“The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything.” ― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
By the end of the summer I’d finished the heavy purging. My mom held a few tag sales, donated a bunch of stuff, and then moved out herself. My father remained in the now mostly empty house as it sat on the market through the fall.
We hired a visiting nurse to stop in every other day and check on my father. He continued to work, somehow running quality checks on digital mammography machines and driving himself to and from work. Terrifying notions on both a global and local level. The house sold in October, but my father hadn’t done anything to find a new place to live. Luckily, the visiting nurse quickly located a nearby apartment and so I drove back to Connecticut to help my father move.
We spent the day moving the last of my dad’s possessions to his new place, a tiny, third floor attic apartment in an old Victorian, whose winding, cramped staircase forced me to cut his new bed frame in half and then Frankenstein’s monster it back together with steel plates and screws. It was late in the evening when we finish moving all the important stuff to the apartment and I returned to my childhood home for the last time. Even after filling those three dumpsters, my mother taking her stuff, and moving my father’s remaining things out, the house somehow still has stuff in it.
The large radio cabinet had been the centerpiece of the living room and served as a TV stand my entire life. It was probably worth something as an antique, especially with the tube-based radio still embedded in its interior. But I had no way to move it. I removed the radio and left the cabinet behind, with the scratch-built amplifier my father had assembled in his twenties abandoned on the bottom shelf. I stowed the radio in the car and walked through the top floor, empty now save for the cabinet.
I paused for a long time in the kitchen, staring out the window at a familiar view I wouldn’t ever see again. I paused for even longer in my childhood bedroom, it’s walls now bare of the full page black and white movie ads I’d cut out from the Sunday New York Times, the giant poster of the Manhattan skyline at sunset, and the Carol Alt poster hidden on the back of the door. I stared at the tree in the backyard whose wind-blown leaves had always provided the background soundtrack to the neighborhood kids playing in the late summer light as I laid in bed thanks to my parents’ ultra-conservative approach to bedtimes. I left my bedroom and walked downstairs.
The basement, my childhood retreat and playroom, felt small. I didn’t know why. Was it because I was bigger? Because it’s empty? How could it feel smaller when it’s empty? Was I feeling guilty at having thrown away nearly everything that had been in that room? Was it because I was judging my parents? Nearly empty, the house had revealed its many needed repairs, delayed improvements, and decades of neglected spring cleanings, all put off until time ran out. The neurons at the back of my head crackled, there’s the notion of an idea there, but it won’t reveal itself.
There’s a large pile of trash on the floor near the sliding doors, the large glass planes reflected back my image. I’d thrown the green, insulated drapes away and the cold December night was pushing its way into the basement through the glass. I skirted the pile and walked to the laundry room. Everything was as familiar to me as my own hands.
The number of steps through the basement to the laundry room, the smells, the angled turn through the already narrow doorway, made smaller by the large set of shelves crowding the opening, pushed closer to the door by the enormous 1950s freezer sitting next to them, the distance I reached to grasp the butcher’s string stretched across the room to the light fixture, the tension in the string as I pulled it, the sudden brightness of the naked 100 watt bulb on the far wall. The room it illuminated had changed.
All of the familiar things were gone, even the shadows were wrong. I stood still for a moment. My father was quietly pacing in the basement, unsure of what he is supposed to be doing. He doesn’t ask. He doesn’t ask questions anymore. In a few months an active MRI will show the part of his brain that should have been a riot of thoughtful color as an empty blackness. So profound is the damage that the doctors are able to make their diagnosis of frontotemporal dementia solely on the images. They make note of that rarity in a report that is, given the images, both too late and pointlessly long. It confirms the suspicions of the last year, but it can offer no treatment, no recovery, no hope.
I stood still for a moment longer, knowing he can’t tell how long I’ve been there, knowing that this man who had been my father will wait and follow me like the happy toddler he’s become, and I tried to make sense of the crackling in the back of my head. I heard him rummaging in the large pile of trash in the middle of the basement. I pulled the string again and the empty room went dark.