It took us almost two months to comb through dad’s house, sorting the pieces of his unpursued passions into piles.
He didn’t have much in the way of food, but cookbooks in mint condition spilled out of his kitchen cupboards. Mystery novels were stacked neatly on his bedside table, suffocating under layers of dust. Princess Di’s biography and Stephen King’s The Shining lay face down on the coffee table, spines cracked towards the ceiling. Poets hid, forgotten, behind the basement bar. Daunting masterpieces of Joyce, Hugo, and Dumas stood proper and pristine in the bookcases of his spare bedroom. Harry Potter, curiously, was lined up neatly on the workbench in his garage next to an impressive collection of equipment manuals. Donate.
While I examined every paternal artefact with the zeal of an amateur archaeologist, my sister, Kate, executed our job grudgingly, methodically, the corners of her mouth tugged down in mild distaste. She held no curiosity for the life that gave us life, and I assumed her interest in him extended only as far as his had in her.
We waded through a world of short-lived hobbies. The shed in the yard boarded gleaming gardening tools, unspoiled art supplies, and a pair of cross country skis still marked with a discount sticker. Sell.
We purged every nook and cranny in the house of unused useful treasures. Three hundred glass mason jars collected dust and spiders in the alcove under the stairs; forty-five rolls of scotch tape curled up on their sides, stacked haphazardly in the cupboard above the washing machine; three five-gallon pails of assorted nails, screws, and bolts rusted behind the furnace. Keep. Donate. Trash.
A Yamaha keyboard piano emerged from under piles of forgotten laundry. Sell. Beginner sheet music for the guitar we’d never heard him play was buried in a wicker basket under a cascading mountain of magazines. The guitar in question was wildly out of tune. I strummed a dissonant chord absentmindedly, prompting Kate to grab and drop it with a reverberating hum next to a harmonica, a violin bow, and an assortment of small percussion instruments. Donate.
“We could sell that!” I exclaimed.
“He bought it at Walmart,” she replied flatly, and I briefly wondered how she knew.
Dad hadn’t been a bad guy, as far as I remember. I recalled him doing all the right dad things—teaching me to throw and catch a ball, taking us to the county fair to eat too much candy, bringing home a wriggling bundle of floppy ears and sad eyes that we crossed our hearts to feed, train, and walk (naturally, and much to her disgruntled dismay, it became mom’s exclusive responsibility).
It was just that, between the checked boxes of fatherhood, absence was his only constant.
Early on, it was missed birthdays, disappointing Christmas mornings, and an empty seat in the stands at my B Division hockey games. By the time I was ten, he banged through our door only once or twice a year. Kate would quietly disappear to a friend’s; mom would gravitate as if on auto-pilot into the kitchen to prepare a meal; I would hover, eager to brief him on my latest activities and accomplishments, hopeful he would finally divulge something about the band with which he was surely travelling, or the secret mission on which he must have been deployed. “This and that” was all he ever offered.
When Kate left home, he came around even less often.
I waded into the unmoored moodiness of my teenage years and developed (feigned) indifference in his disinterest. By the time I crashed clumsily from adolescence to adulthood, dad was a sort of non-entity that flitted and fluttered at the edges. He attended my university convocation, but didn’t stick around for the celebratory dinner. He stood by us at mom’s funeral, appropriately sad, but left us to make the arrangements and deal with her estate. He was invited to Kate’s wedding, but she asked me to walk her down the aisle.
At Kate’s orders, I tackled the bedroom, while she disappeared for days under unreasonable hoards of wooden spoons, tacky coffee mugs, and canned goods. The stench of sickness still clung to his mattress and its clothes. Trash. The neglected novels on his bedside table were jacketed in dust and blanketed in crusty tissues. Trash. Drawers were mostly empty save for a rolling lip chap and a handful of loose change. The rest of the furniture appeared in fine health. Sell.
Rifling through his closet, I found only a few crumpled receipts in the pockets of his clothes. Donate. My climbing bewilderment and disappointment reached their peak. A lifetime of pretending not to care aside, we finally had unfettered access to the private life of our flighty father. I wanted to find a trunk of sentimental memories in his basement, or a shoebox of photographs labelled with hard-to-read names stuffed in the closet, or a stack of secret-littered journals on the bookshelves. But the modest 900 square-foot house rejected my foolish fantasies.
Last year, Kate had learned dad was unwell. “Oh, by the way,” she hesitantly tacked on to our annual phone call, “Dad’s been in the hospital.”
I paused, caught off guard by her mention of his existence and, further, her awareness of his illness. I’d wanted to know more—what was wrong, should we go visit, who was taking care of him, who called her—but my tyrant nephews were wailing in the background, and she took advantage of my silent beat to skewer the conversation. “He’s fine now, at home, I guess. Listen, don’t worry about it…” She trailed off as the cacophony of family anarchy rose with a mighty crescendo, and the line died.
I didn’t call back, and neither did she. The next time we spoke, she delivered a dispassionate dispatch. “He’s dead.”
Now we stand among life’s leftovers.
There is no heirloom-worthy jewelry. There are no old family photos. There aren’t any accolades or love letters, not even a final will and testament. Nothing in seventy years’ worth of accumulation sheds a shred of light on who dad was or why.
I watch my sister lug bags and boxes out the door, and wish there was someone left who knew him.
When the trucks are packed and the house echoes in vacant relief, we stand on the front porch and watch the realtor pound a For Sale sign into the frosty lawn. I mutter, “I should have gone to see him, you know, before…”
Kate turns and looks up at me with the most peculiar expression of incredulity. She puts her gloved hand on my arm. For a long quiet moment it feels like she’s trying to convey something important, but all she leaves me with is: “See you at Christmas.”
And then she’s gone without looking back, bounding down the cracked concrete towards her car with a lightness in her step I’ve never seen before.