Monday, May 28, 2012

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Cleaning Dad’s Apartment

Dad died of a stroke on December 5th 2001. I was nineteen. Three days later Ryan and I cleaned his apartment. Ryan is a heavy set man standing five nine with a chin strap beard the color of dark earth. In his teens he looked a lot like Dad, slender with a sharp jaw, but by age twenty-two he began to resemble our mothers’ side of the family. Stout legs and shoulders with a heavy chest.
Inside Dad’s apartment, the kitchen sink was baby blue and the stove was light purple. A leather footstool sat next to a bright green flower print glider. Nothing matched. There were no photos or paintings. The walls of his apartment were as white as the day he moved in. It smelled like sweat and wood smoke, and the sunlight was murky from dirty windows. We didn’t find Dad’s DeWalt Drill, Cobalt wrenches, free standing sheet metal press, or any of the other tools he used as an air conditioning contractor. His toolbox was empty but for a few screwdrivers and a crescent wrench. We didn’t find the gold watch and gold tie clips Grandma gave him after Grandpa’s death. And we didn’t find any rings from his previous marriages. Dad had been unemployed for six months. He sold everything for rent, fines, Jack Daniels, and painkillers. Half empty whisky bottles were stashed behind the sofa, beneath cabinets, and wedged behind the frozen green beans. The bottles clanked as we loaded them into garbage sacks and then hauled them to the dumpster. Half consumed bottles of Vicodin, Lortab, and Xanax were in the kitchen and bathroom, enough to fill a white garbage bag.
 In the bedroom was a bare mattress resting on the floor. Ryan told me he had to throw the bedding in the dumpster. “He died on that mattress,” Ryan said, “It was a mess.” This was the start of many clues mapping out Dad’s final hours. Resting on a folded chair was a polyester shirt and a pair Wrangler jeans. Across the hall, on the bathroom tile, was a dry, putrid, and yellow mess that I could only assume was a mix of vomit and shit, probably something similar to what Ryan found in Dad’s bedding. And as I stepped between the hall and the bedroom, examining the trail of Dad’s demise, I was granted a short narrative. I could see images of his last moments as though they were memories; Dad struggling from the bed to the bathroom, and back again, his face, body, hands and feet heavy with anguish. It felt like Dad had not been alone when he died, but I had been with him.

During this time, I didn’t have photos of Dad because I hated looking at his stark cheekbones and the extra notches in his belt, the way his lean legs trembled when he stood in one place too long. I hated being reminded of his missing teeth and the way he hunched over slightly and placed his boney hands in his jean pockets. I hated thinking about Dad’s suffering, but most of all, I hated what was not in the picture. Photos of Dad made me wonder what he could have been. They made me think about the loving and dependable father I’d been searching for since the age of nine, the one I knew I’d recognize even though I’d never seen him. Pictures of Dad filled me with a weighty longing that took my breath and made my knees tremble.
What few photos I ever owned of Dad had been misplaced or thrown out. Sometimes it was deliberate. I would see a photo of Dad’s thin drug-addicted frame and feel anger or sorrow, and throw it away. Other times, I think it was subconscious. I can remember leaving photos of Dad behind during moves, and then choosing to never to go back and retrieve them.

Dad kept his boots, jeans, shirts, belt buckles, pots and pans, avocado green highball glasses, ledgers from his bankrupt heating and air-conditioning business, and anything else he owned in cardboard boxes. He was evicted every six months for not paying rent. Keeping things boxed up made it easer. Ryan and I divided his things. I got a belt buckle, a jacket, a box of cologne, and his revoked driver’s license. Ryan took the few tools we could find and Dad’s old pickup. Dad didn’t have any photos of himself, his family, or me. I wonder why. He couldn’t sell them; their only value was emotional. Perhaps he lost them during his many moves across Utah County, or maybe he threw them away in some fit to destroy the past. I don’t know, but sometimes I wonder if he didn’t have any photos for the same reasons I didn’t, because he found images from the past troubling. Perhaps Dad threw out his photos because they reminded him of what he’d become.

Even though they reminded me of his warm body, I didn’t cry as I stuffed Dad’s cold polyester shirts in a garbage sack. And I didn’t cry when Ryan and I climbed inside Dad’s gray F-150. Nearly everything he owned fit in the truck bed. We sat on the bench seat, Ryan behind the wheel. We didn’t talk about Dad driving drunk, or search behind the seat to find the empty cans of Budweiser I could hear rattle as we loaded the pickup. We didn’t look in the rear view mirror and wonder if our faces resembled the sober father we’d always longed for. We just sat there, Ryan with his hands at ten and two, his round bearded face expressionless. I slouched a bit, my right arm resting on the door, left palm flush against the bench. Both of us sat church quiet, relishing in the death of our father, our quiet breath visible in the cold. The key to the pickup sat in the ignition connected to a small Ford Mustang bottle opener. Ryan reached forward and turned the key. The pickup cranked over with a heavy thud and we drove to the Mormon thrift store. 

I didn’t cry four days later at Dad’s funeral. I stood in the mortuary wearing the brass belt buckle he wore every day of his life, listing to the sentiments, “I’m sorry your dad turned out this way”, and “He used to be a good man.” Dad never lived up to my expectations. And when he died, I was struck by the tragedy that he would never turn his life around and become the dad I longed for. I didn’t feel sorrow or anger, but rather resentment. I felt let down, like I’d been cheated out of something I was obligated to have… a dependable father.