once, in a pleasant encounter, told us later, "strikes me as a dangerous man."
He saw something in your eyes.
In this house, I can watch you stack wood, a proper stack, all the way up to the ceiling. I see you walk behind me while I’m eating breakfast at the counter and poke me in the sides to make me jump. I see you walking in the door exhausted from a day of busting tires at the store, or plowing snow, or cutting wood. I hear the phone ring in the middle of the night and see you walking down the stairs, knowing it’s a service call and you have to drive somewhere and change a tire.
In this house that we both know so well, in late fall, I hung up the phone and walked into the living room, the one that is sinking slowly into the earth, and Mike put his hand on my shoulder. I wanted so badly to keep walking. I heard mom in the kitchen. I didn’t want him to open his mouth but he did. "Don’t," I thought. But he had to. You would be happy he was there for me, dad, he’s a good man, but you knew that.
“Your dad shot himself.” Mike said. He was strong for me.
Do you remember the first time you met him? You shook his hand and said, “if you make her happy, I’m happy.” Thank you for that.
The mind works so quickly. In a split second I thought, “why would you say something like that to me?” and then “but he’s not dead right?” and then I collapsed on the wood floor.
I want to ask you about the day you told your mom that your little sister took too many pills and drank too much vodka. I remember it so clearly. When you found out, you and I got in the truck and drove to grandma’s. We took the elevator up four floors. We didn’t talk. I was scared of you sometimes. My grandmother opened the door and saw your face. I saw her buckle and sway. That is what I must have looked like to Mike.
You said, “She’s dead Ma.” You always called her Ma. And then you grabbed her for a hug. It was a tight, big hug that felt like you were being swallowed.
After you let her go, she composed herself. She wasn’t crying but you were. She asked you how. You told her. She said, “Well, I guess that was a waste of money on rehab.”
I can feel the stillness in the room.
Now this memory is only mine.
When is it appropriate to tell these things about a family? I don’t think you’d mind. In fact, I know you wouldn’t. There’s a lot more to tell.
I am glad now that it was this house that held me up when I fell, that I was in the house you loved. We sat in the kitchen all day. I don’t remember what we talked about but it seemed right that we were all sitting around the old kitchen table that hasn't moved in decades. I know now that a place can make pain and grief easier to bear. Every time I consider tearing it down and building something new, I am stopped because of what it holds for me.
When I fall asleep in the bedroom that I’ve always known, I dream that you are not dead. In these dreams we are talking and I am flooded with relief. You dying, I think, that was just a big mistake. Thank god.
When will those stop, do you think?
Do you remember when you were in rehab in Colorado and I came to visit? We broke the rules and you came out to my car to see Lena. You weren't supposed to leave the campus. I was nervous we would get caught. You were always breaking rules. She whined she was so happy to see you.
I was having a hard time, the hardest time I could remember, and for a moment you weren't thinking about your own pain.
You held on to my hand while I talked. You gave me a huge hug, my ribs hurt, and you didn’t let go.