Take It or Leave It

The day my aunt Susan and I went to clean out my dead father’s house I woke up with a hangover that was worse than the one I had during my grandmother’s funeral, but not as bad as the one I had during my mother’s. The advantage of feeling physically wrecked when you have to do something psychologically painful is that it gives you something to focus on other than your emotions. It’s difficult to be overcome by heartache and nostalgia when you’re also trying not to vomit.

My father died in January, but I didn’t put the house on the market until June. It had been three years since I’d gone to Virginia, and the thought of finally coming back to my childhood home only to gut it and never see it again was paralyzing. Susan had come down from Philadelphia a few times to throw out the food rotting in the kitchen and get rid of whatever she knew I wouldn’t want. A realtor had eventually agreed to show the house even though it wasn’t empty. I accepted an offer two days after it was listed. A week later Susan and I were staying at a Sheraton across town preparing to sort through what remained.

As soon as we got to the hotel we went to the bar. There were only two other people there and I prayed that Susan wouldn’t start talking to them. Instead she just ordered a glass of Chardonnay and asked what I wanted to drink. I said white wine even though I was sure it would be bad.

“Cheers,” she said, clinking my glass. “I feel like we’re going to be spending a lot of time here this weekend.”

I’d become a little worried about how much she’d been drinking the past few months, but that night I wanted a glass of wine as much as she did.

I was 29 years old and now that my dad was gone, Susan and her husband Michael were the only close family I had left. She was my dad’s sister and had taught 5th grade on Long Island for 35 years. Then she retired, married Michael, and spent most days watching Will and Grace reruns and ordering makeup from QVC. Michael ran a travel company and every couple of months she would go with him on trips to Europe or cruises through the Caribbean. She didn’t have any kids and I had been essentially estranged from my mother for half of my life so we had always spent a lot of time together. My father’s death hit her hard. She was still reeling from losing her mother, and even though she and Michael had done a thousand things to help me manage my father’s estate I quickly learned I couldn’t really talk to her about how I was feeling. Whenever I cried she cried harder. I wanted to be sympathetic, but part of me resented her inability to hold herself together. She was supposed to be the adult in this situation.  As much as I loved her, I was too overwhelmed by my own devastation to deal with anyone else’s.

“You don’t have to do this if it’s too hard,” she said. “I could call you from the house tomorrow and tell you what’s there. You could just let me know what you want to keep. I already packed up the china and silver.”

“That’s ridiculous. I’m already down here, and there’s no way we can do this over the phone. I’ll be okay.”

The china and silver were some of the only items of any real value that my dad owned. They were also some of the only things I would actually be keeping in my apartment. I lived in a one bedroom in Brooklyn. My closets were already filled with boxes of my mother’s things that I didn’t have room for. I would have to rent a storage unit for whatever I took from my dad’s. I knew I would probably never see a lot of it again. Still, it was important for me to go through everything myself.

“I just don’t want you to be shocked when you walk in. A lot of the furniture is gone.”

“Can we maybe talk about something else?”

“Of course! Whatever you want. Are you caught up on the Beverly Hills housewives? How do you feel about the new one who thinks she’s a witch?”

We stayed at the bar drinking wine and picking at overcooked cheeseburgers. She didn’t bring up the house again. Eventually we stumbled to our room and fell asleep watching an episode of Shark Tank with a woman trying to start a mail-order cupcake business.

When the alarm went off at 8, my head was throbbing and my stomach felt curdled. Somehow Susan was fine. I was afraid she would be mad. This was the only day I would be at the house, and we’d planned an early start. She just told me to go back to sleep and that I would probably feel better when I woke up. I still felt sick a few hours later, but I knew we had to get going.

*  *  *

My dad had lived in a two-story brick townhouse that he and my mother bought when they were first married. It was the only place I’d lived before going off to NYU. I thought that walking into it for the first time since he died would break my heart. I was surprised to find that even under these circumstances being there made me feel the way it always had, warm and safe.

The water and electricity had both been shut off. Michael told me to get them turned back on before we went over, but Susan assured me that she had been there many times already and it wasn’t necessary. I ran up to the bathroom in my dad’s bedroom, and before I could remember this, I leaned over the toilet and threw up. I used a half-empty bottle of water that was in my purse to rinse off my face, but there wasn’t enough left to wash it with soap. There definitely wasn’t enough left to flush. Part of me was horrified, and part of me felt like everything I was doing that day was so fucked up anyway that this might as well be how things started off. I told Susan what happened. To her credit she acted like this was a completely normal problem to have and offered to go to the store and get a few gallons of water so we could fill up the tank.

I was starting to feel a little better, which meant I was now in a state to actually think about what I was supposed to be doing.

I looked around the living room, and discovered the house wasn’t as broken down as I’d remembered. After I left, things had fallen into disrepair to the point where it was almost impossible for me to stay there. That’s why I hadn’t been home in so long. My dad and I still saw each other every few months, but it was either in Pennsylvania, where Susan and his parents lived, or when he came to visit me. When I finally started preparing to sell the house an inspector came in and said it would need $100,000 worth of work. I decided I’d rather do nothing and sell at a reduced price to someone who wanted to flip it. The air conditioning had been broken for years, and the heat was bad enough that my dad had to put a space heater in every room. There was only one working shower. The ceiling above it had collapsed and all the pipes were exposed. My dad had taped trash bags to the walls to prevent further water damage. When you turned the shower on they all billowed toward you, and you had about five minutes to wash your hair before you felt like you were going to suffocate and die. He had, however, managed to replace the living room carpet with one that hadn’t been soiled by 20 years of poorly trained pets. He also bought new tiles for the kitchen floor that wouldn’t lift up if you walked on them barefoot. It had made me sad to think of my dad living in a house that was completely falling apart. To see that he’d made some effort to fix things gave me some relief.

It didn’t take long to decide what I wanted from downstairs. There was some antique furniture; my great grandmother’s pie cupboard where we used to keep board games and my grandfather’s secretary. I was emptying some drawers of old photographs when Susan came back with the water.

I took a few gallons upstairs, and flushed the toilet. I walked out of the bathroom and it hit me for the first time that I was standing in my dad’s bedroom, the room where he died.

Even after my own mother’s death—after I’d learned how earth shattering losing a parent was regardless of your relationship with them—whenever I heard about other people’s parents dying I secretly felt they couldn’t possibly have been as close to them as I’d been to my dad. Otherwise how could they go on? How could they continue to exist? This belief had formed like a protective blister over my raw realization of just how unfair and arbitrary life could be.

Then, out of nowhere, my dad had a heart attack. On Thursday I was talking to him about a trip he was taking to Las Vegas that weekend to celebrate his 62nd birthday. We spoke so often that I started to worry when I hadn’t heard from him by Sunday when he was supposed to be home. I called the police the next day, and they found him dead in his bedroom.

It’s hard for me to describe my relationship with my dad. I often fall back on saying he was my best friend. This is inaccurate. Throughout my life I have had several best friends, but I only had one father. The only way I know how to talk about him that feels right at all is to say that we were the same person. He was me, but better; smarter, kinder, funnier, wiser, more patient. I didn’t have any siblings. The one other child my parents had was born a few years before me and died before leaving the hospital. My mother was around for a while when I was little, but she was bipolar and an alcoholic, so I always lived with my dad. She relapsed when I was 13. Even though she eventually sobered up, I barely saw her again.

Two months before my dad died, my boyfriend and I broke up. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, which somehow made it even more devastating. Anyone who hung out with me can attest to the fact that I was a disaster. I cried all the time, and whenever I talked about the breakup, which was more or less constantly, I fell apart. My dad and I always talked a lot, but I went from calling him 3 or 4 times a week to calling him every day. Most of the time when I talked to him it was more for company than advice. If I was stuck spending a Saturday alone it wasn’t unusual for us to talk for a few hours off and on throughout the day. He would tell me all about how he’d just seen Sharknado, and we would speculate on titles for the sequel. Later I would watch The Apartment and call to tell him how much I loved it. He would tell me Some Like It Hot was great too. I would watch that and immediately call him. Before I knew it the empty day I’d been dreading so much would be over, and I could go to sleep feeling more like myself, and less like a sad, lonely, puddle of a person who had just been dumped.

One exceptionally bad night, I came home from a reading, sat on my bathroom floor, and cried so hard my head spun. I called my dad. I could barely form words between sobs, but at some point I managed to ask him if I would be okay. “Of course you’ll be okay,” he told me. Somehow coming from him I believed it. A few minutes later I went to bed. Since he died all I wanted to do was cry on the floor, only now I knew there wasn’t anyone left to help pull me back up.

I felt shattered, but I never stopped functioning. Two weeks later I was back at work and after a month I was going out with my friends. I wasn’t a robot. I started seeing my therapist twice a week instead of once, and sometimes I still broke down. Most of the time though I just tried my best not to think about it. Accepting the fact of my dad’s death felt like trying to eat a block of poison; I could only digest tiny bites at a time, otherwise it might kill me.

* * *

I got to work collecting things from his room. I found an old driver’s license and library card sitting on his bedside table and put them in my pocket. All of his clothes were still in his closet. I pulled out a half dozen T-shirts I remembered him wearing: the Grateful Dead one with the dancing bears that I loved when I was little; one from a bakery he’d worked with that said “An Empty Oven is the Devil’s Playground”; and a few that he’d bought during our summer trips to Nantucket when I was growing up. I took a couple of his ties. I knew these things were all going to end up in a closet, but I wanted them anyway.

The part of the day I’d been dreading the most was cleaning out my room. It was down the hall from my dad’s and he had left it completely intact since I’d gone away to college. I had loved my room when I lived at home. It wasn’t any less messy than the rest of the house, but at least it was my mess. My dresser and bookshelves were covered in knickknacks, and everything from my comforter to my lampshades was covered in the same pattern of fluffy clouds against a blue backdrop. I was anti-social as a kid, especially after my mom relapsed. Some of my happiest memories from middle school and high school were of sitting in bed reading a Stephen King novel or snuggled under a down comforter in the middle of winter watching Ally McBeal on my 13 inch TV.

Susan had already taken out my bed along with a fake palm tree one of my dad’s girlfriends had given me. The room looked strange and empty.

I went through my bookshelves first. This started out easy. The people who bought the house had agreed to haul away anything we didn’t want so I just had to fill boxes with whatever I was keeping. I saved all the Stephen King novels and my dad’s Lord of the Rings trilogy he had been given as a teenager. I left my Norton anthologies from NYU and the Oprah’s book club novels I’d read in high school. Finally, I got to the children’s books.

When it came to getting rid of things, I’d always considered myself to be pretty ruthless. I’d inherited my mother’s love of useless objects and my father’s habit of hoarding old mail, but whenever it came time to move or clean house, I could close off the sentimental part of my brain and throw out garbage bags full of items I had spent years thinking were worth holding onto. What use did I have for a picture book from the 80s called Bedtime Hugs for Little Ones or a tiny box set of Beatrix Potter tales? On the other hand, what if I had kids someday? I would want to have something from my childhood to pass down to them.

The idea of having children has never appealed to me much, but since my family started dying off I’ve begun considering it more seriously. Susan and Michael are the only relatives I keep in touch with. Eventually they’ll be gone too. If I don’t create a family of my own at some point I won’t have anyone left. It had never occurred to me before that this was a reason people might want to have kids. I felt like I’d learned the truth of what it really meant to be an adult.

I packed up the children’s books. There were also dolls, dozens of them. A pile of square blue Madam Alexander boxes was stacked in a corner. I had filled up the glass front cabinet in the dining room with several of the small plastic dolls, and had never figured out where to put the rest. Then there were the tall porcelain ones my mother had bought for me when she was a manager at the San Francisco Music Box Company in the mall down the street, and my collection of American Girl dolls. Sure all of these things would be going into storage, but was I really going to be a grown woman who owned a 40 piece doll collection? Yes, I was.

* * *

Susan had come upstairs to pack up the things I’d set aside in my dad’s room. Every fifteen minutes she would shout down the hall and ask me about keeping something.

“Do you want this book/pen/briefcase?”

I would shout back that I didn’t know what she was talking about because I was in another room. She would ask me to come in and look at it, and I would tell her no, I didn’t want that.

The longer I stayed in my room, the less confident I felt in deciding what to leave. By the time I was done, I’d packed up everything from my old stuffed animals to some sheets of fuzzy cat stickers I’d found in a drawer.

It was getting late. The last rooms left to tackle were in the basement, and we went through these together.

Susan had borrowed some lanterns from my dad’s neighbors. I used these to go through the basement closets, which were piled to the ceiling with old books, clothes, and papers. I found my grandmother’s copy of Alice and Wonderland, and a box full of my mother’s elementary school drawings. I no longer felt sick, but I was becoming exhausted. I started sorting through my dad’s record collection. After a few minutes I got so overwhelmed that I just decided to keep all of them.

We hadn’t even been in the basement for an hour when I gave up. I set aside the pile of books I was looking at and went upstairs.

I sat down on the coffee table in the living room, and cried for the first time all day. I hated that there were so many things I couldn’t take, and I hated knowing that even the things I was keeping would probably just end up rotting in a storage unit. I’d hit a wall.

Susan came upstairs. As soon as she saw me crying she started crying too. She hugged me, and I told her I was ready to leave. She would come back the next day with a moving van and collect everything we’d packed up. Most of it would be kept in Philadelphia and she would drive the rest up to New York later in the summer.

Before we went back to the hotel Susan asked me to help her find the box she’d packed with my parents’ wedding china and silver. We looked downstairs. When we didn’t see the box we looked upstairs in the bedrooms even though it didn’t make any sense that it would be there. When we didn’t see it upstairs, we looked in the basement even though that made even less sense.

“It has to be around here somewhere,” Susan said.

“Is there any way that box could have gotten mixed in with the things you were throwing away? When you hired the junk removers to get rid of the beds and the couch, did you put any trash in boxes?”

“Well, yes, some. But I labeled the boxes I was keeping. There’s no way they would have thrown out one of those.”

“Were you watching them while they were doing this? Did you make sure the boxes with the trash and the box with the china and silver were kept separate?”

I knew the answer to this question before I even asked it. She hadn’t been watching. She had been in a different part of the house doing . . . something. She wasn’t sure what, but she was sure the box would turn up somewhere. It had to. She would call the junk men the next day and get this all sorted out.

I sat down in one of the dining room chairs and stared at the floor, suddenly feeling nauseous again.

“Are you mad at me?” Susan asked.

I told her I needed a minute.

I knew the box had been thrown out. Unlike the stuffed animals and picture books, my parents’ wedding china and silver were some of the only true heirlooms I could ever hope to pass down to my kids. Even more than that, these things were a symbol of when my parents were young and in love, and looking forward to the future, when they were still seven years away from getting divorced, and thirty years away from dying. I had spent all day desperately trying to preserve the past, and just like that the most important artifacts were gone. I was crushed, but I knew that if I dwelled on this I would drive myself crazy. I already had enough to grieve. The last two years had been a continual lesson in the fact that anyone or anything could disappear in the next moment regardless of how precious. It turns out a broken heart still beats. You just have to go on.

“It’s okay,” I said. “It doesn’t matter.”

Sarah Bridgins is a writer and performer living in Brooklyn. Her poems have appeared in MonkeyBicycle, InDigest, Sink Review, Two Serious Ladies, and NAP, among other journals. Her chapbook “We Are Not Pilgrims” was recently published by Mondo Bummer, and her book reviews and interviews have been featured in Bookslut, The Rumpus, and the NY Daily News’s Page Views blog. You can find more of her writing at: