Haunted boxes

When my dad died he left behind a trail of despair. He owed money to the IRS, had credit card debt, no friends, estranged family, and lived with his ailing 85 year old mother.

The whole of his life's belongings were housed in a storage unit in Boulder, Colorado, where he'd lived off and on over the years, sometimes with his brother, Randy, and sometimes in his own.

Boulder always had special meaning to him; it was a magical land where snow capped mountains and its rugged, isolated beauty somehow resonated with his tortured soul. Colorado was where he'd met my mother. It was where he'd met a woman he once loved after my mother who died tragically in a car wreck in the mountains. Colorado, my sister and I were always told, was where he wanted to die. In a way, it was, even though his body was in a quaint hospice center that smelled of disinfectant and flowers in west Phoenix .

In the years since splitting with my mother in 1987 he lived in two apartments in Fairfield and two different places in Martinez, CA. Once Gabby graduated high school in 1996 he left California for Colorado, his mecca, never to return. He called Boulder home, Denver, too, Austin, TX (twice), Portland, OR, and finally Phoenix.

Somehow during all this time, he'd organized the things he loved into boxes.

And twice I cut him off from me.

The first time was in 1995 after he'd come to Austin to visit me just after I'd moved here. He told me disgusting stories about a woman he was dating and wouldn't stop even when I begged him to. He followed me around on campus and smothered me until I would cry to my mother asking her "Why is he like this??" One day, when I came home from school I found he had left Austin abruptly and left me a letter saying he'd found some drug paraphernalia of mine. He said it hurt him too much to deal with and recommended I go to rehab. And just like that, he was gone.

I wasn't surprised by this. The morning before I'd left for school I'd booby-trapped my bedroom, knowing he was on the verge of snooping around my room. The old paraphernalia he'd found was so old and so tucked away in a side zipper of an unused purse that I hadn't even though of it (he was nothing if not thorough). All of my booby-traps were sprung. All of them.

I didn't talk to him for two years.

The second time I cut him out was "for good." After years of inappropriate behavior from him and emotional violations I told him to leave me alone until he could control himself.

It was a heartbreaking decision for me. I had invested years of my life to working on my relationship with my father, begging, teaching, pleading, screaming, writing, and showing him how I wanted him to be with me. But he never heard me. The whole of our relationship revolved around him, his life, his relationships, his family (his mother, father, and brothers), his sex life, and his health. I knew intimate details about everyone, but could share not one intimate detail of myself for fear of utter rejection, judgment, or ridicule. I was his mentor and friend. Never a daughter.

Shortly after this second split I learned of unforgivable things he did to someone I cherish. She is half my heart and he hurt her, inexplicable and egotistically. If there had ever been a crack in the door to having a relationship with him, it was now gone forever.

Any thought of my father conjures up feelings of guilt, anger, frustration, and immense sadness. I've never wanted anything more than a father. A real father whom I could trust and feel real with. A father who wouldn't leer at me or sexualized me. A father who wasn't consumed with himself. A father who didn't use me to feel better about himself. His children, I think, were proof to him that he wasn't who he really was: a supremely fucked up narcissistic human being whose universe, sadly, centered around himself, a person, who in his own estimation, wasn't worth the air he breathed.

If I were painting a portrait of who he was I would create a vast emptiness, a bleak, stark, sad, yearning landscape of a face. An emptiness of worth so tragic the very life of me would be sucked out through my mouth and nose.

This, for me, is, and was my father.

And so it came to me this week to go through his boxes. The few that my uncle had picked out for me to get from that storage unit in Boulder. He'd sent them to Texas a couple of months after Dad died, but I couldn't even think to open them up. I had them shipped to Mom who then put them in her storage unit, which she and Terry just rediscovered this weekend when they emptied it out.

She called to softly tell me they were there and what should she do with them?

"Bring them here."


"Yeah. I'm ready."

And I was. I am. The pain I feel for my Dad's life and death mobilizes a source of strength in me that I can't explain. It was there when I flew to Phoenix to see him on his deathbed. It was there every time he called me scared and crying because he was hallucinating from the pain meds he was on in hospice. It was there when I held his cold, heavy hand in his hospice gurney. It was there when I told him, in all honestly, that I loved all the good parts in him and wished him well on his new journey. It was there when my sister and I flew back out, days after he died, to move his mother, unbeknownst to her, into assisted living and to sit through his "memorial" delivered by his shell-shocked older brother.

And I used it to open the first box sitting on my kitchen table, cautiously delivered by my mother hours before. It was a flat box and I thought it might be artwork of his beloved giraffes (he'd had tons of giraffe figurines and framed art), but it wasn't. It held two innocuous framed art pieces of my sister's, ostensibly gifts from her. - I'm going to hang them both in Hawk's room.

The second box held photos of my childhood and tons of our schoolwork, PTA fliers, father's day cards from us, pictures we'd drawn him, swim meet ribbons and programs, my 8th grade manatee report, poems by my sister when she was 10, and notes from our bathroom mirror he would leave us every morning reminding us of chores, goings on and to not kill each other.

The third, and last box, held more photos, mostly old family portraits of his family, some scrapbooks my grandmother made him, his sketches of a solar-powered car complete with fins and white-walled tires, a lock of his baby hair and the first baby tooth he lost.

I was brutal in my choice of which things to keep, choosing to keep those photos before he broke our family apart, when we thought we were all happy. I kept photos of him and my mother when they were long-haired and passionate about each other. I also chose to keep the photos of him as a young boy with his mother and brothers. I tossed out countless photos of him and us together and miserable, which was most of the time. - I'm going to show Hawk his grandfather's ideas on solar-powered cars.

Of everything, three things made me feel something other than studious archaeological focus: the note that said, "#1 Dad" written in crayon on faded construction paper, the lock of his dark blond baby hair, and his tiny, ivory, baby tooth. All three represented innocence and potential... and in that I felt great loss. The first, a little girl's strident belief that her dad could really be number one, and the second, two physical remnants which were reminders that my father, as shrunken in esteem as he ended up, was once also very innocent and full of potential himself.

I cried my eyes out as I was finished because how sad is it to have the sum of your relationship with your daughter be of her kneeling on a hardwood floor with a big empty box to her right and a pile of shit she doesn't want of yours in front of her? Things you held to be precious, your only link to the life you once had with her and others. And yet, I felt no compulsion to hold onto these things and this wrung out my heart: that no one was left on this planet who wanted the mementos of his existence. No one.

As I softly cried, pitifully, Rooster came and knelt down with me and put his arms around me, "I'm so sorry you have to do this," he said huskily. Again, more tears because I'm sorry I have to, too.

It's been a few days since that night and I feel the shroud of despair has waned. My father built his life based on crippling self-doubt and character inadequacies he was never equipped to change despite ruining countless lifelong relationships with his daughters, wife, and friends alike. I cannot continue to take care of him posthumously as I did in life, even his memory. His life was what he made of it and it's not my fault I don't want his lock of hair or baby tooth. It's ultimately his.

I love the idea of my father, the man he wanted so badly to be and who I wanted him to be, but so utterly failed to achieve. I knew he cherished my sister and I even while he treated us horribly. I love his little boy self. His young man self. It's these make-believe men that I love, not the man I actually knew. The man I knew wasn't actually lovable, I think, if you can even say that about a person.

The boxes are now put away, the pictures organized and tagged for albums. I have a benign pile of things for my sister and my mom came and took the things she wanted (oddly, many of her mother's day cards were in these boxes). I will frame the pictures of me and my sister from Olan Mills and especially the one I'm scared to honor: a picture of me in a carrier on my dad's back. My hair is just past my ears and its baby fineness has caused it to swoosh back in a big curl. I'm looking over my father's right shoulder, intently on some knew sight from this tall vantage point, there are crowds around us. Perhaps we are at the zoo. He's looking off into the same distance, his hair brown and much like mine. He is sturdy and caring and we are sharing this moment, this space.

I'd like to think this was the best time I ever had with him. It is how I want to remember him because I cannot forget him. No matter how much I wish I could. He is my father, the only one I ever had. Good, bad, or utterly ugly, he is all I have ever had and known. It's now up to me decide how I go forward. It's all up to me now.


  1. Hey. It's been so long since I last checked in...I've actually been sitting on an e-mail since your post a while back pondering delayed grief (Levi, your dad). I'll save that for a real letter (!), but I want to give you an e-hug for this post.


  2. Oh Jessica... I'm so sorry for all the pain this caused you. It couldn't have been easy. But this was a very beautifully written piece about your father, and your emotions.

  3. This post made me cry... i am so sorry for the relationship that you didn't have with your father... i do not have a good relationship with my mother, all i have ever wanted from her is to just take responsibility for her actions...

    I love your view/perspective on life..