Dear Dad // No. 31: The Beginning of a Beginning

Dear Dad,

The beginning of a beginning is often hard to see. We don’t realize it’s come to pass until we spot it behind us, waving goodbye. We’re past the beginning at that point, its lessons only recognized through the mercy of hindsight.

The following is an account of a beginning, Dad. I made these notes as the events unfolded. They aren’t pretty, weren’t written with an eye toward prose or style or anything of the like. They are the beginning of a beginning, and nothing more.

They are the beginning of our goodbye.

Sunday, March 19

I receive word from G at 10 p.m. on Sunday, March 19. Dad is in Allegheny General. Bad stroke. Still waiting to hear back from dr.

I’m at a writing retreat in the mountains of Tennessee, so I stand in the cold with my sweater wrapped around me and dial the hospital’s NeuroICU, but the doctor isn’t there and the nurse prefers to give updates through only one family member.

There is no news the rest of the night. I sit among friends and think, “We’ve done this before. Maybe your recovery will be slower, but we can do this. We’ve done it once, and we can do it again.” I wonder if you’ll forget me again. I wonder if I’ll have to introduce myself to you once more.

The next morning, I start the eight-hour drive to Pittsburgh. The entire drive, I think, “Remember to ask whether he’s breathing on his own. What are his chances of worsening aphasia? We’ll need to arrange physical therapy.”

G calls while I’m somewhere in the Tennessee mountains. We agree that assisting living will be a must going forward. No debate, Dad. We got lucky with your first recovery, and we won’t be with this one. It’ll take work, but we’ve done it before. We can help you through it again.

All through the mountains, I drive. Past farmland and rolling pastures, thick swaths of trees and craggy rock. I climb skyward, and I wait to cry.

#

It’s 7 o’clock when I arrive in Pittsburgh. I drop my car off at my room and take a cab to the hospital so I won’t have to worry with parking. When I arrive, it’s like a strange déjà vu. There is the lobby and the cafeteria, the sterile smell of life and its germs wiped clean from every surface, the gentle ding of the elevators. I know which floor to go to, and I go without thinking.

Seven floors up, I lift the phone in the hall and ask the receptionist if I can see you. But visiting hours aren’t until 9 p.m. I go to the waiting room to find that the couch I’d slept on four years ago is gone. In its place is a row of metal chairs with the thinnest padding I’ve ever seen. I curl myself into one and watch the door, waiting for something even I don’t know. I must look horrible, because the man next to me gets up, moves a coffee table in front of me, and says, “Here. Put your feet up on this.”

His wife asks if I have a place to stay. I tell them about the AirB&B room B rented for me while I was on the road. They ask if I’ve driven, if I know my way around, if I am alone.

“Right now,” I say. “But others are coming.”

I sit in the chair with my feet on the table until 9. Then I get to see you.

#

It isn’t like the first stroke. When I saw you after the first stroke, you had fallen down the stairs and cut your head. There was a deep gash that ran along your forehead. It had already bruised purple and red. You couldn’t breathe on your own. A machine blipped out your breaths, forced your chest to rise and fall, steady as a drum. Back then, the nurse had spent an hour, maybe longer, talking me through all the various complications you were experiencing and how the team of doctors planned to address them. This is what I anticipate as I walk through the pale lights down the familiar hallway to your room. But this is not what I find.

You look so normal, Dad. So very ordinary. You don’t have a cut on your head or a tube down your throat. You breathe on your own. You are just as restless as you were before, moving your arms and legs in the bed and pulling against the restraints, but the moment I see you, my heart buoys. I rush to pull on the plastic gown and gloves so I can enter the room and tell you I’m here. I don’t need a nurse to tell me to do it, because I recognize the note taped to your door from your last stay in the NeuroICU, and I know what it means. I yank on the gown and hurry to your bedside, and it’s all so familiar and odd and comforting somehow, not to have so many machines hooked up to you. I go to your bedside and I touch your arm and I say, “I’m here, Dad. It’s Ash. I’m here.”

#

When the nurse comes in, I know. The way she walks in is so different than the last time. The way she holds her hands in front of her and hesitates before she speaks. The way she says, “So, have you spoke with anyone about … him?”

“No. I haven’t seen a doctor. Can you tell me what we’re doing for him? He’s breathing on his own, so that’s good. What else is going on?”

“We’re making him comfortable,” she says. “They think, maybe a week? Palliative care has been called.” Then, gently, “Do you know what that means?”

“Yes.”

There isn’t anything more to say. I think I might go numb. There isn’t a very good word for this feeling.

#

I tell you about your room. Describe how pretty the view is and ask you to be still and rest. And while I try to find the strength to keep talking, you say, “Ashley.”

“Dad!”

You grimace. “Ashley.”

I hold your arm a bit firmer. “I’m here, Dad. I’m here. It’s okay. It’s all going to be okay.”

You shake your head, grimacing. The corners of your eyes crease.

“Are you in pain?” I ask.

You nod. A tear slips from your eye. I wipe it with a gloved finger as gently as I can.

“Okay, we’ll get you something for pain, okay? I’ll be right back.”

I rush from the room to the nurse’s station and ask her if we can give you anything for pain. She looks at me quizzically.

“He spoke to me,” I explain. “He told me he’s in pain.”

She frowns and examines your chart. “He hasn’t been cognizant all day.”

“He said my name. Twice. And I asked him if he was in pain and he nodded. Can we give him anything?”

I can tell that she doubts whether you are cognizant enough to really communicate with me. For the briefest of seconds, I want to scream. To scream that I know you spoke to me and you heard me and you are there, but I don’t have to. She agrees.

I go back to your bed and whisper to you for another hour, telling you it’ll be okay, that we’ll help you, to rest and rest and rest, that I’m here and I won’t leave and everything will be okay.

I lie, Dad. Because I don’t have the strength to tell you the truth.

#

It’s 11 p.m. when I get back to my room. Everyone is up around me. It’s too noisy to sleep, and it doesn’t make much difference. I lie in the bed in the dark and try to imagine what I’ll do tomorrow. How I remember from last time that the doctors do their rounds first thing, and I need to be there to speak with them. I need to ask them how we can make you comfortable and what they’re doing for you, and then I need to get on my phone and pass on whatever news they tell me to Mom and C and J and G.

I do not sleep. By the time the sun cuts through the window, I am up and dressed. My lips are swollen and have broken out with sores, either from stress or lack of sleep or something else. They must burn while I brush my teeth, but I can’t feel it. All I feel is the tightness in my chest, and all I think is that I must not cry in front of you.

#

When I arrive at the hospital, I go straight to your room. As I begin to pull on the plastic gown, I hear the doctor inside your room, on speaker phone with someone. I begin to rush, trying not to rip the plastic.

“So, that is not good,” the doctor says.

The voice comes over the phone into the room. “Fuck.”

“Is that J?” I ask from the doorway as I yank on my gloves. The doctor and nurse look up. “That’s my brother. I can help you. What’s going on?”

At that moment, J’s phone drops the call. The doctor gestures to the hallway. “Let’s go talk in here.”

Wait, I haven’t said good morning, I almost say. Instead I glance at you, and follow him into a small room.

#

What happens in the room is this.

The doctor asks me what I know already, and I say, “Nothing.”

The doctor explains that your CAT scan from this morning is much worse. The bleeding in your brain is not improving. In fact, it’s worsening. At this rate, he believes you only have a few days.

A week, I want to say. We’re supposed to have a week.

The doctor needs to know what your feelings are on these types of situations, and he cannot hear it from me. I am not legally yours. “I know.” I have to whisper. I’m not supposed to cry. “It was like that last time.”

It’s decided he’ll call J back on my phone. We put J on speakerphone and lay the phone on the table between us. When the doctor asks J what your feelings are on living on machines versus passing naturally, I hold my breath.

How cruel, that I am here and unable to help you. How cruel, that I have already told the doctor this truth and it somehow holds no value.

But I knew it would be like this. I prepared myself for it. So, when the doctor asks J his questions, I hold my breath and pray J says the same things I have.

And when he does, I feel like a tremendous gift has been given to you, Dad. I couldn’t help you. I could only sit here and hold you and comfort you, but I could not save you from your pain. Only your biological children could do that.

When J tells the doctor that you would never want to live on machines, the doctor makes a note on his chart. When the call ends a few minutes later, he looks at me and says, “We’ll change our care plan now, and make him comfortable.”

He pauses. “You’re doing the right thing.”

When he shakes my hand, I start to cry.

#

Is there a “right thing” when your father’s life is involved? I wonder about this as I sit beside you the rest of the day. You’re restless, moving your arms, trying to reach your head, and shifting your legs, bending your knees, crossing your feet. You are in pain.

But the doctors act quickly now. They come in and take away the tube that had been draining the blood from your brain. They remove the tube in your nose. They remove the restraints from your ankles and wrists. They give you a dose of morphine.

You have not been cognizant today, but I sit with you, and I whisper to you, and I rub your arm and try to tell you things that will make you calm. When family calls for updates, I step away from your bed and try to keep my voice low when I relay that something unspoken has stolen a few of your days from us. I don’t want you to hear. I refuse to believe that somewhere inside, you cannot hear me. They said you couldn’t hear me yesterday either, and you did.

Perhaps our days aren’t lost yet, Dad. Perhaps they will be wrong again.

#

At noon, your neighbors come by to see you. I’d met them the previous night right before I left, when they stopped by to check on you. They are kind people, maybe in their sixties, with a love of jazz and art. I could see immediately why you like them. One of them sang a few bars from a Tony Bennett song to you.

Today, they stand beside your bed and ask me if you’ve been cognizant. I have to say no, but I also say they should still speak to you. They offer to stay with you while I get something to eat. I don’t tell them that I haven’t been hungry in a day, or that retracing my steps from four years ago makes me nauseated. Instead I smile and go to the elevator and down to the cafeteria, get an apple and a green tea and sit at a table in the sun and wonder how long I have to stay here before it’s acceptable for me to go back to your bedside. I eat half the apple and decide that’s long enough.

#

At 12:30, I am alone with you again. I watch the monitor and try to figure out what all the data mean. Some numbers rise and some numbers fall, and I don’t want to look away from the screen to research it on my phone. Soon, a nurse comes in, and I glance at the monitor and ask, “What does the pink number mean?”

She looks up at the screen. Her hand rises to the edge of the monitor, and she slowly turns it away from me. Then she tries to smile. “It’s probably not a good idea to look at that.”

I wonder if she realizes, Dad, that her answer has told me more than any number could.

#

You are still restless, so they come back. They give you a morphine dose, then a drip. It works quickly, and after a minute, you are calm. I think, maybe, you begin to sleep.

#

I cannot see the data now, Dad. There is only so much I can tell you, and I don’t want to make you sad. I opt to stay in neutral territory, reiterating how kind your doctors are and how good you are doing at staying still and resting, how nice a view your room has and how fancy the hospital is. I tell you I’m here and you can trust me to care for you and you can rest. Just rest.

But I cannot see the numbers and I need something, so I start to count your breaths.

A few days. I will do this for a few days. I will count your breaths and whisper calming words to you, and it will be okay.

When I cry, I try to do it silently, so you don’t hear.

#

Soon, another nurse comes in. She looks at the monitor and then at me. Her expression is kind. “He probably only has a few hours now.”

I flinch. “But we had a few days. Is something wrong?”

“His oxygen level is really low.”

“What is it?”

“45.”

“What’s normal?”

“Yours and mine are at 90.”

I stare at the back of the monitor. I feel as if it’s stolen your days from you. I cannot explain it. How could they have evaporated over the course of a few hours?

When I look back, the nurse is gone. I send messages to family and friends.

Oxygen levels very low. Hours now.

I go back to counting your breaths. I wish I could remember where I’d been before. Every one feels precious now.

#

At 1, two neurosurgeons come to see you. They look at the chart and examine the monitor, and tell me they’re going to give you something to help with your breathing. It’s been rough for a while now, Dad, a kind of pattern I’d memorized. A sharp breath in—a gasp—then 30 seconds until the next. Then 2 seconds. Then 45. Then 3. Then 30. And so on.

“Will this help him breathe better?” I ask.

“It’ll make it less work. The part of his brain that takes care of that … there’s too much bleeding there.”

“That’s why he’s taking breaths like that.”

“Yes. This’ll help him feel better when he breaths. Is that okay?”

“Yes. Anything to help with the pain.”

#

From that point on, you are comfortable. A feeling seeps over me. I know it will happen soon. I tell myself not to know it. But I cannot.

I count, and I count, and I count. And when I realize I’ve stopped talking, I whisper something else to you. I’m here. I’m here. It’s Ash. Dad? It’s Ash. I’m here.

I am alone, but you are not. I am here.

#

Two exhales stand out. They come from deep, deep down, and they sound calm, relieved almost, as they exit your lips. They frighten me.

I know it is your final breath because my count goes over a minute. When it reaches 60 seconds, I stop counting your breaths. Instead, I watch a spot in the crook of your neck where a vein pulses in time with your heart. I count the seconds and I watch the spot on your neck as it fades and fades and fades and fades, a small, quiet wave that cannot reach the shore.

I am watching when it stops. And when it does not begin again.

#

I only realize I am still counting when the machines go off. It takes three minutes before they scream. A nurse comes in and shuts them off. She meets my gaze. “I know,” she whispers.

But you don’t, I want to say. It happened three minutes ago. I know. I was counting. She pulls the sheet to cover the doorway, and once again, we are alone together.

#

I sit with you for an hour before anyone comes. I keep thinking I see your chest rise again, and for a split second, I think, Oh! I’ve miscounted! It was my fault! Silly me, thinking all that time had passed, when it was only a breath. But then I remember that the nurse has already come and the silence in the room is because the machines are no longer turned on and the muffled sound is me. I cry quietly, because there are other patients on this floor, and I don’t want to scare them.

#

After an hour, G arrives with Gl, your first wife. Gl has dementia and has never really acknowledged me. She once told you that she didn’t understand why you bothered keeping in touch me because I wasn’t your real daughter. But today, she walks up and hugs me.

“Thank you,” she whispers, her voice thin and delicate. She does not cry. She asks the priest who arrives at the same time she does if he will pray for God to give you back. The priest is shocked, and says, “Gl, why would I ask for that, when he is in Heaven?”

#

After a while, they leave, and once again, it is you and me, Dad. It has been almost two hours since you passed, and I do not understand what I’m supposed to do. I cannot leave you here—but you aren’t here anymore.

The nurse asks me where you’re going, and I have no idea what she means. She explains that someone must do something with your body, and something inside me flinches at that word. But they need me to decide. They need direction.

“I’ve never done this,” I say.

They tell me to ask the church, so I call them from beside you and I whisper into the phone that I don’t know what to do. They give me the number of a funeral home. I make the call. Again I explain that I don’t know what to do.

I don’t know what to do, but I do things anyway, because they must be done, and people are waiting.

#

Sometime after 3, I’m able to walk away. Before I go, a nurse hands me two clear plastic bags. Your things. A pair of jeans and a belt and shoes and a pocket knife and a cell phone and a wallet. I carry you in my arms as I get into the elevator. The woman beside me sees the bags and says, “Oh.” Then she stares at the floor.

I get lost in the hospital. I look at the signs and turn in circles and I think the weight of you is throwing off my compass. I don’t know which way is North and which is South. A woman says, “You’ve had a rough day. What can I help you find?”

“I need to leave.”

“Okay. Follow me.”

We walk through a beautiful atrium with arched ceilings and marble floors. Classical music plays from somewhere. She leaves me at the front door. I go outside and sit on a bench and wait for a cab with your belongings beside me. A man sits on the other side of your things. He doesn’t say anything to me, but when I spot a cab and pick up your things, he says, “Have a good day.”

I get into the cab and set you beside me. Your things. Not you. The cab driver twists around and smiles. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

I burst into tears.

#

It’s around 4 p.m. when I get back to the room. I set your things on the carpet and crumble beside them, bury my face in my hands, and cry.

After a while, I pick myself and open the bags. I open your wallet and sort through the slips of paper you’d tucked inside. You always had this habit of writing everyone’s phone numbers on slips of paper, and here they are now, along with the sheet I gave you after your first stroke, with our phone numbers on speed dial. Your phone tumbles onto the carpet, and I pick it up and scroll through your recent calls.

A history forms. A 4:49 p.m. call with Gl on Friday. A call to 911 at 4:07 p.m. on Saturday. The doctors were wrong, Dad. You didn’t suffer the stroke on Thursday or Friday and sit alone without help until Saturday. It was sometime after your Friday dinner with Gl and the call to 911 on Saturday. The window of pain shrinks a bit, and this time when I cry, it’s with relief.

#

There are other things in your wallet. A tiny Star of David that I know nothing of but set aside. Forty-five dollars in cash. Your bank card, art-store card, your social security card, Medicaid card. A little drawing by C. All of this I tuck inside the softened pockets of your wallet, and slip it into the bag.

Your shoes, pants, belt, scarf … they all smell so strongly of the hospital I cannot take it. I hold my breath and dig through the pockets. Then I put them back in the bag and tie it tight. I can still smell it from across the room. I can’t tell if it’s in my head or real.

#

The last thing I find is a cross. I don’t recognize it, but it’s in the bag, so you must have had it on you when you went to the hospital. I slip it over my head, and crawl into bed.

I want to say I don’t cry, Dad, but we both know that isn’t true.

#

Sometime after 5, I walk down to the river and sit beside the water. The wind is chilly but feels nice on my cheeks. I lift my face, and watch the clouds.

Wednesday, March 22

At midnight, my aunt and uncle arrive. We talk until 2 a.m. Then I give them the bed and take the couch. I’m able to sleep for a few hours.

The next day, they offer to drive me to the funeral home. We sit in a carefully decorated room with yellowed curtains pulled tight over the windows, and the funeral home director—a thin man with a quiet voice—explains the options. I had asked everyone what their opinions were beforehand without telling them what each other had selected, so that everyone would speak from their hearts without influence, and everyone had chosen the same option. This is what I tell the director. He nods and tells me the price. I jot it down in my notebook, payable by cash or check. (Later, I’ll frantically search my purse for a check. I finally find one in my wallet. Just one, but that’s all I need.) The entire time we speak, I sit at the edge of the couch with my back rigid enough that I cannot cry.

On the way out, the director stops me in the hall. I turn around, and he points at the paintings along the wall. “I Googled your dad, because the name is so unusual. He was a real artist.”

I smile. “He really was.”

#

We go to the church next. The office is bustling, and the music director explains that they have two weddings and a funeral already booked for this Saturday. Then begin the questions.

Were you a member of the church, Dad? No, but you attended mass six times a week for years.

Do I live here? No.

Could I come back in a week? No, it’s expensive to travel here, and I have to get a hotel, and the expenses add up quickly. I’m paying for everything myself, but it’s all so sudden. Could we not do something on Sunday? No, I’ve forgotten about Lent. I’ve forgotten what day it is and where I put my phone and I can’t recall what time B’s plane is supposed to land, though he’s told me over and over again. How mad he is at himself for me being alone but we all thought there was more time, Dad, there was supposed to be a week and really none of us thought that was true. We all thought this would be like last time. That we’d nurse you through physical therapy and months in the hospital, that I would introduce myself to you again and we would learn each other’s histories and habits and hearts anew.

But none of it was like that, Dad. You didn’t forget me at all. In fact, it turned out that my name was the last thing you said.

We leave the church without any details settled. I feel as if I’ve let everyone down, but I cannot explain why.

#

We pick B up at 11:30 a.m. We stand by the car at the arrival gate and hug, and I don’t care if we’re blocking traffic or annoying people or about to get yelled at by the cop parked on the corner. My aunt and uncle take us to lunch, where they go through everything we have to do now.

Go to probate court to open an estate. Go to the post office to have your mail forwarded. Close your bank account. Go to your apartment and make a list of everything of value for the estate. We’ll need the paperwork. We’ll have to place an ad in the paper and let it run once a week for three weeks or something like that. We should check with the court in PA for the rules. They could be different here. But there are papers to file and rules and regulations and somewhere over my lunch I feel the weight of you welling up in me and I try not to cry into my soup.

I just want to sleep. Or at least lie in a bed in the dark and be free enough to let these tears fall instead of clutching them in my chest so I don’t embarrass myself in a Panera Bread. I never knew dying was so complicated. Grief feels heavy enough without the paperwork.

#

After lunch, we drive downtown and make our way to the probate court. I repeat what my uncle told me under my breath. I feel like a kid again, unsure of myself and afraid to speak, but I make my way to the desk when I’m called and I shove the words out.

“Hi, my dad’s passed away, and I need to pick up the forms to open his estate.”

“Okay, well, they’re all online.”

“Oh.”

“But here, this list has everything you need. These are the fees.” He slides a paper across the desk to me. My eyes flit down the list. “He’s got a house?”

“No.”

“Car?”

“No.”

“Credit cards? A bank account?”

“No credit cards. I don’t know how much is in his bank account, but it can’t be over a few hundred dollars.”

“So, what’d you opening an estate for?” he asks.

“I—I don’t know. I thought I had to.”

The man shrugs. “Nope. He doesn’t have anything, so you’re good.” He points at a sign. “Any possessions valued less than five thousand and you don’t have to bother with anything.”

I quickly add up how much your paintings would be worth. They don’t come close to that number.

When we walk outside into the cold, I realize I’m shaking. You always said you wanted things to be simple, Dad. In the end, that’s exactly what happened.

Thursday, March 23

My aunt and uncle leave at dawn. B and I get the first full night of sleep either of us has had in days. I’d averaged two hours this week until last night. As the world wakes around us, we lie in bed and talk in soft voices. We still need to go to the bank and post office, but until we have the death certificates, we can’t. So, we wait.

We talk about what we should do about the church. We can’t stay another week. Every night here is $150. Yesterday, snow flurries fell, and neither of us packed clothes for winter. B’s dad just had a heart procedure a week ago, so his parents can’t travel to us. Mom and C and J are in the South and can’t afford to come to PA.

The realization settles over us. We will have to plan two services.

#

B and I decide that as much as it bothers us, we cannot make any more plans today. “What do other people do when they’re planning things like this?” I ask him. “What do they do with this in-between time?”

He thinks for a minute. “They sit around the kitchen table with family and tell stories.”

So, we go where there will be stories of you. We drive to your neighborhood, pay to park, and walk to your street. We start at your favorite bar, and even though it’s early afternoon, there are people inside. Smoke hangs in the air, the light is dull, and it is a quintessential bar, only wide enough for a two-person table and a one-person walkway. There’s a juke box in the back and shelves of liquor along the wall. Men in Steelers hats shout at each other over the music from three seats apart. I slip past them, aware of how much of an outsider I am, and find an empty place to sit. But before I even take the seat, I spot it. Straight in front of me on the wall is one of your paintings.

It’s like spotting a piece of you. I shout at B and point. “That’s Dad’s! THAT’S DAD’S!”

Over the next 20 minutes, we meet the owner and the bartender and her husband. Strangers hear our conversations and interrupt us. Everyone knows you, Dad. Everyone has stories of your dancing and your humor and your art, and they all speak with tears in their eyes. They shake my hand and though my eyes water, I don’t cry. I thank them for being a part of your life.

I don’t know what I’m doing or if this is how you’re supposed to spend the time after a loved one passes, but this is all I know to do. I go from shop to shop, to the Italian market where you bought your groceries and the art store where you sold your paintings and the restaurant whose owner has so many of your pieces, and I speak with every one of them. I let them tell me their stories of you. I tear up, but I don’t cry. All of them already know of your passing, even before I explain who I am. A mention of your name is all it takes. The entire neighborhood knows you. The entire neighborhood grieves for you.

And your art is everywhere. Everyone has not one piece but many. They decorate cash registers and hallways. They’re tucked onto shelves beside jars of honey. I see you everywhere, moments of your history, and each time, a pang echoes in my chest. Did you know, Dad, how beloved you are?

Every time I leave a shop and step into the sun, I look at the clouds, but I still haven’t seen what I’m searching for.

Friday, March 24

My chest hurts today, Dad. I’ve cried less, but I think that’s because my heart has finally decided to make room for this new weight I carry. Grief is a curious thing, a burden and a treasure. To carry it inside me means I’ve lost something I valued, and what a lovely thing it is, to have loved you and lost you. But losing you means grieving you, and grief, as it turns out, is a heavy thing. I feel lopsided now, three days into this new beginning. My limbs haven’t yet adjusted to this new reality. One day I’ll wake up and not notice that I’m walking normally again, that I’ve acclimated to this pain and my heart has shifted its contents to grow a room for this grief. But until then, I am wobbly on my feet and sore inside my chest.

Last night, when I could no longer stand the hospital smell seeping from your shoes (which we’d decided to donate), we set them outside next to the door, still in the plastic bag. In the morning when we go to leave, we realize someone has stolen them.

It plunges me into a fit of tears. I stand on the stoop and wail about your shoes and your jeans and your belt. Who would take your things? I sob. Who takes someone’s shoes? B hugs me to his chest and says, “Ash, you already went through that bag. There’s nothing valuable in it. We were donating it.”

“I know, but—”

“Think about it. What would your dad do if somebody asked him for his shoes and they really needed them? If they needed them enough to steal them? What would he do?”

I wipe my eyes. “He’d give them to him.”

But knowing this doesn’t make me feel better.

#

Today is the day we do things, Dad. We go to the bank to close out your account. We go to the post office to forward your mail. At each place, I show the paperwork I’ve gathered. Your death certificate and the paid bill from the funeral home. My name is on your death certificate, and because I took your last name as my middle name when I got married (as a gesture to you), we share a common thread. Finally, no one questions whether I’m your daughter.

#

Friday evening, we get the call and go to the funeral home. There’s a visitation taking place, so we slip through the door and make our way to the office, trying our best to stay out of sight. A young woman heads to a back room and returns with two boxes in a green velvet bag. She puts them on a table, opens the bag, and points at two envelopes taped to the top.

“These are really important, so you don’t want to lose them. It’s the permit in case you decide to scatter the cremains.”

Cremains? Is that really what they’re called? I hate all these words, Dad. But then again, I don’t know what else to say. Maybe the problem is that I simply don’t want to use any of them.

I thank her and hesitate. Then I pick up the bag and walk to the car. It doesn’t feel possible, that you are inside these two boxes. I feel detached again, far away, unable to process what’s happening. The boxes are so light and this grief so heavy, and it feels like everything should be the opposite of what it is.

The boxes should be heavy and I should be light. The boxes should be empty and you should be alive.

#

It is 9 p.m. when your neighbors call. They want to meet, and I put them off, but they call again. “Please,” they say. “We need to see you again.”

B and I get in the car and head back to your neighborhood. We park and go inside a bar, and find a table in the back. For two hours we sit with them as they tell us stories of you. I’m exhausted, but I understand why I must be here. I’m not the only one grieving.

Somewhere in the middle of the conversation, they ask, “Did you get the Star of David?”

I sit up straight. “Yes. It was in Dad’s wallet. Do you know what it means?”

“It was his father’s. He told us his dad used to carry it around, but he couldn’t remember why. It was really special to him, though. I’m glad you have it.”

I was meant to come here tonight, wasn’t I, Dad? To find the answer to this little mystery.

Saturday, March 25

How is it, Dad, that our hearts hold such a thing as grief inside our frail bodies, and still we go on with the business of existing? It has only been days since you passed, and yet, grief feels like a sharp-tipped creature inside my heart. One moment I’m fine, the next, I’ve moved in the wrong way, blinked, heard a snippet of something that triggers a memory, and there it is, stabbing into me. Only time will dull these edges.

Today feels like this. Dull with pain. After B and I settle the arrangements for the service at your church, B and I go to Gl’s house to drop off her half of the cremains. She invites us inside and serves us coffee, and you are everywhere inside her home. Every place on her wall is filled with your paintings. There is a large piece that takes up almost half of an entire wall. It’s a girl sitting on a chair, and the entire painting was done in shades of gold. You did this one during your time at Yale, and I want to take it home and put it in my house so that I can look at it every single day. But it doesn’t belong to me, and Gl is asking me something important.

She wants the cremains to stay together, Dad. As she asks, worry takes root inside my chest. I don’t know what to do. For days now, I’ve tried to navigate the divide that exists between your children’s faiths. Atheist and Catholic and non-denominational Christian and spiritual-without-a-label. That’s why I asked for everyone’s opinions on cremation versus burial without telling them what the others had answered. So that everyone would speak from their hearts. At the time, the answer was unanimous. But what to do now is not.

Gl is a small woman with shoulder-length silver hair and a softness that belies a fierce determination to gain the upper hand. In a way, I admire this about her, the way she’s able to tug the flow of the world to her wishes by manipulating only heartstrings. But I have Mom, C, and J to think about.

As she speaks, I learn that in some ways, Gl always considered you hers. Even now, she says, she was considering “getting back together” with you, though she never let on to you about it. I sit in her living room, surrounded by pieces of you, and remind myself that she is important to you, that you shared a life and years and children together. But you did the same with Mom and all of us. Surely one half of your life is no more important than the other.

When Gl is done, she leans in to better hear my answer, and I try to think of what to say. Your family in the South is expecting half of the cremains. I’ve promised them. I don’t know what to do.

The truth is, your faith was a complicated thing, Dad. You went to mass six days a week but didn’t join the church. You also spent time at a Buddhist monastery and threw the I Ching every day for most of your life. You kept your beliefs close to your heart, fed them with a continued drive to explore new opinions and directions, and raised us outside a church but inside your faith. You left no instructions on what to do when you passed, spoke only in fleeting terms about death, and believed that we should live simply and honestly in every way possible. I cannot reconcile Gl’s request—that your cremains be kept together at the church—alongside C and J and Mom’s desire to scatter their portion. We will have to find it in our hearts to compromise.

This is what I ask Gl to do. I tell her that I respect her faith and her wishes, and I ask gently if she can find a place in her heart for C and J and Mom’s wishes too.

She leans back in her chair and says, “Father P said that it would be okay if you divide them up, because Jesus knows what to do in situations like this.”

I want to touch her hand, but I can’t reach her across the table.

Later, I leave feeling conflicted. I cannot make everyone happy, Dad. All I can do is be as respectful as I can, and hope that it is enough.

#

There is not a way to end this letter, Dad, and that’s because this is not an ending. It is the beginning of a beginning, of my life without you. I honestly never thought this would come. Your death was an abstract thought, a fleeting breath of truth I never wanted to confront. But time is a wicked thing that always has her way, and once again, she has won.

All week, as I go about the motions of settling your life, I look at the clouds and am disappointed. When I was around twelve, you told me an Irish saying about death. When someone has passed away and you look at the clouds, watch for the sun. When it pours through the parting clouds in long golden beams, it means someone’s soul has been accepted into Heaven. I’ve tried to find this saying and never been able to, so I’ve no idea if you made it up or if I remember it incorrectly. But this is what I remember you telling me. I also know that it’s a silly thing, unprovable, a game of chance and luck to look upward at just the right moment. I cannot explain why I need to see it so badly. But that doesn’t stop me from looking at the clouds whenever I go outside.

It is only when I’ve finally settled all the details and head home that I see it. Somewhere amid the hours of the long drive, the clouds part. The sun pours itself over the road ahead, and guides us home.

Love always,

Ash

Dear Dad // No. 26: Slow Progressions of the Heart

Dear Dad,

Lately I find myself wondering about you. I can’t say why, but I feel you slipping. It’s little things, built upon one another as each day passes by in its slow progression.

Last night, I looked up your phone log to check the bill. My husband, B, and I pay your cell phone bill and mail you your groceries every month (thank God for the ability to do anything over the Internet). You’ve been complaining of a certain telemarketer recently, a man who calls and tries to convince you to buy airline tickets, to which you respond: “I don’t need an airplane! What would I do with an airplane?” As I glanced through the phone log, searching for the telemarketer’s number so that I could block it, I noticed our conversations recorded too. Six minutes here, ten minutes there…

As I scrolled over the page, I couldn’t help but feel how sad this was. It felt, even if it isn’t true, that our entire relationship had been boiled down to tiny increments of time that didn’t feel representative. Is that really how long we spoke? Only six minutes? Why did it feel like longer at the time?

Sometimes when we talk now, you don’t have much to say. You’re tired, and I can hear the wind in your voice, pulling at you from inside. It makes the back of my throat ache in that familiar way that happens when my emotions are about to get the better of me. On those days, I let you go sooner, not wanting to stress you. I hang up and wonder what you do after our call ends. If you sit in an empty apartment alone, or if you head to the coffee shop down the street for some company.

This is the image I have of you, Dad. The fact that you are alone consumes my thoughts of you. I picture you getting ready for bed at night in an empty apartment. I imagine you waking, tepid sunlight falling over your bed, and knowing that there isn’t another soul sharing your space with you.

I find your aloneness the most heartbreaking thing in the world. It crushes me. And yet, there is nothing I can do about it.

You speak often of how you would love to move in with J and C. You want nothing more than to see them again, and you tell me about this desire often. How much you miss your children. I listen to these things and try not to get emotional about it. I try to push the thoughts that plague me from my mind, and remind myself that my value is not predicated on anyone else but me. But inside I think: What about me? I’m your daughter too. Don’t you want to see me?

I cannot change your desire to live with J and C, and I wouldn’t want to. More than anything else, I want you to be happy. And if that happiness is not living with me, then I must work to accept that. In some ways, I wonder if this is how a parent feels when his or her child reaches adulthood and rushes out into the world. They aren’t the center of things. They’re on the sidelines, desperately waiting for their loved one to look back, wave, and say one more time, “I love you. I’m still here. I still want to be part of your life.”

You received an email recently from a woman who I didn’t know. I check your email for you and have for years now. (You don’t have a computer and don’t want one.) The email caught me by surprise. The subject read, For Signore C. Signore? Who has ever called you Signore? The letter was very brief, just a line or two, but the words were immensely intimate. Not in a romantic way, per se, but in a way that conveyed the thoughts of a conversation that had lingered in her mind long after you’d spoken with one another. Who is this woman? What did she mean by her words, so full of tenderness and hope? Her email felt like a secret I wasn’t supposed to know. I didn’t know whether to tell you about it, and admit that I’d read it, or let it go and pretend I’d never seen it. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I’d pressed my ear to a door and overheard something not meant for my ears.

And then, over the course of the next few days, I began to feel something else about the letter. Happy. After all this time, I’d been picturing you alone and empty. And maybe for a certain extent of your day you are alone, but the email is proof that at least for some portion, you aren’t. You have the company of this mysterious woman. Though I have no idea what your relationship is with her, it makes my chest swell with joy to think that you are not as alone as I had feared.

I cannot fix every problem, Dad. I cannot promise the telemarketer won’t call you back and try to sell a 79-year-old man with no money a set of plane tickets for a trip he doesn’t want to take. I cannot make J and C rent an apartment and move in with you. I cannot fit together all the pieces of our lives so that you never have to experience any pain or fear, and that fact breaks my heart.

Loving you right now feels like parenthood must feel. Like opening up the stitchings of my heart and holding myself open to the world, taking in the joyful and the painful in equal measure. It’s the little things that get to me, built upon one another as the day spans on, a slow progression of the head and the heart. But no matter how far away you roam—mentally, physically, all of the above—I will always be a short phone call away.

Love,

Ash

The Memory Letters Turns 1

Dear reader,

Today marks the one-year anniversary of this little experiment. One year ago, I was lost, in search of a way to understand the pain I couldn’t shake surrounding my dad’s stroke and the feelings it revived within me. I wanted to understand. To process. To move forward.

I never thought a single other person would read these words. I put them online solely because I thought that if I made a devoted space “out there” I would be pressured to maintain it, and thus, to write. But I honestly never pictured anyone else reading, and the thought of someone else reading really scared me. These were private thoughts, some of which I was ashamed to have, much less share with others. It was an immense leap to put them out in the world, but I’ve always believed that if something scares you, you should try it. Follow the impulse tugging at your heart and shed the fearful inhibition of habit. It’s not always easy, and it was not easy to do in this case either.

But one day I did it, and here you are.

If the counter on the sidebar is to be trusted, there are over 200 of you reading this journey. This blows my mind. That there are other people who have stopped to read a website without any pictures on it—in this day and age—is truly striking. So today I wanted to say:

Thank You. Really. From the bottom of my heart.

Writing about my family and our wild, twisting journey has been a painful, purifying joy. A year later, I am ever so grateful that I leapt when I was afraid to. I’m also thankful for the outpouring I’ve received. Comments, tweets, emails, messages. You have responded to my words with words of your own, and each time they have touched me. That you take time to respond to me, to ask how Dad is, and to tell me your own stories, is amazing. I know you could read and move on. Click the window closed and turn your attention back to work or the kids or that coffee you’re nursing, but you haven’t. You’ve reached out to me, and I want you to know that it’s meant the world to me.

I have learned a great deal about myself from this experience, and I’m sure that as I continue to write, I will learn a great deal more. Thank you for journeying with me. Let’s keep going, together.

– Ashley

Dear Dad // No. 25

Dear Dad,

It’s time I tell you about South Carolina. About the beginning, at least.

The first thing I remember noting about the South in October was how green it was. Trees everywhere. Everywhere. Sometimes it felt beautiful and sometimes it felt claustrophobic. I wanted to hop in the back of the van and drive to the ocean, but that was almost two hours away now. No longer could we decide on a whim to spend a day at the beach and be there, our toes burrowing into the sand, twenty minutes later. The closest thing we had was Lake Murray. Uncle F’s house was on the lake, in a quiet neighborhood with gigantic lawns and two-car garages. I’d get up in the morning and walk down the hill to the water, stand on the dock and watch the sunrise burn off the fog floating above the water. I felt like I was on a different planet.

It was cold in South Carolina, at the end of October. A few days after we moved it was Halloween. I decorated C and J’s faces with Aunt L’s makeup and helped them dress up. Then we walked around the neighborhood and trick-or-treated, our breath making little clouds in front of our mouths. I didn’t dress up that year. I felt sad deep in my heart, a sadness I now know was homesickness, but at the time I just couldn’t find the energy for dressing up. As it turned out, I never dressed up for Halloween again.

Eventually the weather turned even colder, and Uncle F and Aunt L brought me to a place called Burlington Coat Factory and bought me a real, heavy coat. I insisted on one at least two sizes bigger than I actually needed, for growing of course. That coat was so huge on me, I don’t think I’d fill it out now. But I was prepared for the growing I was sure I was going to do. Always, always prepared.

During the day Uncle F and Aunt A went to work and we hunted for a house. Mom and I scanned the classified ads in the newspaper and then the five of us climbed into an old, tiny Mercedes that Uncle F let us borrow. C, J and I sat on cream leather seats in the back, seat-belted in for the first time in our lives. I remember that we argued over being too close to one another. We couldn’t spread out, lie down on the floor and slide around when the car turned a corner. The car, the trees…everything constricted us from the beginning, in ways we weren’t prepared for.

The street signs in Columbia confused us. For a while we got lost, went round and round in neighborhoods we didn’t understand. Finally we realized that the street names were different on either side of the road. To the left would be one road and to the right another. That was just one of the many things we didn’t know about this new place we’d moved to. Other things we didn’t know:

That the barbecue was fluorescent yellow. They called it mustard barbecue and put down five plates of it at the first meal we ever ate in the South. Maurice’s BBQ, it was called. The five of us stared at the plates until finally J asked, “Why’s it that color?” Until then I thought barbecue was a dual-meaning word: cook on a grill outside and bathe some meat in something red and sweet. Not in Columbia it wasn’t.

We also didn’t know that there were no sidewalks, or when there were, they were only on one side of the road. J and I wondered from the back seat of the car one day, “Where does everyone ride their bikes?”

Or why all the businesses were in buildings that looked like houses instead of buildings that looked like, well, buildings. This bothered me for ages and ages for some reason.

Eventually though, we found a house. A Ranch, they called it, which meant it didn’t have stairs and was all on one level. White-painted brick with the biggest front and back yards we’d ever seen. You could have fit at least two San Diego houses on it, we guessed. Inside, the oven was in the wall—and green—and the stove was electric. In California, everyone had their water delivered each week in big plastic jugs, but here they just drank out of the tap, so there wasn’t a water container in the kitchen anymore. The living room walls had wood paneling, and while the house had sat empty some kids had broken in and carved a crude cartoon of a man smoking a joint into the wood. There were four bedrooms, which made us feel like kings. You took one bedroom for your studio. J, C and I all wanted our own rooms for the first times (before that we were constantly swapping who shared with whom), so I got a room and J got a room. My room was bigger, but there was a small hole in the hardwood floor that went straight to the outside. We turned the dining room into a bedroom for C by blocking it off from the family room (which Mom used as her studio) with Mom’s matt board bins. Of course you could still see over the top of the bins, but we used our imaginations.

I never did understand how C slept with her room like that. The door led right into the kitchen, where you and Mom spent all your time. Even across the house and down the hall, your arguments woke me. But somehow C always slept right through.

I want to tell you that we were happy in Columbia, Dad, but I don’t know that we ever were. The first day Mom drove me to school to enroll me at my new high school, we stepped out of Uncle F’s borrowed Mercedes just as the buses were pulling away. Mom and I paused as they passed and just as the last one curled away from us, a boy opened the window and called out at the top of his lungs, “CUNTS!”

Mom and I froze.

“Well,” Mom said after a beat.

We’ll never know if the boy was directing his commentary to us or someone else (or, I suppose, it could have been a cry to the general universe at large). Either way, this came to represent the entirety of my experience at my new high school. The guidance counselors chaffed at Mom’s request for me to use the same last name I’d had at my last high school—your last name—even though it wasn’t my legal name. Mom put on her usual sales pitch, but it failed. From hence forth, I was no longer Ashley C. I was Ashley W.

There were other problems, too, like what to do with my history credit. South Carolina taught all their freshman South Carolina history their first year of high school, while I had been taking World History in California. That wasn’t taught in SC until sophomore year. Then there was math. What to do about my math class, which they weren’t sure translated to a class they had. After much deliberation, it was decided that I would be a year ahead in history and a year behind in math. Just like that, Ashley C was gone.

We tried to settle in, Dad. You painted every day, Mom took the borrowed Mercedes to work in the morning and returned at night. C, J and I rode the bus to and from school for the first times in our lives. At school, I tried to remember to write my name as Ashley W instead of Ashley C, and the more I wrote it the more I wondered about it. On the weekends we went to Uncle F’s house and went out on the lake in his boat, which wasn’t the same as the ocean but was nice all the same. We tried for a while, Dad. But then, the threads came apart.

Looking back on it, I don’t think it was one thing. I think it was many things, many, many things, all pulling us apart at once. I’ll start with myself.

I don’t think any of us were prepared for how lonely it would be, away from everything we knew. Or maybe it was just you and me and Mom. I don’t remember C and J having such trouble adapting like the three of us did.

C’s adorable smile and bubbly, outgoing personality helped her gather friends like clouds, opening her arms to the sky and hugging them to her chest. And J’s natural humor buoyed him into the popular of the popular in no time at all. But me. I didn’t know what to do with myself. At school the kids asked me why I wasn’t tall or tan or anything like the girls they thought California produced. Why the heck was my chest so flat? Had I had a nose job? What celebrities had I met? Why did I say “guys” no matter the gender of the group? Did I know I was a Yankee even though I was from California? Everyone not from the South was a Yankee I was told, fiercely, when I debated this fact with someone in my English class. Suddenly I had taken on an entire persona I hadn’t been prepared for.

I took to spending my lunches in the library, where I wasn’t technically allowed to eat, so I hid my sandwich in my lap and tore off bites when the librarian wasn’t watching me out of the corner of her eye. I sped through my Biology textbook that way, reading far ahead of the class and circling back to the chapters the class was studying just to remind myself of the material before the test. I set the curve that year. Some kids even argued in front of the teacher about which one of them should have the right to be my lab partner. Everyone thought it was because I was good at Bio, when really it was because I was too shy to talk to anyone and holed myself up in the library rather than risk saying “barbecue” when everyone was talking about grilling burgers.

At home, Mom and I started arguing over everything. Little things, big things. I didn’t know how to find the words, and the bravery, to tell you how lonely I was. Instead I balled it all inside and let it come out in little gasps, little teenage bursts that caught Mom by surprise. You responded by doubling your strictness on me, thinking all I needed was to be reminded of my place to stop my sudden rebellion. You mandated that I would be the one to get C and J up in the mornings and get them ready for school. I’d help C get dressed and make sure J showered. I made their breakfasts and lunches and then cleaned up the kitchen from the previous night’s cooking and drinking. When all of this was done and C and J were ready, I’d wake you up and you’d dress and drive them to the elementary school.

You and Mom fought constantly over the rules you put on me. But you were adamant that I was older, and therefore, I needed the responsibility. C and J were younger. That was that. It was entirely fair that J and C should have no rules, no curfews or chores, because of their age. It was hard not to feel like I was in the wrong when I complained about it, because you really and truly saw it this way. You were not being unfair, as Mom argued you were over and over again. By giving me the responsibilities, you were being fair, because of my age. How could we not see that? you said.

And yet, whenever I walked away, I heard Mom whisper to you, in the dark of the kitchen. Whisper that maybe it was because I wasn’t yours. Maybe you gave me all of these chores and nothing to your two other children because I was that dirty word we never spoke. The word we pretended didn’t exist, except when I wrote my new name. I was a stepchild. And not even a real stepchild, because you had never formally adopted me. I was the fatherless child.

Over time, I found my own way to cope with the stress of our new life. With the silence at school and the screaming fights you and Mom had each night (often over me and your strictness toward me) as you drained bottle after bottle into your glasses. Because every morning, as I stood in front of the metal sink, brimming with a kitchen’s worth of dishes, I found relief in a bottle too. My reward to myself after finishing all those dishes and rinsing the suds clean was in every one of the wine bottles and beer cans you and Mom had left half-empty on the counter. As C and J ate their breakfasts at the counter behind me, I tipped each bottle up into the air and let the remaining alcohol glug out the top, straight down the drain. One after another after another after another. Every single morning.

I can still feel it today, the relief that welled within me as I watched the red wine swirl down into the dark of the drain. I knew you would be furious. I knew Mom would be furious. And I didn’t care.

This went on for a while. Some mornings there were fewer bottles than others. Some mornings there was very little to pour out, just a little sediment in the bottom of the bottle, a little foam from the beer cans. But other mornings it was bottle after bottle, some only a glass or two removed from being full. It didn’t matter. Unless you or Mom had remembered to put the cork back in them, down they went. Down, down, down, filling me up, up, up with every one.

It was Mom who finally exploded about it. Her job hadn’t lasted long, and we’d been doing art shows again, renting a van on the weekends and driving to places like Savannah, Georgia, and St. Simon’s Island. Our relationship had slowly deteriorated, swirled down the drain with our dual unhappiness. I didn’t know how to tell her how lonely and homesick I was, and she didn’t know how to interpret her daughter’s growing inwardness. Somewhere along the way Mom had discovered gin and tonics and menopause, and the two of us broke like a piece of fragile fine china on a concrete floor. The morning she burst into the kitchen, the tail of her robe flying like a cape behind her, was surprising not only for the way she entered—like a tornado about to upend the place—but because after our move Mom started sleeping in every day to recover from the late nights you and her always had. We never saw her until we got home from school. So the morning she burst into the kitchen, already shouting as the door swung open, caught every one of us by true surprise.

We had it out that morning, Dad. You, me, Mom. The three of us just screamed and screamed. And yet, all of that screaming happened, and I don’t think any of us understood each other any more than we had before.

The alcohol was the first straw, Dad, but the night I babysat for Uncle F is what broke us.

It was late in the school year when it happened. Uncle F and Aunt L are both violinists and were playing in the orchestra for The Nutcracker, I believe. It was a school night, and I had a test the next day. I stayed at their house and watched my two little cousins, and at some point, midnight, twelve-thirty-ish, Uncle F dropped me off at home. He apologized for keeping me out so late, and paid me, and that’s when you came storming out of the house through the open garage door.

For some reason I remember the stars. It was so clear that night, so clear and the sky so black. Black as ink overturned out of a bottle, spotted with flecks of stars. I’d never seen you move that way—so, so fast—storming out of the house and straight into Uncle F’s face. I had my books in my hands and my backpack on my shoulder, and I tried to get between you two and tell you that it was okay, that I was okay, but still you screamed at him—

“How dare you bring my daughter home at this hour! How dare you—”

You were upset over me. For me. About me. But not at me. I remember shoving myself between you and Uncle F, shocked by your ferocity to the point that I couldn’t find my breath, and yet also a tiny bit touched. You’d called me your daughter. You were concerned for me. It was sweet. And then you threatened to break Uncle F’s legs.

It wasn’t a threat you meant. Anyone who knew you also knew that this was a catchphrase of sorts, a joke from your childhood growing up in an Italian family with members of the mob. This was old Italian slang bubbling up in you. And I knew you didn’t mean it, but I worried Uncle F wouldn’t understand.

Somewhere in there the neighbors had woken. Lights turned on as you and Uncle F stood nose to nose and shouted at one another. I tried to worm my way between you again, and you said, “Move, Ash,” and you swiped your arm and then I blinked and I was on the ground.

The grit from the driveway stuck to my palms, like bits of coarse-ground cornmeal almost. I looked up at you and wondered if you really would hit Uncle F. Wondered what had happened to make me hit the ground like I had. Had I tripped? Had you pushed me? I remember your arm, and your words, and the slurring of your voice from the alcohol on your breath, and then just the ground, without any in between.

You and Uncle F never fought, physically at least. Uncle F drove away, and so began years and years of utter silence between our families. Uncle F took the borrowed Mercedes back, and we started walking everywhere we needed to go. We emptied our backpacks whenever we went to the grocery store, so that we could fill them up with food for the walk home. We didn’t go back to Uncle F’s lake or take the two-hour drive to the beach. We constricted ourselves to that white brick house and yard. We didn’t need those trees or a tiny car with seat belts to do that. We did it to ourselves.

One day, a furniture catalog for Ethan Allen showed up in the mailbox. It had been delivered to the wrong house, but I took it inside straight to my room. I’d never seen anything like it. I sat on my bed and flipped slowly through the glossy pages one by one. Is this really what people’s houses looked like inside? All these carefully arranged pieces of furniture? Rooms with paneling minus the joint-smoking carvings in the walls? Hardwoods without holes? Couches that weren’t picked up from a pile someone had discarded next to their mailbox, their histories unknown? Mom loved converting other people’s trash into her treasure, but all I ever saw was our poverty. I never could get over it.

The back cover was a single photograph of a chair. Just a chair, nothing more. A purple, plush armchair with smooth, rounded edges and tufted back. I fell in love in an instant. I’d never seen such a gorgeous creation in my entire life. Somehow I convinced myself that a chair like that would mean that life was okay. That we were normal and our house was normal and everything that happened within our walls was normal. Because to have a chair like that in your house, you’d have to be normal. You’d have to be something that looked entirely different than what we were.

I still have that catalog, tucked away somewhere in a box in the attic. I don’t look at it, but I know it’s there. In a way, that’s just like this time in our lives. We don’t talk about it, but it’s there all the same. The day after your fight with Uncle F, you and Mom called me into the kitchen and you told me that you hadn’t pushed me that night. I must have fallen. You would never push me, you said. You loved me.

I listened to you talk, with Mom hovering so close by, and I thought about what had happened that night under that impenetrably dark sky. I don’t know, still to this day, whether you pushed me that night or not. And honestly, Dad, you were so drunk that I don’t know if you would have known either. But I know that you meant what you said the next day. You loved me, and you would never, knowingly, hurt me.

I have spent an immeasurable amount of time since that day trying to remember what exactly happened in the moment that I went from standing between you to lying on the ground. I want to remember it, like I remember everything else about that night. But I can’t. Whatever happened is gone, buried somewhere deep and inaccessible. I have wondered what it would change if I remembered the event in its entirety. Now the question is null and void, because you don’t remember this event at all. It’s been washed clean by the stroke, and with it, I’ve been given a permission of sorts to make the night whatever I need it to be, for myself.

So this is what I’ve decided, Dad.

I have decided that this was a dark night. It was a night in which things happened that I don’t fully understand. A night in which we changed the course of our lives in Columbia. It was a night in which you hurt me in the same breath that you admitted truths you otherwise wouldn’t speak. And in doing so, you gave me something to cling to.

When I think about these years now, Dad, I want so badly to reach my hands down into this clay we call our lives and pluck out all the bits of brokenness that stab and scratch us. I want to mold us into something with smooth, rounded edges. Something with soft colors and a voice that has no cause for screaming. Something that loves without need for forgiveness. Something that looks entirely different than what we are.

But this isn’t possible. I know this now. You must love all the roughness, all the tears and wrinkles and abnormalities, the muddled history that you don’t understand or even know, because this is what makes us who we are. And even though I knew that then, Dad, I didn’t want to hear it. I wanted to stare at the gentle curve of that purple chair, let slip the confusion in my mind over nights and mornings I didn’t understand, and dream.

Love,

Ash

Dear Dad // No. 24

Dear Dad,

It’s cold here now, and where you are too. The air shivers and frost coats the kale sprouting from a pot in my backyard. Another year has begun, and when we talk, you are happy.

This time last year, you had trouble remembering my name. Each time I called I reintroduced myself, and you said, “Oh, yes, Ashley. Yes.” Your voice was soft with disuse. Now you sound just as I remember you, as if the stroke never happened. You are moving on, while the rest of us remember.

I picked up a book recently without realizing the subject matter, only that it was published by an editor whose opinion I value. In the opening pages, the main character, an older man, has a stroke and wakes with no memories of his previous life. I almost put it down. I did, in fact, put the book down in my lap and stared at it for a long while, wondering if I wanted to keep reading. But the writing was very good, and having lived this with you, I was curious how the author had portrayed this journey.

At one point the man says that his memory is like a faucet. There are days when the trickle of knowledge is swift, bursting through some invisible barrier like water from a broken dam. And there are days when it’s slow, just a drop or two. I thought this was very apt. Some days you remember we had two dogs and lived in California and a whole host of factual information. Other days you ask me if I’m married and have children and you speak my name slowly, coaxing only abstract impressions forward through an unseen veil.

I want to ask you things while there is still time. Yet lately, you want to do all the talking. When I call (or you call me!), our conversations consist mostly of me listening to you rush through your words so quickly I have trouble discerning them. It’s as if you’ve been storing it up for a winter day, and now that day is here and out it rushes, before the tap freezes up. I let you talk without interruption, partially because I like to hear you so excited and partially because I must be an incredibly active listener to ferret out what you’re trying to convey. The conversation concludes without my saying much at all. You end up slightly winded, your words fumbling as your brain grows tired. I tell you I love you and you say, “Oh, I love you too, dear. Take care, take care.”

I’ve been struggling with what to tell you next in these stories we’re sharing. Do I tell you about how we left California and never returned? How much everything changed after we left? About how the I-Ching warned us not to and we did it anyway, defying it for the first and only time that I can remember? I think I’m struggling because I’ve liked revisiting California in my mind. Because I’m not yet ready to be done with the sunshine and warmth. The rhythm that our lives took on when we settled into our second home there, on a cul-de-sac not far from my middle school.

I could tell you about how your younger brother, F, and his wife, R, took us to Disneyland once, giving you and Mom a very rare day to yourselves. C and J were young; I was in eighth grade. I felt like I was five again. We spent the whole day going from ride to ride, eating whatever we wanted. It was so utterly indulgent, the spectacle of it all. J and I rode Space Mountain together, and I can still remember the feeling of his little body pressed against mine as the ride roared through the darkness. We were both hovering on the edge of sheer terror and delight, screaming and laughing in the same breath. I think at one point J yelped to me that we were going to float away, right into those neon lights swirling in the air around us. It was heady and fantastical.

I could tell you of the time you took C, J and me to a park. We never went to parks; we went to the beach or the pool a family friend had in his neighborhood and gave us the key to. I remember that it was beautiful outside, and that the park was filled with trees so tall I could barely see the tops when I craned back my head. There was a long brick wall that ran around the circumference, and in a moment of daring, I climbed atop it and pretended I was a tightrope walker. One foot in front of the other, arms out wide. You called to me that I should get down, as if you were giving me a suggestion. “You keep doing that,” you called out, “and you’re gonna fall.” You didn’t order me to get down; you just conveyed what would happen if I didn’t. So I kept going. And I fell. I nursed my skinned knee all the way back to the house, but it was your “I told you so” that bothered me the most.

I could tell you of the time you slept on the bottom bunk instead of C, who must have been sick and sleeping with Mom (I can’t remember, and my childhood diary omits this detail). The bunk beds C and I shared had cardboard under the mattresses, a fact I never once questioned until my husband, B, pointed it out when we were in high school. He couldn’t believe C, J and I had spent our entire lives sleeping on mattresses supported by single sheets of cardboard resting on a center wooden slat. C and I shrugged. What else would beds be made of? Besides, the cardboard had its advantages. We liked to lie together on the bottom bunk and rest our feet on it, to test how high we could raise the mattress above by straightening our knees and pressing upward with all our might.

Over the years, the cardboard became soft, and it crinkled when I moved. The night you slept with me was so warm I couldn’t get comfortable. I kept flopping from side to side, not thinking anything about the mattress and the cardboard until you shrieked, “Jeez Louise, Ash! Stay still already.”

A few hours later, you woke to find me standing atop my chest-of-drawers, turning all my dolls backward on the shelves on the walls. I hated to have them stare at me at night, unblinking eyes piercing through the darkness. The dolls found me in my dreams, and always in horrible, violent ways. Cutting and stabbing and chasing me. So whenever I woke from one of these dreams, I climbed down the bunk bed and turned the dolls to face the other way. C never woke whenever I did this, but you did, that night.

You told Mom sometime later that I’d been sleepwalking, which she filled out on my paperwork for a weeklong sleep-away camp I attended that year. The camp counselor announced unceremoniously (and exceptionally loudly, in my opinion) in front of the entire population of girls in my class that I could not sleep on the top bunk because my parents had marked on my forms that I was a habitual sleepwalker. Every eye in that bungalow turned on me in the same moment. I stood with my bare feet on the chilly cement floor as my mind rushed back to my bedroom and the night you’d found me perched atop the furniture, and the entire sequence of events played out in my mind: me flopping on the mattress, you yelling for me be still, me climbing down from the top bunk to rid myself of those horrendous eyes, your report to Mom and the fateful conclusion that your eldest daughter must spend her nights reorganizing her dolls while the rest of the world slumbered.

What could be worse? Being branded a sleepwalker and publicly denied access to the top bunk, or admitting in front of a room full of popular girls whose friendship I desired more than a lifetime’s supply of mint chocolate chip ice cream that I, Ashley of Two Last Names, was afraid of dolls with beady glass eyes?

I spent the rest of middle school with a reputation as a habitual sleepwalker, all because of the night you and I shared a room together.

Now, all these years later, I laugh at this story. I think of the dolls and the sound of the cardboard groaning and your voice as you called up to me from below. How ironic it was that I should be known at school as the girl who couldn’t sleep on the top bunk only to go home at night and climb up the wooden slats to my little perch above the world.

I didn’t want to leave California, Dad, and neither did you. You threw your pennies and read your I-Ching passage, and we all knew what you thought of the plan. Moving east wasn’t what you wanted to do, but you did it, when the time came. The art shows were drying up, slowly but surely. Life was shifting, as it always does when we’re too busy looking the other way.

This move happened differently than before. We rented out half the space in an 18-wheeler truck and had it delivered to the house, where it clogged up the entire driveway and stuck out into the cul-de-sac more than was polite. It took us days to jigsaw puzzle our belongings into it. We packed it ourselves, with the occasional help of a neighbor. Finally we got everything in, right up to the line we weren’t allowed to cross. Another family had rented out the other half of the truck. Their stuff would be delivered before ours; they weren’t moving as far away as we were.

Mom and her brother, F, arranged for our plane tickets, which I think F bought for us if I remember correctly. He had offered Mom a job working at his business in Columbia, SC, and that’s why we were leaving San Diego as far as I understood it. The need for a steady paycheck had finally won out. We sold our van, the one without back seats, to a Hispanic man. When I asked you what he was going to do without back seats, you told me you didn’t know and it didn’t really matter. It wasn’t our van anymore.

On the day it was determined that I should withdraw from school, you dropped me off at the office a little while after classes had started. I can’t remember why it was determined that I would check myself out of school or why you or Mom didn’t need to be there with me. But whatever the reason, this was the mission I’d been deposited at my school one morning to fulfill. I would’ve been in PE at that time normally. I was fourteen years old, closing in on fifteen. I was in the ninth grade, my first year of high school. It was the end of October. We’d lived in San Diego for a little over two years this time around, give or take. Just long enough to get settled again.

The receptionist at the front office gave me a form and told me I’d have to walk around to all my classes and have my teachers sign it. I pressed it to my chest and asked if there was any other way, could they sign it some other time? Walking into every one of my classrooms during hours in which I was clearly not supposed to be present in that class was just about the most horrendous thing I could imagine. But the receptionist told me that this was what had to happen. So I did it.

It happened the same way each time. I pulled open the door and every eye looked up in unison, the teacher’s voice hanging mid-sentence, her thought interrupted by my sudden, unexplained, appearance. Some of the classes were occupied by older students, though it made little difference. Everyone watched with rapt, torturous attention as I hurried, head down, cheeks red as the scorching surface of the sun, past their desks to where the teacher stood. The room fell achingly silent as I handed her the single sheet of paper and explained in the quietest voice I could muster that my family was moving and could she please sign this paper so that the school could release my records when I re-enrolled somewhere else? I felt sure that my classmates were listening and heard every word, and even surer that they were not the least bit surprised. A good portion of my previous middle school in LA thought I was currently living in Oregon. Half of these students knew me from our first round of life in San Diego, half from the present. I was the girl who came and went. Now I was going again.

Humiliation complete, I left, bursting into the still morning air and gasping down breath after breath before walking to the next classroom to do it all again. All the time I wondered if this was how these things were normally done. If you and Mom were busy doing this at C and J’s elementary school too. If we were all simultaneously withdrawing ourselves from the lives we’d built since returning from LA.

I went to my art class last. By then I’d learned, after seven previous classrooms, that it was marginally easier to do this when I knew the classroom would be filled with students in my own grade level. At least I knew the kids who’d be staring at me. But this class was a year older, sophomores. Not upperclassmen, but older and wiser than my freshman self. A quiet art classroom is not a normal occurrence, in my experience, but when I opened that door and stepped into the room, an instantaneous hush fell over the entire place. I did what I’d come to do, head bowed so low my chin cut into my chest, and headed for the door.

That’s when I heard it. A little giggle, embarrassed almost. I looked up. One of my hands held the paper I’d just completed, setting me free from schooling in the state of California, and the other gripped the doorknob. Two boys were laughing, watching me. I recognized one of them immediately. He was our neighbor from our first house in San Diego, a boy a year older than me. He and I had spent summers riding our bikes in never-ending circles around the cul-de-sac because I wasn’t allowed to bike up and down the main street. We walked to the 7Eleven for red Slurpees and watched Blue Angels fighter jets do drills through the hot summer sky. I hadn’t seen him in ages. As our eyes met, he blushed and slapped the chest of the boy next to him.

“This guy,” he said. “This guy thinks you’re pretty.”

My eyes slid over to the boy he’d slapped. I’d never seen him before. He had kind eyes though, and brown hair, and wore a letter jacket. That’s all I could tell from the half-second glance I allowed myself before the heat of everyone’s gazes tore through me. An entire classroom now waited to see what I’d say to such a public pronouncement from a boy I clearly didn’t know.

And as I looked at this boy, I felt a kind of sadness wash through me, like I was saying goodbye to a future I’d never get to experience. Perhaps this would have never happened. Perhaps this boy and I wouldn’t have ever met if I’d never been in this room on this morning, un-enrolling myself from a school I’d grown fond of. But perhaps it would have. As our eyes met over the heads of the other students, I saw what might have been: the proms and the dances, the football games and trips to Dog Run beach together. To first dates I didn’t feel quite ready to go on, but was curious about nonetheless. To having a boy acknowledge me for the first time in my life, only to have to say goodbye to him in the same breath in which we’d met. Perhaps all of this, and perhaps none too.

I blinked and clasped the door, pushed it open, and smiled at him. And as I walked down the hall, I heard the whoops and hollers of the boys (“She smiled! She smiled!”) and I wondered if he would try to find out who I was, only to learn that I was already gone.

Signatures procured, I went back to the office and dialed home. I leaned against the counter as I waited for you to answer so I could tell you I was done dismantling the pieces of my life I’d so diligently assembled over the past few years. My old Spanish teacher walked past, did a double take when he saw me, and stopped to inquire why I was standing in the office at such an hour. Was I okay?

I explained that I was withdrawing myself from school because my family was moving, to which he nodded a few times, with genuine understanding in his eyes, and said “Good luck” as he shook my hand. I watched him walk away, confused about this. Did we need luck? Is that why we were moving again, to somewhere so far away and that I couldn’t picture? Maybe that’s what we were always searching for and why we couldn’t find it. Maybe luck only finds you when you stop chasing it, and we were forever, forever chasing.

You picked me up at the front of the school right where you’d dropped me off, and we left together, just as we’d arrived. A few days later, we left California for good. All told, we lived there for six years. It was the longest I ever lived in a single state in my entire childhood. In fact, it would take me until I was 29 to break that record.

California seems like ages ago now, distanced by time and space. It was a tough life. We didn’t have a lot. We lived show to show, week to week, painting sale to painting sale. We hit our heads and cried and fought and screamed so loud it’s a wonder we didn’t wake the neighbors (or maybe we did). We sold your work to Rodney Dangerfield and the VP of Disney and some people who had something to do with a movie called Total Recall that I was too young to care about. We danced in the living room when the Hollywood Studio Gallery bought some of your paintings and put them on set designs for shows like Murder, She Wrote and Brotherly Love and Sister, Sister. I took you to school with me and you showed slides of your work to my class, and I watched you flip through the projections one at a time as you droned on in your prized professorial voice about art history facts too archaic for my classmates to care, and still I burst with pride because, look, look at how smart my dad is! Look at what he does with his hands and his eyes and his mind! He makes these beautiful things, and then we sell them, and that alone is how we live in this world. Through your talent and Mom’s tenacity, we survived for years in this place that was bathed in perpetual sunshine. It didn’t matter how many times we picked up and left or who dismantled what. When it came down to it, we did it all together, as a family. We were forever chasing something we couldn’t find—luck, recognition, prosperity, adventure, love—and now it was time to chase it somewhere new.

So now, I’m left wondering how to encapsulate a place that I know I’ve built up inside my head over the years. I’ve opened the tap and let it sometimes trickle and sometimes flow, and I worry that somewhere in there I’ve forgotten things. I worry that there are so many Perhapses that I’ve left out, so many moments you deserve to know and that my forgetfulness is denying you. I can only promise that if I have done this, I’ll come back to them again. We can visit this place together as often as we like, and we can think about the good things and the interesting things and all the Perhapses that Might Have Been. We’ll give new meaning to old memories, and new meaning to old words. We’ll open the tap and let the past flow forth. And when it slows to just a trickle, we’ll let it be, knowing that soon there will be new goodness flowing forth, new Perhapses to discover, and more memories to share anew.

Love,

Ash

Dear Dad // No. 23

Dear Dad,

I’ll admit right away that I didn’t think you’d call. But you did. You always defy my expectations, and for the most part I am always happy that you do.

I was sitting on the floor of our living room, catching a few minutes break from cooking Thanksgiving dinner as an episode of Modern Family played on the TV, when my phone buzzed. I took it from my pocket and looked at the screen. DAD, it read. I let out a little gasp of joy and proclaimed to the room, “It’s my dad!” before jumping to my feet and heading to another room.

You were so excited that you barely let me speak. You went on and on about how thrilled you were to have a telephone again, how your friends had taught you how to call me using the speed dial setting I’d preprogrammed into the phone, how wonderful it was and what a help I’d been. I finally asked where you were, to which you said without hesitation, “Oh I’m at the bar.”

“Oh, okay,” I said. What else was there? I was immediately saddened that it was Thanksgiving Day and there you were in a bar (and of course I pictured some sad, forlorn character from a movie, sitting under dim lights as wafts of cigarette smoke float through rays of sunlight pouring through dusty windows). But then I became torn. Had you not been at the bar, you wouldn’t have enlisted the help you needed to call me.

And so on that day, Dad, I was thankful for once that you were “at the bar.”

You called me again on Saturday, just to chat. It took four tries before you realized you were actually dialing me and that I was actually there, but then you got the hang of it. You’d called to ask me if we’d ever had a dog.

“Yes, yes!” I practically shrieked. Not only were you calling me, but you remembered something too? Could this holiday actually be this special? And so it was that I spent a half hour or so on Saturday, November 29, 2014, telling you about Hope.

She came to us when I was in the eighth grade and we lived in our second house in San Diego, the one with the sunny kitchen and no living room. I’d begged for a dog for ages, often sneaking away from our booth at art shows to spend my breaks with a potter who traveled with her splendidly large Great Pyrenese, a dog who looked more like a walking oversized cotton ball than anything else. Up until this point we’d always been a cat family—cats and fish. You liked to keep aquariums, which you believed one should do in their most natural state, which really meant that you cleaned it only after the water grew so murky you couldn’t see anything. You’d taped a razor blade to the end of a scrap of wood, and once the tank got to its greenest, murkiest point, you’d scrape the razor blade down the side of the glass, peeling off sheets of slime that disappeared into the water filter. It always felt a little like you were unearthing something new, as if we’d traded our old aquarium for a new one—oh, look! Fish!

But as much as I begged for a dog, we never got one. They were expensive and took more work to care for than our cats. But then one day I came home from school and there she was, a beautiful red head sitting in our kitchen. I remember that it was gorgeous outside that day, and C, J and I took a tennis ball and went out front into the cul-de-sac and threw the ball for her. She never wanted to give it back to us, so each time she returned we had to wrestle it from her mouth, which somehow only made us love her even more. She was a 90-pound Golden Retriever named Hope, and she was just what we needed.

At night we fought over who she would sleep with. C and J shared a room at this point, C on the bottom bunk and J on the top. They’d beg you to make Hope stay in their room, and you’d command her to lie down with C in her bed. Like the good dog that she was, Hope obliged. And after a few minutes, when you’d walked back to the kitchen to sip your wine and entertain Mom with your singing and philosophical musings while she cooked, Hope would hop out of C’s bed and make her way down the hall to my room instead. She’d curl up beside me atop the comforter and shimmy her velvety head onto my pillow. I’d press my forehead into her fur and breathe in the smell of her—soft and warm and comforting, with a tinge of earthiness. Then I’d roll onto my back and watch the moon crest through the night sky as Hope snored softly beside me.

And so it was that Hope became my dog. She was our family dog, of course, but there was something about the two of us. We gave each other our hearts, through and through. There was an understanding between us, a tugging closer of souls who recognize something within each other that they’d been searching for, like I’d imagined falling in love felt like. Hope waited for me at the front door every day, so that when I turned the corner as I walked home from school, I could see her there, behind the screen door. At night I took her for walks around the neighborhood, often after dark, often the tiniest bit scared because I hated the dark and the way it never failed to make me think of my dreams, the dark kitchen and the hole I always fell down.

You even remembered the second dog we adopted, a black-and-white shih tzu named Oreo a family friend gave us one day when I was in high school. Oreo wasn’t house-trained—or anything trained, really—and we hadn’t had to train Hope at all. She’d come to us with that part of dog ownership already completed. But we didn’t really end up training Oreo; Hope did it for us. And Oreo became Mom’s dog, the one who she snuggled with at night on her side of the bed. I used to whisper all my secrets to Hope, knowing she would never tell, and I wondered sometimes if Mom did the same to Oreo. Mom and I both found what we needed in those two dogs. Love and devotion and companionship, no matter what happened. These dogs didn’t know about Disneyland or wine or gin and tonics and beer. They only knew the soft bends of our pillows and the way we held them when we needed to feel the warmth of something we loved near our hearts.

You and I only talked about the good things about Hope and Oreo, Dad. You mentioned at the end of the conversation, briefly, that they’d died, and then you moved on. It had never been that easy for me though. Hope’s death was one of the hardest moments of my life. The way the cancer came, fast and sudden, eating clean through her wrist bone on her front right paw, so that when the vet flipped on the light to show me the X-ray I burst into horrible sobs right there in the office. There was nothing there, Dad. Just an absence where there should have been bone connecting her leg to her paw. On the day that it ended, I couldn’t get Hope to walk through the door into the vet’s office. I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that she knew what she was there for. The fact that she refused to walk through the door made my heart shatter. She wasn’t ready, but her body was. I was sobbing already and couldn’t get her to move, and so you came back out and helped me carry her in. There were some people there, paying for something at the register, and their eyes filled with pity when they saw her, which only broke my heart even further. I didn’t want people to see my glorious dog this way. I wanted them to see how beautiful she once was, red hair rippling as she ran, the soft velvet of her ears and her smile when she’d found a long-lost tennis ball.

When the vet came into the room, she asked if I was ready. “No, yes, no,” I said. One is never ready for things like that. One knows it’s the right thing to do, that your beloved pet is in constant, excruciating pain that she tries to hide from you, but one cannot make this decision with any ease. I’d prayed for two weeks that she would fade away, comfortable and calm, in her sleep. But that didn’t happen, and here we were, making a decision we didn’t want to make.

When she fell to sleep, just as the vet said she would, I burst into renewed tears and reached to touch her, but stopped. Her body was there, but it was lifeless, and there was something intensely missing about it.

“Where did she go?” I asked aloud without thinking.

“Oh, Ash,” Mom sobbed, wrapping her arms around me.

I cried for a long time, there in front of her. You left the room. I don’t think you could see me like that. My then-boyfriend (now husband), B, buried Hope at his parents house at the foot of the woods, wrapped in her favorite Little Mermaid sleeping bag, which was once my sleeping bag. I had gifted it to her when we adopted her, because she loved it so. She used to carry it around the house, moving it from room to room with her. There is a little plaque at her grave, a gift from B’s parents. It says Hope on it, and a little bird adorns the edge.

To this day, I haven’t forgiven myself for Hope’s death. It’s as if there should’ve been more I could’ve done to save her. Anything I could’ve done to save her. When I was young, I’d told myself that this moment wouldn’t happen, that Hope would “live forever” because that’s what she had to do, for me. I needed her to do that, and that day at the vet’s office, she tried to fulfill that wish for me. She tried to resist, to live forever. And yet, life doesn’t work like that.

There are some statements we make because it feels like pronouncing them into the air, out loud, wills them into Truth. Where there was nothing before, there are now our words, creating the reality we seek.

Things will get better.

The universe will provide.

It is only one night.

He loves me the same as he loves them.

This is my name too.

Hope will live forever.

But we didn’t talk about these things on the phone that day. We talked only of the good. Of the drives we took to the beach, finally joining the other beach walkers with their dogs. Hope racing down the hard, wet sand, her red hair shining in the sunlight, and the other dogs racing with her. They ran into the surf and bounded through the waves. We built sand castles that she walked through, knocking over the turrets and licking our faces, salty with sea water, as we protested. We lay on the floor in the back of the van as we drove home, her fur drying in spindly curls until we got home and gave her a bath with the hose in the front yard, still in our bathing suits.

We talked of how she used to open her presents at Christmas, tearing the wrapping paper off with her teeth. Of how she once opened one of C’s presents by accident, she was so excited to receive her gift. How she and Oreo would lay on the floor together and lick each others faces before snuggling together, the best of friends. We talked of what good dogs we’d had, because it was so very true. And on that wonderful Thanksgiving Day, we shared memories together once again, and gave thanks to a cell phone, spanning the long miles between us, and tugging them closer together for one special afternoon. We gave thanks, to each other and to memories, the thing that we share together.

Perhaps this is how things live forever, Dad. You, me, Mom, C, and J. Hope and Oreo. This is how we live on, even past our times, through the sharing of memories with words. Pronouncing them into the air, out loud, and willing them into Truth. Where there was nothing before, there are now our words, living forever onward, pulling us from the fragile wisps of memory into something real.

Love,

Ash

Dear Dad // No. 22

Dear Dad,

Three weeks ago, you moved out. Found yourself an apartment and moved your meager belongings into it, leaving GC behind. When I called her home, she informed me that you were gone. You have no phone, and thus, I have no way to reach you. We have not talked for three weeks.

I’d be lying if I said this doesn’t terrify me. That you being on your own isn’t a frightening thought, and that I’m not waiting for the time that my phone buzzes and I don’t recognize the number and it’s what I fear on the other end of the line. I feel this reality bearing down on me like a train I am powerless to stop. One day, I’m going to be fatherless, and I don’t know how to be that girl.

But I also try so, so, so hard to respect this decision you have made. You do not remember how to read, you don’t remember how to write, and you cannot cook for yourself. These are all skills that I believe are essential to living successfully on your own. And yet, you set off to do such a thing anyway.

Is this bravery, Dad? Stupidity? Stubbornness? Is it all of this in one? I don’t know what it is, but I know that your decision was not mine to make. You told me recently that you only have so much time left, and you want to spend it doing what you were put on God’s earth to do: You want to paint. You want to grow as an artist. And you are brave enough to do this no matter what it requires of you. As you constantly told me during my childhood, God would provide. No need to worry.

But still I did. I always worried. I never lost that ability, even as you continue to show me how fearless you are.

For some reason, I find myself fretting over your food situation most of all. What will you eat? Maybe it’s because Thanksgiving is right around the corner, maybe it’s because some of my earliest memories are of our dinnertime traditions, but these thoughts occupy my mind. I want to ask if you remember them, but then there is no phone to call. So just I think about it, and imagine telling you.

When I was very young, and it was just you and me and Mom, you and I ate dinner together. I suppose Mom was at her waitressing job; I can’t remember. But you and I would sit next to the fireplace with our plates on the mantle and eat together. If I finished everything, we’d split a York peppermint patty. I was wild about peppermints, especially Yorks. This was all the motivation I needed to clear my plate.

I don’t remember the tradition continuing once J came along. It was a fleeting thing that was only ours. I’ve been tempted lately to mail you a big box of Yorks with nothing else in it. I imagined you opening it and the memory of these dinners bursting back to life inside you. But then I don’t. I think I’m afraid that you’ll open the box and nothing will happen, and how would I survive such a thing?

When I was older and we became a family of five, dinners were different. Mom often cooked two meals, one for the kids and one for the adults. J was exceedingly picky, something Mom blamed on you because at the time J was introduced to solid foods, Mom worked two jobs and you were in charge at home. You fed J what you knew how to make: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (creamy peanut butter and grape jelly only), spaghetti (red sauce, no meat), chicken nuggets, and pizza. Until J was in middle school, he survived solely off of these meals alone, without exaggeration. C grew up eating much of the same, simply out of habit and ease. I was the odd one. Not as young as my siblings yet not an adult, I flitted between the “grow-up” dinners Mom would make for you and the “kid” dinners she made for C and J, depending on which meal had more abundance. Some nights I pitied C and J for missing out on Mom’s white sauce pasta or three-bean soup. Other nights I burned with jealousy, stuck eating a meal I had no interest in because there wasn’t enough of the “kid” meal to feed three.

We never ate together either, except for holidays. Most nights, C, J and I took our plates into the living room (or later, when we didn’t have a living room, into the master bedroom, where the TV was) so that we could entertain ourselves with reruns of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air while we ate. Unless we were helping assemble work for the coming art show, we weren’t supposed to be in the kitchen, under Mom’s feet and interrupting your philosophical musings with our “peanut gallery” comments. Children were meant to be seen, not heard.

I guess it’s no surprise that by the time I reached high school I ate out with my friends as much as possible. Sitting in the red booths of a Bojangles’ with my friends around me, I found what I didn’t have at home. We passed plates of fries and blueberry biscuits from person to person, laughing and joking and teasing. None of us had any money; we were high schoolers. And yet, that didn’t stop us from pooling our funds, helping one another find another dollar and afford a meal. Looking back on it, we were all running. Running from something or to something. We pieced it together in the time we had, found a sense of camaraderie and home that we didn’t have in quite the same way within the four walls where we rested our heads. To put it simply, we broke bread together.

You hated when I ate out. You lectured me as soon as I walked through the door, asking me what I’d eaten and telling me how bad it was for me. You didn’t believe in eating out. Food fed the soul, and you couldn’t do that if you weren’t making the food yourself. In fact, it wasn’t until I left for college that you and Mom started taking C and J out to dinner some nights. Before that, I could count the number of times we’d been to a restaurant as a family on one hand.

All of this makes me wonder what you will do now, Dad. What will you eat? Will you give up your prejudice against restaurant food in order to survive? Is living on your own worth such a thing, that you would change how you have felt about something for as long as I have known you?

Or perhaps you simply don’t remember. Perhaps this opinion you’d long held is gone now, and you’re starting fresh. Perhaps you have found the bravery to do this, to move out on your own and live how you want to live, not in spite of these contradictions but because, to you, they no longer exist. Your mind has lost them, one more thing swirling in the abyss.

So now, I carry them along with me, in my thoughts of you. I fret over your situation the same way I fretted over each of our moves. My old habit was to lie in bed at night and conjure stories of people breaking into the house in search of something. I imagined as many scenarios as I could, and then I solved them. What if the robbers came in through the kitchen door? How would we get out? Would there be enough time to race down the hall to C’s room and back to your and Mom’s room, grabbing J on the way? Where could we hide if we couldn’t reach the back door? In the attic! The bad guys would never find us in the attic, I always thought. Every time we moved, this is how I spent the first night at our new house. I kept myself up for hours, scheming and imagining and working it all out, developing escape plans that I committed to memory, preparing for when some unknown Bad struck. Someone had to be prepared, I thought. Someone needed to think about all the things that I didn’t think anyone else thought about. So I did.

And yet here I am now, unable to devise an escape plan for your current situation. It’s not mine to create. This is your journey, and I can’t write it for you. I cannot seek out the hidden doors and fling them open, spilling light onto the encroaching darkness. I can only fill a cardboard box with things I think you need (a cell phone, Dad, is at the top of that list, preprogrammed with our phone numbers on it). I will mail it to GC and hope that she gives it to you. I will wait with as much patience as I can manage for you to call me, and only then will I be able to fret a little less. It won’t be easy, but it will have to do.

After all, this is part of love too. Acceptance of a decision that is not mine to make, and is not made in the way I would make it. I must find it within myself to live without an escape plan, without knowing how this will turn out, without knowing what in the world you will eat. I can only send you this package and hope that you receive it. Hope that when you open it, you will call me, and I can say hello and listen as you say, “Oh, hello, Ash,” as the sound of  my voice pulls your newly formed memory of who I am from the crevice where I live inside you. I can only ask what you need on this journey you’ve embarked upon, and open my hands to help.

Love,

Ash