When Ben went to my dad’s house for the first time after his death, he agreed; it was nowhere near the site of barely managed piles of magazines, newspapers and books that we had known for years. It had been cleared of the clutter of every day life.
But once it became “mine” — in the space bubble that an “estate” holds for its administrator — the house didn’t sound so empty.
For years, it had been agreed that it would be unhealthy for me to enter. For years, Tucker had insisted that he wanted to get in to see the house when my father was dead. That would have been practical, as Ben and Tuck together could have certainly gotten some work done in getting things out and getting the house ready for sale.
But it didn’t work that way. Tuck had finals, and graduate school applications to complete. Ben spent a lot of time going out to the house alone, doing a lot of work.
The first few weeks after my father’s death gave me a spacey sort of relief, and nebulous concept that we now had a house to sell, which would turn into money, which would turn into home improvements for our family. But about three weeks after my father’s death, I suddenly realized he was dead. The bubble of relief deflated. I was overwhelmed by how much of his physical stuff was infiltrating my present.
Since so much of what I have to do, particularly in the time of year leading up to Parade of Spirits, Liberty Lands, does not require leaving the house, I didn’t think that was such a big deal that I had, aside from weekends, stopped leaving it. But it was definitely something the kids were keeping track of. When I was not the person who picked them up in the schoolyard, or was still in pajamas or seated on the couch when they came in, this was noticed. They wanted to know if I had “gotten up yet”. A little demoralizing, particularly on days when making it to the first floor and working there on my own had been a pretty big deal. (And on days when I had spent the hours they were gone making them a set of The Lion in Winter-themed hand puppets for Christmas.)
Ben and our friend Chris went to take a swipe at clearing out my dad’s house for a day. When the day was over, it was clear that there were far more visits to the house to schedule than we had planned for. Also on that day, Béla had had a meltdown at school, over a broken pencil. While angry that someone had intentionally broken his pencil, he also worried that the incident would be “another thing to make Mommy sad.” Mommy was becoming sadder and sadder, and there was no hiding it.
It had been a month and a half since my father’s death, and what I perceived would have been the “mourning period” seemed now to be over — and I felt far worse than I had when he died.
I had often over the years tried to picture what being told my dad was finally dead would be like. I had never pictured being alone in the bathroom and receiving the information by text, which is what happened. Although I had been anxious and impatient about the specifics of the cremation, in hindsight — pretty much immediate hindsight — having Ben tell me “it should happen between five and seven tonight,” and then have everyone leave the house for various classes, leaving me home alone during those hours, was not a great plan. At least, not if the goal had been to not create another really bad memory. It was a miserable couple of hours.
Our next door neighbor’s sister died of a brain tumor a few weeks after my dad died. For about a week, I took in plants and flowers as they were delivered to their home while they were at work. I was surprised to see this — is this what happened when someone died? I did not get cards or flowers, but I certainly wouldn’t have liked, or kept them, and it’s easy to presume that everyone knew that.
Our friends next door were grieving for someone they loved, whose death seemed truly unfair, and was a tragedy for them. That, it seemed to me, was what all the flowers and plants were for; not the death itself. I had “grief”, but it was not what they were experiencing.
I did not see friends. I could not commit to getting dressed to go to breakfast, or have anyone visit. I knew that I was not okay. It is tricky stuff, being truthful with your friends and saying “I feel really alone and like this passage has not been adequately acknowledged,” but also saying “I don’t think anybody else should have done anything different.” It didn’t leave me, or anyone who cared about me, with very many alternatives.
Tucker’s maternal grandmother was, as she always is, ready to do anything for us, but I couldn’t figure out what that was. I talked to her on the phone in the 24 hour period in which we were waiting for my dad to die, and I said, “I don’t even know what it is I’m supposed to want when you say you’re ‘here for me’.” I remembered that as a child, I would find an insect, maybe a caterpillar, and continually put a stick or leaf in its path, hoping it would interact with it in some way. And the insect would either just stop entirely, or turn and go another direction, no matter how many times I interrupted it. And that is what I had felt like. An insect, being sporadically offered a monolith, and unable to do anything except sit and stare in front of it, or plod around it.
But I realized that I had been picturing something — maybe like a sick day or two –when Ben stayed home from work and Tuck stayed home from school, and maybe we just hung out at home and went for a walk and talked about things. It hadn’t happened, and I think if it had, it might have been the stitch in time that saved nine — or, in my case, one very bad week of staying mostly in a food-stained bed and crying and dry-swallowing anxiety and anticonvulsive meds six weeks after my father’s death.
I barely functioned through Halloween and its attendant activities. I have always wrung every moment and scent out of October. This October, there were still mosquitoes and flies around. It was hot, and the air conditioning was still on. I barely knew it was happening. I didn’t care.
I thought it was good for my kids to get out to school every day, to get away from my gloom. It wasn’t. This was the year — and we saw signs of it as early as September — that they looked at their school and saw NO FUTURE scrawled on its walls. Claudia was coming home every day, getting out the punching bag and gloves, and pounding away for an hour. Béla was making a lot of vague trips during the school day, to the nurses’ office.
We had always known the kids’ school to be full of limitations — but we had been happy with their kindergarten and first-grade years, and had supported the school in all the ways we could. We knew the school was staffed by teachers, some of whom had confided in me that they thought about quitting at least once a week, and who sat in their cars and cried at the end of the day more often than that. We never expected them to stay there through eighth grade; I’m not sure we even expected them to stay through fourth.
But this fall, Claudia was on the snippy end of too many teacher’s Bad Days. And she took them to task for it. She pointed out their inconsistencies and their outright failures, and reasonable counterarguments failed to appear, and it was pretty unimpressive.
And it wasn’t just herself Claudia was worried about. It was the kids who had one uniform and wore it every day. It was the kids who were hungry, or sick very often. Both Claude and Béla were depressed by what they saw, and how little was being done to create any sense of equality, or even privacy, for students in situations less comfortable their own. Tucker and I had been present in the hallway at the school while one teacher talked loudly and derisively about the learning disabilities of one of her own students, with so many personal details, and such personal disgust, that we left, even though it was this teacher we had been waiting to speak to.
Pretty soon, it was the exception rather than the rule if the kids made it through the day without a phone call having to transpire. The school was worried that Claudia in particular had “lost respect” for some of her teachers. We would have been worried if she hadn’t.
The writing really was on the wall. Ben contacted the district, I wrote the kids’ educational objectives, and we prepared to homeschool. We went from feeling continually defensive and angry, to feeling giddy and excited. Writing the kids’ objectives was like building a gingerbread house, and talking with Ben and Tuck about all the things we could finally do — and the time we would have to do them — was a big distraction, and a big deal.
On the day we went to to finalize the last affadavit, realized I had left my ID at home just as we’d gotten to the office. A stupid oversight at a time when Ben could not really afford the extra time; his phone was going off nonstop, as he’d left a team at the kitchen, working.
We raced home and back to the notary, just in time to see my favorite high school teacher arriving at the same door.
“Amber,” she said, “Just who I need.”
I’d not had a conversation with this woman in thirty years. I knew she lived nearby; we had seen each other from a distance, and I believe she had seen the children with me in line once at Whole Foods. She wanted to know why we were at the notary, and we told her.
“They’ll never have a better teacher,” she said.
And she spent a good twenty-five minutes arguing with the notary as she got Ben and I to witness her newest version of her will. She was truly the only teacher I had ever had whom I had loved and respected. And there she was. As beautiful as Deborah Harry. Telling me, as it was notarized, that I was the right person to educate my children.
Another gift from the universe.
When we told the kids the homeschooling paperwork had been approved, we expected they’d want to go to school up until holiday break. But the next day, Claudia had witnessed a heartbreaking interaction involving the kids who needed the free meal plan at school (whom she should not have been able to identify from the kids who didn’t need it, and therein lay quite a bit of the problem). “Can I say ‘damn’?” Claudia asked, after telling Tuck and me this story when she got home. I said yes.
“I’m done with that damn place,” she said.
The next day, December first, I was homeschooling.
And planning for Parade of Spirits, Liberty Lands. And Christmas. But I think homeschooling — the terror of being dropped like a lobster into the pot, and the immediate freedom, and deluge of ideas it gave us — pulled me out of my grief.
So did the death of Leon Russell. From the day after my dad died — when the news was announced that Monty Python’s Terry Jones had been diagnosed with dementia — I began joking that my dad was taking all his favorite people with him. (Ron Glass, and Father Mulcahy, right up until the last day of 2016.) But losing Leon Russell was the biggest loss to me. I loved Leon. For as long as I could remember, my father had described to me a televised live performance by Leon Russell where, on the stage, “women were making pies”. He talked about this literally up until the end of our relationship, lamenting that there was no way to see it (none that he could figure out, anyway) and on the day of Leon’s death I posted about this elusive footage on Facebook.
I told Ben I expected someone to find it for me by the end of the day. Even though I had looked on my own in the past and failed, I was sure. And I was right.
The guy who found this concert — which we have watched in its entirety a number of times — is someone I only knew from a South Philly Facebook group. I had liked that he had at one time had a profile photo of a painting of Terry Jones from Monty Python, playing the piano in the nude. When my dad died, this person coached me through some of the earliest figuring-out of my father’s books and ephemera. He also told me about how his career as an appraiser had begun by handling a family estate. He told me to think of this part as “a marathon and not a sprint,” and while I wasn’t happy about it, I knew he was right.
The Homewood Sessions with Leon Russell — with gorgeous Emily making her pie crust and dancing with her rolling pin — became the first real celebration of loss that I could experience with the children.
If this came up in a previous post, I’ll say it again anyway: Tear Soup is about the best book on grief you can share with your kids. We slipped it to the next door neighbors during their grieving as well. I was able to do that only when I did not need the book, or need the children to look at the book, or need Tucker and Ben to sit and look with the children at the book, every day.
That time passed.
It seemed like my dad’s belongings, once seeming so meager and aesthetic, were multiplying as soon as our backs were turned. Ben found a silver coin collection, and took it to a dealer and sold it. The dollar amount was the exact number of my father’s street address.
Two days after dispensing with the coin collection, Joey, the next-door neighbor who had been reading Tear Soup and spackling and painting my dad’s house to prepare it for sale, called Ben. He’d just found a coin collection. This one, much older than my dad’s collection. Because it was his dad’s collection.
How this had been overlooked, by both Ben and Chris, who had really been through the house top to bottom, we still aren’t sure. We were living in the Groundhog Day of estate dispersement.
My friend Jana in Tucson, Arizona, who was planning on coming out for Parade of Spirits, asked me to make some aesthetic choices with her on the headpiece/puppet she was making: Leon Russell as the Frost King. She came that week, along with other friends, and we got to help make Leon, while having the Homewood Sessions concert on in the other room. Leon the Frost King was at Parade of Spirits, and Jana and her husband left him on our stoop at about midnight that night.
When Joey from next door returned Tear Soup, the out-of-the-way shelf I’d like to have put it on was blocked by our enormous, beautiful Christmas tree, but I put it out of the way all the same, letting the children know I didn’t think I’d need to look at it again for awhile.
The house is still not on the market, but it is closer. Many of the things are gone. No new things are being added. I’ve paid, I believe, both the estate and property taxes. Ben continues to make trips to the house, and although he began by running Craigslist ads, much of what we needed to get rid of — a pneumatic recliner, sports jackets — were taken as “payment” by friends who have helped with the cleanout/fixup process.
Although Tuck had begun inheriting the obvious — the puzzle cubes, the wooden boxes, the odd sticks — he also ended up with many new pairs of shoes (I would not have guessed he and my dad had the same sized feet), a hat with a Celtic knot pattern in it that I knitted my father in 2004 (when Tucker was ten), and, unless someone changes their mind, his bed (which apparently has a brand new adjustable, massaging, heated, memory foam mattress. It’s a bit hard to pass up).
Tucker remains — from the day I found out about my dad’s dementia diagnosis, and continues to be — my closest friend when it comes to talking about the loss of a parent that was arguably better lost than continued alongside. He is the person to whom I can express my lack of sadness, but my rage at my lack of closure. Neither of us expect closure, and neither of us want our parent back. I expect there’s something quite different about it happening to a fourteen year-old than there is for a forty-six year old, but when it comes down to the quiet talking on the couch, no, maybe not so much different.
But as he has watched Ben and his father dot every i and cross every t in relation to my dad’s estate — for both me and my sister — Tuck has been seeing me get much more than he himself got when his mother died.
Still, a paper maché and wool Leon Russell looks out of our front window grandly, and my children say “Let me try it,” “Let me figure it out,” “Let me experiment with it,” more than I ever thought they would, and no, homeschooling them does not mean being with them “all the time” and it certainly doesn’t mean being sick of them. I didn’t get what I needed when my dad died, but I didn’t get what I needed when I was a kid who hated school, either. I’ve given my kids what they need, and I know how to help someone else through a complex loss now, too. Things are changing; I am positive that I am closer to living my most authentic life, the life I was meant to live because I am so fucking great at every element that goes into it, than I ever have been before.