“Is there a radio or something in here?”
My friend’s question sounded more like a plea. It was understandable. The last time I had seen her, I was the maid of honor at her wedding. Now we needed something to break the silence of our impending task on this Saturday afternoon in November. We stood there, surveying my father’s dusty New York City apartment, the home he had not entered for two months and to which he would not return. And we felt the enormity before us: moving him out. Shutting down his apartment. For good.
I had anticipated this day for about five years, witnessing my father’s twenty-year deterioration to multiple sclerosis. Independent, even stubborn, he had insisted upon living on his own. He did not want to become a ‘burden’ to me, as he called it. And he didn’t want to leave the city. But he had fallen again… and this time he was hurt and hospitalized. Finally, the moment had come when Dad was forced to face his difficult future – and mine – realistically.
In his prime, my father stood lean and tall at 6’ 3.” His wore a suit size 42 Long, and had an air about him similar to Dick Van Dyke when he played Robert Petrie. I think a good father always wishes to remain the Daddy – the strong one, the one we lean on, the one with the large hands ready to lift us up onto broad shoulders. Now it would begin -- the turning, the changing of roles... the letting go of us, as we knew us.
After two months in the hospital, it was time to consider the doctor’s recommendation: to enter what they called a ‘health care residence.’ A nursing home. My father responded to the suggestion with taut lips, elusive eyes and fidgeting. Then he acquiesced with grace and courage. He was only 68.
Now it was the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend. My friend and I stood looking at the remainder of my Dad’s belongings, the bits and pieces of his life, many of which were witnesses to my youth. We were prepared to box things, bag things, give things, and save things. Mercifully, I came across a radio and turned it on. The atmosphere lightened immediately, as the music connected us to the outside world. I opened the blinds and let in the bright autumn sun.
Although he had only entered a… health care residence... there was a part of my Dad that really did pass away in those days, a very real part of his identity that changed with only a few events over a short period of time.
No longer was there a need for his dishes, or his television, or his many cans of soup. These things would now be provided for him. And just as suddenly, I had become next of kin, with power of attorney, acting as healthcare proxy and sole representative.
I thought I would dread having to sort through Dad’s home, shuffling through his personal papers and deciding the fate of so many belongings. But after an hour or two, I found myself glad for the opportunity—because among the drawers and shelves that held remembrances of my family’s troubled history, among the envelopes guarding the events and accomplishments of my father’s life, I found, unexpectedly… myself.
Tucked and hidden in almost every corner of the apartment were photos of my family, photos taken what seemed like a lifetime ago. The images were wonderful, almost fictional, after all this time. My father was still healthy, my parents still married. My brothers were skinny young teenagers in crisp cotton shirts. I was nine years old, with blond hair, down to my waist. The following summer would bring my first kiss, stolen from Peter, my next door neighbor, in the womb-like glow of a red pup tent.
As a child, I listened to my brothers’ Simon & Garfunkel album Bookends on a record player that sat on the floor -- an enormous two-tone thing with a penny taped to its arm above the stylus to help prevent skipping. On that vinyl LP was the song “Old Friends,” a song about growing old in the city. That song made me cry as a child; it created the plaintive image of old men sitting on a park bench, newspapers blowing over their feet... "How terribly strange to be seventy…"
The introduction of the song was the voice recording of an old man, reminiscing, agitated, upset by a beloved object he had lost over the years. He shouted, “I’d pay $100 for that photograph!”
And here I was.
It was more than nostalgic to unearth family photos which I thought had long disappeared. Somehow it was comforting to look at those images of… well, normalcy. There were the pictures of my father barbecuing at Jones Beach in the early 1970’s, joking around and wearing my little beach hat. There I was, grinning, my eyebrows glowing white through my sunburn.
Yes, those times did happen.
A utility closet held my father’s diplomas, along with mine, as well as a small watercolor painting I made for him half my life ago. In this same closet I came across my father’s 1944 discharge papers from the Army. It was fascinating to read of his military experience and training. I never knew he had been decorated with three medals. He never told me. I found table linens from our former house, and silverware, and flatware that he never unpacked when he moved into this apartment after the separation.
In his dresser, I found the agreement papers for every car he had ever owned. He held on to them, after all these years – and in a completely accessible location! Not hidden away in a box somewhere, but right there in the top drawer next to his socks. And I found a photo of my paternal grandparents.
Then I came to the second drawer, and a small grey velvet box inside. I opened the box. A numbing shockwave went through me, as I saw my father’s wedding band. I stared at it. The simple gold band was so much a part of his strong hand while I was growing up; in truth, the removal of that ring was more the final sign of my parents’ separation than any legal pronouncement. Nonetheless, he kept it.
I realized that I would be donating quite a bit of furniture to Goodwill, as well as most of Dad’s suits. Working our way through his closet, my friend and I howled as we came across a brown leisure suit from the mid-70s, accompanied by a totally groovy matching Qiana shirt. You could land a plane on its collar. For the next hour there would be shouts of “Look at this!” and “Can you believe it?” coming from my Dad’s wardrobe. It helped put the sweet in this bittersweet day.
It was when we got to my father’s ties that I began to put things aside. I could not give away his ties. My father’s ties were so personal, so immediately identifiable, even those I had not seen in fifteen years. They were my Dad. I think my father wore a tie every single day of his adult life. So I decided to keep his ties. And his wedding band. And his monogrammed silver lighter. And an old helf-filled bottle of his favorite cologne.
I kept a shaving razor from the 1960s, a solid piece of equipment that seemed made of chrome wrapped in black leather. There was a vintage, weighty camera, too, the kind you come across at roadside antique stands in the countryside (and seemingly designed to match the razor). All these things were distinctively Dad. Robert. Bob.
I held on to a pair of his eyeglasses. His papers. And I held on to the photos.
We were finished by afternoon’s end and had loaded up the truck. I was dusty and exhausted but emotionally relieved. Cleared. It was done. While my friend was warming up the truck, I closed the door to the empty apartment and locked it for the last time. I gave my friend the ‘thumbs up’ and jokingly made the sign of the cross on the door before walking away. The gesture was made in fun – but there was an element of truth in that blessing.
In those few hours, we had undertaken a major responsibility in my father’s life. Another cautious step was taken through this transition in his life, and in mine. Dad’s home and belongings were handled with respect. I had learned, through his few possessions, what my father held dear. And unknowingly, he helped me recapture a happier memory of my childhood. In his home, in his absence, through these bits and pieces, he and I reaffirmed a covenant.
I stepped out into the sunshine. Air! I jumped up into the truck. Life resumed its familiar feel and pace. My life. My pace.
We drove through Queens at sunset. The golden setting sun cast its warm light on the neighborhood, the elevated train tracks, the local diners and storefronts.
I recalled Billy Crystal’s classic line from When Harry Met Sally:
“Maybe you’ll go to New York and you won’t become anything. Maybe you’ll never meet anybody or do anything and then one day you’ll die one of those New York deaths, when nobody notices for weeks until the smell drifts out into the hallway.”
I smiled to myself—I always smile at that macabre line—but then realized how close my Dad had come to one of those New York deaths.
Before I went to sleep that night, back in the familiar space of my own home, I had to do something. I sat down on the floor in front of my dresser, emptied the bottom drawer and made room for the belongings I kept from my father. I made a Daddy Drawer. I wasn't sure why. Perhaps I wanted to be able to look at those ties again... or smell his cologne... or just keep one place with a sense of continuum for my own children to explore one day.
My father would live only five more years. He was aware that I got married, but there were things he and I would not be able to share. We would not dance at my wedding. And he would not get to meet his granddaughters, whom he would have adored.
Then again, perhaps he did: The very week that Dad passed away, I became pregnant with our first child. It was as though one departed... and another arrived.
I like to think that my Dad and my daughter met as they passed each other through the slim veil of life.
My daughter has his eyes.
My husband wears his ring.
Love goes on.