Goodbye to my Former Life


I heedlessly walked around the house, wasting valuable time. If I had stopped to think clearly and honestly, I would have made different and far wiser choices.

On the Christmas morning following the fire, I received a gift from my middle daughter Amelia along with a brief letter, the kind that any parent would cherish until the end of time. As I read it with soggy eyes, it suddenly occurred to me: this was the latest in a procession of notes and letters and drawings from my kids that I had squirreled away in the middle drawer of the pine desk Walter made for me and that I regularly took out and reread. This was the newest installment in twenty years of daughter-to-dad artifacts that charted the growth of my relationship with my children, each item dripping with emotion and blissful remembrance.

But I never gave them a thought, nor did I even remember them, until I read my daughter’s Christmas letter four months later.

I was snapped out of my autopilot mode by the sight of my neighbor Gordon standing in my driveway, his roundish face radiating a weird combination of geniality and dead-level seriousness and his thinning hair whipping about. He was wearing a T-shirt and shorts, and his car was parked behind mine on the circular driveway.

“Much as I hate to say it, I think it’s time for us to get out of here,” he said.

If Gordon—the last man standing—was saying this, who was I to argue with him? “Maybe it’s good you pulled up,” I said. “Now I have a reason to leave.”

I went back inside and was suddenly stricken by the vulnerability of everything I saw, like a parent watching an oblivious child wander toward the street. The ash floor in the living room was where my grandson Ben and I had spent the prior Memorial Day weekend together while everyone else was outof town. On our knees and haunches, we played with blocks and built towers out of Legos. I read him books, picked up the messes he made as he crawled about, and marveled at what had come to me in my middle age.

The kitchen island under the incandescent skylight was the altar where we held our family rituals built around food. I piled the tomatoes, peppers, and melons I had grown over the past four months on the countertop to the left of the island. The plates we received as wedding presents more than three decades ago were stacked on the shelves above the dishwasher. Our wood-handled silverware—also from when we got married—sat in the top drawer near the sink.

The bookshelves Walter made were crammed with books Holly and I began accumulating in our college days at street fairs where several paperbacks could be had for less than a cup of coffee. Looking at the oldest and most thread-bare books, I saw our college minds reflected back. Some were embarrassing (was I really a Marxist then?), some inexplicable (how could anyone read that turgid philosophical stuff?), but most were choices I would still make (Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, Shakespeare, Thornton Wilder).

Not counting the books I’d bought most recently, most of them hadn’t been touched in years, except for when we boxed them up and moved. But throwing any of them out was unthinkable. They were a literary map of our marriage and side-by-side intellectual evolution. We’d keep them for the rest of our lives.

On the farthest-to-the-right bookshelf were the frayed and barely-holding-together children’s books that were passed down from daughter to daughter. I had read each of them to my daughters in the same way: lying in their beds, side by side on our backs, with the smell of their baths in their hair. Sometimes I would read part of a sentence and they would finish it. With In the Night Kitchen propped on my chest, we’d laugh at naked little Mickey standing next to a giant bottle of milk as they pointed at his wiener. They’d growl the Wild Things growl or come under the spell of Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant, not making a sound except their breathing.

The books leaned against one another, stockpiled for overnight visits from Ben and his future siblings or cousins. We’d wait to replace them until they fell completely apart.

Across from the bookshelves was a small closet where we kept our games, sports equipment, and VHS videos we intended to convert into digital format. As I took a quick look at the labels on some of them—dance recitals, family vacations, and home videos of the girls when they were newborns, crawling, or barely walking—I chided myself for waiting this long to cash them in for DVDs. I promised myself that not another Christmas would go by before we started watching them again, as we used to do in the Long Trail House, splayed on the L-shaped leather sofa with the girls in their pj’s and me in my sweats.

As I passed Miranda’s bedroom, I thought of her harvest of Special Olympics medals for running, long jumping, and relay hanging in her closet. Some were from the regional meet held each spring just north of Austin and others from the annual state meet in Fort Worth the week before school let out for the summer. I had seen her win almost every one. They rattled against each other whenever she slammed her door. It was a happy sound.

I could no longer deny that this might be a moment I would later recognize as the dividing line.  If my intuition was right, there was only one small thing I could do about it, with Gordon waiting for me in the hazy and tangy air. I reached for two dust-coated bottles of French wine at the bottom of my wine rack so that I could keep my promise to Amelia.

With a bottle in each hand, I kicked the front door shut. After locking it, I led Gordon out of my driveway, casting a final sideways glance at the house and wishing I had snapped a pic on my smartphone before setting off. As I began my drive back, I noticed that Gordon was no longer visible in my rearview mirror.

Five minutes into my ride, I was thunderstruck by what I had done. My car was filled with stuff that could be replaced in an afternoon while the items that could never be replaced were still there.

As I turned back into our driveway, with the acrid wind buffeting my car, I realized why I had lost sight of Gordon. He had stopped to lock our mutual gate, a red cast-iron bar that swung across our shared driveway. It was the first time either of us had done that since we lived there.

I could have unlocked the gate and done what I set out to do. But the voice inside my head urging me back was drowned out by another one: “Gordon is gone. Not only that, he locked the gate. He’s not coming back. Are you seriously going to stay when he, of all people, has bailed out?”

I looked at what Gordon had done with a combination of regret and relief. My home, my trees, and my garden were now off-limits, a No Trespassing sign posted over my life as I knew it.

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