On the last day of November 2016, my brother Marc and I were wrapping up three months of cleaning out our parents’ house. We had uncovered the wood floors just the day before. The carpet, over a half-century old, filled the dumpster. The house was scheduled to go on the market December first, so in a last-minute Hail Mary, we had ripped out the brown broadloom, heavy with dirt, reeking of cigarette smoke and cat pee. I had just vacuumed the tobacco-stained cobwebs off the walls and the powdery dust, like gray velvet, out of the hall closet.
Mom and Dad had lived in the 1950s tri-level for forty years, raising children, celebrating birthdays and Christmases, cooking dinner and feeding animals and watching television and reading the paper. Every room—every shelf and drawer and cupboard and corner—had overflowed with the stuff of two lifetimes, both priceless and worthless.
The many happy hours of my childhood had kept me company as I combed through stack after stack, but there were days when anger at my parents for burying themselves under their possessions had eclipsed love. I couldn’t quite shake that nagging resentment.
The house finally unburdened, my footsteps echoed through the hollow rooms. I held my phone up, snapping pictures. Even emptied of its familiar artifacts, bookshelves, and framed family photographs, it was home, a place I knew in my bones. The camera captured sunlit floors and peeling, blue-flowered wallpaper, but all I could see were the ghosts of memories lurking around every corner, flitting on the thin edge between my past and present—seared afterimages, impossible to blink away.
Dad holding me as he walked down the stairs, looking at the house for the first time. Mom wrapping my tiny body in a towel by the blue bathtub. A boyfriend kissing me behind my bedroom door, his hands tight on my waist. My little sister, Krista, and I building a fort in the family room. Marc and I creeping upstairs after midnight to peek under the Christmas tree. My parents swaying in the kitchen to the radio, my dad dipping my mom dramatically, both of them laughing.
My father’s knees buckling in the entryway, the news of my mother’s death leveling him with the force of an earthquake.
Just six months earlier, Dad and I had visited my mom’s grave for Memorial Day. She had suffered a fatal heart attack at sixty-eight while on vacation near San Diego, where she grew up, and was cremated before the trip home to Idaho. Everyone who knew her had reeled at the shock of it: Mom left for a couple weeks of sunshine and never came back.
A few minutes after we arrived, I knelt at the headstone, scratching off a splatter of bird droppings with a plastic bag and pouring water on it from a coffee cup, the only cleaning tools in my car. Flags planted for the holiday whipped in the chilly spring wind, but the sun shone brightly. My dad stood a few feet away, shifting his weight, unbalanced on the sloping hillside. His face looked gray in the sunshine, his once broad football player’s body skinny and stooped. The clippers he had brought to trim the grass around the stone stayed in the box, tucked under his arm, unnecessary since the cemetery was mowed and tidied for the weekend.
Still, there was the blotch on the date of my mom’s death, February 9, 2011, and a few drops on the blank space to the right of her name, where my dad’s name as well as the dates of his birth and death would go. Probably before next Memorial Day, I realized as I crouched over my mom’s ashes, scrubbing with numb fingers.
He had cancer—again.
The previous fall, after Dad had ignored a lump on his hip for months, he finally saw his oncologist. A round of tests revealed his prostate cancer had metastasized into the bone. There was also a dark spot on his lung—a different cancer, a newcomer. After going two rounds with cancer already, losing his prostate and part of his colon, he no longer wanted to fight. “No more tests,” he told us. “No more doctors.” Even five years after his wife’s death, he couldn’t see much reason for the battle, not without her beside him.
For my dad, the pain of my mom’s absence never dulled. Her death remained endlessly confusing and shocking, her life forever unfinished. She had vanished with no warning, no goodbye.
In the face of his misery, I often thought of one Saturday morning the spring after my mom died. A female quail hit my dining room window and broke her neck, the boom of her impact vibrating through the house. My younger daughter, Sydnie, then seven, and I ran toward the noise. We watched the plump quail, so quick and noisy in life, twitching on the patio as she died. So my dogs wouldn’t mess with her, I scooped the bird up and carried her to the field next to our yard, Sydnie trailing me. We tucked the body, still warm through my gloves, under a tree and patted dry grass over her feathers, dull-colored by nature as camouflage, while we said an impromptu eulogy. Goodbye, pretty bird. We’re sorry you died.
Quail are devoted to their mates, sharing parenting duties. When separated, they call for each other, an alternating orchestra of sound, until they are together once more. For over an hour after his mate’s death, the male quail—brighter-feathered than his partner, his face ringed with white, like a mask—dashed back and forth in front of our windows, his topknot bouncing, calling for her, more and more desperately, a heartbreaking keening. Where are you where are you where are you.
For the first time since my mother’s death, I cried from my gut. I locked myself in the bathroom and bawled, doubled over and shaking, for fifteen minutes.
From then on, for over five years, whenever my dad talked about my mom, even in the smallest comment, “Your mother liked the purple iris best,” I heard the quail’s wild grief and bewilderment in his voice, saw it in the way his eyes darted and his face tightened. Where are you where are you where are you. Our visits to her grave were hard. He couldn’t feel her in the silence of her hillside resting place. “She is more with me at home,” Dad explained.
Under the headstone, his wife was dead. In the house, filled with her massive collection of knick-knacks, she might be around the corner, smoking a cigarette, laughing with a friend on the phone. The book she was reading before she died, when she flew to California and never returned, stayed on the bedside table, a receipt marking her place, for the rest of my dad’s life.
Dad lived simply after my mom was gone. The paper in the morning, the news on T.V. and a nap in the afternoon, PBS in the evening as he reclined in his overstuffed blue chair with the cat my mom had left behind kneading his chest. “That damn cat,” soon became “my cat,” his companion.
He left the house for quick trips to the grocery store, a monthly visit to the barber to trim his barely receded brown and silver hair, or unavoidable doctor appointments. A couple times a week, he would take a walk. He had no interest in starting over, in a life without my mom. He didn’t want us to clean or move things or get rid of her suffocating clutter, the consequence of decades of hoarding. It had filled her with anxiety to even consider letting go of things, yet she had kept buying and buying, unable to pass up a deal. Her knitting basket, overflowing with yarn and a half-finished scarf, leaned on her chair. Over two hundred coffee mugs teetered in the cupboards. Shopping bags filled the downstairs bedroom, a four-foot wall of bargains. Candles crowded every available surface, enough to light a church.
The gray (once yellow, then peach) four-bedroom sits on a corner lot at the narrow end of a neighborhood block. The front porch, Dad’s favorite spot, faces an old farmhouse, ten open acres, and an unobstructed sightline to the Boise foothills. It was my parents’ view for over half their lives. As much as my siblings and I tried to get Dad out in the world, to help him find some new joy, this abiding stillness was all he wanted—a quiet life on his porch and with his cat, surrounded by his wife’s things.
I took him for drives, called several times a week, invited him to dinner. My brother did the same. Krista, living in Texas, called him nearly every day and asked him to spend a couple weeks with her, but he declined. Often, he and I would just sit at his dining room table and chat, as I had done a thousand times since girlhood. We went to lunch occasionally at a fifties diner with no-frills service and movie posters on the walls, John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe watching us eat. My older daughter, Megan, mowed his lawn in the summer while he and I sat on the porch, drinking coffee and watching the sunshine on the hills.
It wasn’t much; it never felt like enough.
I worried about him from the moment I woke up until I fell asleep. The drive across town to his house had become part of a never-ending routine, a merry-go-round of love and responsibility and dread.
In mid-June, I stopped by the house to drop off my family’s leftovers and some sandwiches with a fresh batch of peanut butter cookies, as I did a few times a week. I always called as I pulled out of my driveway to let him know I was headed his way, which used to mean he would clean up a bit, comb his hair. He was an attractive man, a hunk in his younger years, still handsome as he aged. After that Memorial Day, though, I often found him rumpled and unshaven. It wasn’t like him. This, perhaps more than anything else, scared me.
He opened the door as I walked toward the steps, looking as if he had just woken up. I was rushing to an appointment and had only a few minutes to spare, so I kissed his stubbled cheek at the front door and handed over the stack of plastic containers.
The tang of pipe smoke drifted out to the porch. We talked about the weather, finally hot, and his grass, which looked a little dry. Feeling guilty that I couldn’t stay, I hugged him tight before walking down the steps, his back narrow and bony under my hands. “Love you, Pop.”
“Love you, too, Honey. Tell everyone hello and love.” That is what he said every time I left his house, every time I said goodbye on the phone. Then he waited on the porch—as he always had, since I was fourteen years old—until I pulled away, both of us waving.
He is dying, I understood like a punch as I drove off. It was no longer the abstraction of cancer, the possibility of his name on a headstone, but the realization that I was watching him die. I was losing another parent.
Yet, even then, I had no idea how fast it could happen—that less than a month later, in the span of two days, I could go from bringing him a strawberry milkshake to saying goodbye.
By July, the tumor in his lung had grown large. Fluid had built up, and his lung collapsed. The remaining lung was struggling to do the work of two, but it wasn’t “a good lung,” the doctor at the VA hospital told us, her eyes grave under her shining black hair. Perhaps it was the fifty years of smoking, or some asbestos exposure; maybe it was his seven years as a smokejumper, parachuting into backcountry fires. He had been fighting to breathe for weeks. All he had told us was that he felt a little tired, though in his final days he could barely stand for more than a few seconds without wobbling.
“How long?” he asked through the oxygen mask.
“How long until what?” the doctor asked.
“Until I die?”
“Probably days,” she said. She stood next to my dad’s bed, her pretty face both sympathetic and careful, glancing at Marc and me every few seconds. There were options, but she assumed he wouldn’t want to pursue them, since in his living will he had refused any extraordinary measures. She told him anyway: a long needle to aspirate his lung, surgery with substantial risks . . . though she didn’t think any anesthesiologist would agree to put him under, since they couldn’t keep his oxygen saturation level up.
He did refuse: oxygen only, maybe some ice cream for dinner. I dug it out of the cup for him, but handed him the spoon to feed himself.
Dad died the next day, July 14, 2016, after just one night in the hospital. Marc and I sat on either side of him, assuring him we would take care of his cat and the lawn, that he didn’t have to worry about us, that we would be okay. Krista rushed toward the airport, but didn’t make it in time. She texted me that she was on the plane in Houston, switching off her phone, just as my dad’s breathing changed, long pauses in between shallower and shallower gasps of air.
Dad ended as he had lived, with love and dignity. The VA hospital sits cradled in the foothills, not far from his house. The moment he took his last breath was quiet and still.
The merry-go-round did not stop at my dad’s death. The months passed in a blur: driving to the house four or five days a week, watering and mowing the grass, feeding the cat, sorting through photos, stacking dishes in boxes, cramming clothes into bags for donation, raking leaves. Dozens of times a day, my brother and I hauled out anything too old, too broken, or too smoky to sell or give away to a twenty-yard dumpster, which was emptied six times.
I was trapped in a time machine on shuffle as I dug through the house’s contents. In my old bedroom, which Mom had converted into a full-time storage closet and part-time guest room, I found a box of my high school and college photos from the nineties stuffed under the bed. My miniature tea set, that glorious Christmas present of 1978, was folded up in a T-shirt in the drawer of my nightstand. Emptying my mom’s dresser, I uncovered remnants of the eighties—Krista’s third-grade art projects, shedding glitter, and laminated pins with Marc’s high school football number. A few inches deeper, I dug out a 1920s photo of my grandmother holding a kitten in a yard full of chickens and a poster from the 1950s starring Mom twirling a baton: “14th Annual Maytime Band Review . . . Featuring California’s Outstanding Majorette . . . .” In my dad’s dresser, I found love letters from my mom, written in the sixties, soon after they married, when he had worked in Denver for a couple months. The words were fueled by separation and longing—words a daughter shouldn’t read. I scanned only a few lines before boxing them up. I couldn’t throw them away.
My parents’ smoking not only shortened their lives; it also made most of their possessions virtually worthless. I agonized over what to keep, what to donate, what to trash. Each day, I faced a mountain of decisions—peaks of nostalgia and chasms of guilt.
Often, I apologized to my parents aloud as I threw things away. Sorry, Mom, but I don’t know what to do with this. Some days, though, after hours of sifting through dirty, stinky junk, I was so goddamn mad. “Did you have to make it so fucking hard?” I yelled once, gasping through my dust mask.
After we had emptied the drawers and shorn the tables of their knick-knacks, the auction hauled out anything of value that my siblings and I didn’t want—and we wanted very little. Dad’s recliner sat in the rain as workers loaded the smaller items into the truck. I imagined him perched there, witnessing the parade of lamps and framed pictures and dressers out of the house, across the lawn, and into the maw of the semi. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so I did both as I watched, shivering, from the porch.
I turned forty-four that November, just after I started in on my parents’ bedroom. I am the only one of my friends who has lost both parents, and only a few have lost one. I could not have imagined the toll it would take. I had spent years in that agonizing middle part of life, the hellish in-between, juggling the needs of my teenagers and my ailing father on top of work and housework and shopping and visits to the vet. In the weeks before my dad’s death, I lived in constant dread of the day I might find him in his chair not breathing. When he died, my body was ten pounds too skinny, my skin pale, my hands shaky.
The mass of worry sitting on my heart did lift when he was gone, though flashbacks staggered me for months. Grief replaced the worry, of course, with its own heaviness. I could barely turn on the news or scroll through my social media feeds, afraid that one more loss, one more disappointment, might crush me. This, stacked on the burden of the house, threatened to sink me some days. It seemed impossible to get rid of everything. I missed my mom and dad so much, but I could not mourn them because I was too busy cramming silk flowers, stinking of cigarettes, into the dumpster.
I wondered how my parents, who loved us, could have left such an unholy mess behind. Did they not care what it would do to us? If this is what the end of a life looks like, why do we bother?
In the last end-of-November push, I collapsed in front of the TV each night, take-out on the kitchen counter because I felt too exhausted and filthy to cook. Holiday advertisements bombarded me, telling me I needed more ornaments and candles, more clothes, more jewelry, more cheer. I pictured a day forty-some odd years in the future, my girls sorting through boxes that had sat in closets for decades, gathering dust. I wanted to scream, to hurl things out windows, to burn it all down.
I sometimes wished I were attached to nothing—not people or places or things. I imagined a single suitcase in a backseat as I drove alone down an open road, sunlit and silent.
My parents moved us to the quiet street neighboring the farm in 1975. The house was the nucleus of my life for more than forty years. It was where I played and grew, learned to read, lost my virginity. As much as I circled away, it always drew me back. My home, my safe port.
Just a few days after the house went on the market in December, we accepted an offer. A family of four, teachers with two young children, wanted to tear out the old and dirty parts, paint, put in a new stove. Perhaps they had walked into rooms and dreamt about holiday dinners or lazy days in bed, their children playing in the backyard. Maybe they could see the house not as it was, stained and worn, but as it could be, restored and beautiful.
The sale closed in January. It was the beginning of a new year, my first without parents. It was hard to let the house go. I felt unmoored and adrift, as if I had lost my center. Even as a veteran of loss, even though I knew it would get easier every day, even though the house had been a kind of hell for months, I hated saying goodbye.
But I also knew that this loss wasn’t total. The house still stands. It gets a new chapter in its story. Where I once hunkered under the covers and read romance novels, another girl might write a poem or cry herself to sleep at night. A different teenager might sprawl beneath the giant maple my dad planted when I was seven and imagine life beyond 34th Street under the watchful windows of home.
I drive by from time to time, measure the changes—bushes cleaned out and pretty curtains framing the windows—and say a silent hello. Our house’s new family is filling the closets with their own stuff and the rooms with their memories.
Hello and love. Goodbye.
In my own house, where my dad’s cat now lives, I hug Sydnie, the stress of adolescence and a chaotic world on her thin shoulders, and think of my mother rocking me to sleep in our family room, my ear pressed to her young, healthy heart, when I was too plagued by nightmares to go it alone. I take a deep breath when Megan agonizes over college or friends and remember my dad sitting at the kitchen table with me at midnight, asking about my dreams, both of us laughing as the house slept around us. I try to hold on to the proof of my parents’ love in the many wonderful moments I had with them, then let go of the rest. I try.
It isn’t always easy. Something in me broke under the weight of my parents’ possessions. I sometimes wonder if my anxiety over owning things has grown too large—is perhaps like my mother’s hoarding, in reverse.
Because in my own house, for more than a year, I couldn’t relax. I bagged up donations, organized my pantry and closet, dumped stacks of old papers in the recycling bin. I mailed photos and mementos to my sister, to my cousins, to my aunt. I cleaned maniacally, desperately. Even now, I can barely stand to buy shoes. I will never buy another goddamn candle. If I could start over and not collect half the toys or clothes or furniture I now own, I probably would.
In many ways, though, I can’t go back. I attach and cherish. My husband and I have created a home with books and tools and framed photographs. I don’t force my kids to throw away their treasured stuffed animals or ticket stubs. I can’t get rid of everything. What do I do, then, short of burning down my house?
In late February, one month after the sale of my parents’ house and in between blitzkrieg cleaning sessions, I lay stretched on an exam table, my neck propped up, exposed. A woman smeared cold gel on my skin with the ultrasound wand and took pictures of suspicious thyroid nodules, quietly pressing and clicking. A week later, not liking what she saw, my doctor ordered a fine-needle biopsy. It took over a month to schedule and figure out the financing—five weeks of stress, of keeping the secret from my family because I didn’t want them to worry—so it wasn’t until early April that I lay on another table, holding my breath and body as still as possible as a needle plunged into my throat. My hands shook as I clasped them tightly in my lap, forbidden to contaminate the field between breasts and chin.
In the five days it took to get the results, I almost expected the worst, after a year where bad seemed to follow bad—another punch, another loss. If the test came back positive, I was relieved, at least, that my dad wouldn’t have to go through having a daughter with cancer.
When the call came, “negative for malignancy,” I unclenched my hands, closed my eyes.
“How long?” I hear my dad say. How long until I die? How do I want to spend my next forty years, if I am fortunate enough to have that much time?
I try not to think about those months spent cleaning out my family’s home. I have tucked away the years after my mom’s death, when my dad’s despair was bottomless, and the weeks before his death, when each day left me dizzy and afraid.
Instead, I imagine the second half of my life. I don’t want to spend it worrying about what I own. Yes, I will eventually buy new shoes, but my children will not find boxes stuck in the backs of closets or layers of stuff distinguishable by decade. I can buy with intention, in consideration of beauty and of what lasts. And my husband and I can move out of our house before we are besieged—say goodbye to the things we cherish and then let them go, instead of leaving the mess of our lifetimes behind. My daughters will have a safe port, but not one that weighs them down. They will have the space to miss me when I’m gone.
Each time I visit my parents’ shared grave, I read aloud their names carved in stone. The cemetery is up in the foothills, with a view of the Boise mountains. It is quiet and bright. I am sad, but also grateful. I had good parents and a good home.
Someday, I will travel down that final road, waving until my daughters are out of sight. I hope I can face the end with my dad’s grace, surrounded by love. I hope when I am gone, they will remember when I held them close and listened to their dreams. I hope they will stand in a sunlit space and think of home.
Hello and Love. Goodbye.