Saturday, June 16, 2012

Father's Day will never feel the same

Father's Day will never feel the same. Not after last year.

My father was diagnosed with lymphoma one year ago on Father's Day 2011. Three months later the tenacious cancer claimed his life. The picture above appeared on his obituary in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sept. 15th of last year.

I have been thinking a lot about my father these past few weeks and a lot about this holiday. I miss my dad, but I have been miffed at him recently. Sometimes the telephone will ring and I half expect it to be him, telling me about a PBS special he thought I should watch or about a New York Times column by Maureen Dowd I need to read. I usually fielded these calls as gracefully as my personality would allow: not very.

I didn't like to be told what to do by him when I was growing up and, after I left home, I didn't like it any better. After bristling for years about being told what I should do with my free time, I wasn't always as patient as I could been. Now, of course, I wish I could take his call and agree with him: "Yes, thanks Dad, I should watch that Pete Seeger documentary. I will as soon as I get off the phone with you." I miss him. I even miss his unsolicited advice.

When my semester ended several weeks ago, I decided to finally begin the task of cleaning out my garage....a space my Dad appropriated soon after I took ownership of my home in Downingtown. In fact, his request to use my garage for storage came on the day of settlement. I received one of his hand-written notes in my mailbox on the afternoon the deed was signed over to me. I was impressed by his thoughtfulness when I tore open the envelope. How good of him, to wish me well in my new digs and to calculate the arrival time of his wishes for the precise day the house became mine. He had sent it three days earlier from Wisconsin, where he was visiting my sister.

Then I read his request and I had to stifle the urge to laugh. Two of my sisters had turned aside his request to use their basement or garage to store his stuff. Now he was making this request of me.  I was an easy mark. Unlike my sisters, I was divorced. I didn't have to answer to a spouse. On top of that, my brother had been helping my dad pay his bills. For years my father had used his homes as an ATM machine, borrowing against the equity to pay his bills. I knew I could save my dad (and the rest of us) nearly $300 a month if we stopped paying monthly rent on a storage unit in  Jenkintown.

I made a deal with my dad. If he would allow me to use half the garage to store my things: golf clubs, my lawn mower, two bikes, some boxes of books, he could use half of my garage space. But he would have to empty the storage unit and get rid of most of the stuff there. Although this pained him, he agreed. The local siblings rented a dumpster, had it delivered to the storage unit, and spent six hours filling it up with the stuff he couldn't squeeze into his allotted space in my garage. 

It was a sad day for my father. My mom, who dealt with my father's hording issues for decades, was happier than I had seen her in years. She couldn't conceal her delight in his misery. She smiled the whole day long.

Six months later, however, my mower and bicycles were stuffed into one corner of my garage. The rest of it was packed with his things. My golf clubs were transported to a basement closet. Boxes and boxes of his things filled the garage. Much of it was fishing and camping equipment; enough to outfit a small sporting goods store. There were tools. A variety of hammers and saws and shovels. And plastic tool boxes (some full, a few half-full, many totally empty). There were boxes of Gerber baby food jars full of screws, nails, bolts and tacks. This was stuff in plain sight. Other things he wisely kept hidden from me.

On the weekend of his funeral service, I invited my brothers, brothers-in-law and nephews to come and claim some of his camping and fishing equipment. Dozens of rods and reels, a gaffer hook, several sets of waders and fishing nets, pup tents and sleeping bags all left the premises. But in the last few weeks I have filled two garbage cans full of junk every time the trash collectors come, slowly emptying my garage of stuff he'd been gathering for years. 

Why he kept the stuff I've tossed out is hard to imagine. A few boxes were full of things that still had use. His clothes and several boxes of books I gave to Goodwill. Four spare wheels/tires I dropped off at Goodyear Tires. The rest of it boggled my mind. Scraps of wood. Dozens and dozens of empty 35 mm film cannisters. A box of half filled cans of paint, decades old and rusted shut. A box of spray paint cans, all empty. A box of old turpentine cans, also empty. A box of empty baby food jars. Several boxes of rags. A box of empty coffee tins. A box of rubber bicycle tire innertubes.Chemicals for his camper commode.

I feel a sense of some relief now that I can see space for my car. But there is a sense of sadness, too. A sense I had been used by my father for all those months, that he had needlessly appropriated garage space for this junk. All I really had done was enabled his hording pathology right to the bitter end. The stuff was so well hidden from view that, it occurred to me, he realized I would have tossed it all out once I discovered the contents of those boxes. 

As I unburden my garage of the flotsam of father's life, there is also the sad realization my father's hording issues have been passed on to me and some of my siblings. My own home is awash with "stuff." Thousands of CDs and records. Hundreds of books. Dozens and dozens of ball caps and sports jerseys. Things I don't really need but can't yet part with. I have a high tolerance for clutter and it bothers me.

Is seems inordinately difficult for me to unburden myself of my junk. I am not my father; I am not that "bad".

Not yet. 

Unfortunately, we can't always throw away the things our parents leave behind. Some of the stuff just sticks to you.

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