I can still see some of the insides of the house where I was born. I can hear the crackling sound of a radio and then an alarm going off in the middle of certain nights, the signal that my father, a volunteer firefighter in the mid-1970s, needed to leave right away and go save someone and put out a fire. On cue, and for reasons I don’t know exactly now, I would race out of my bedroom at the age of about three, in a panic. Something in my brain even then told me that Dad might die, so I would run to him and use his foot as a seat. Repeatedly, I would feel the sway of my father’s leg trying to swiftly advance down the hallway with a three-year-old’s weight then added, and I was clinging to his leg for dear life—mostly his. In those moments, I wasn’t giggling or smiling with this action that was sometimes a game in the daytime. No, it was different in the middle of the night and more of a last-ditch effort on my part to convince my father to stay.
Once we reached the kitchen, my mom would pull me off with my still-grasping arms and panicking insides, now external in the form of tears and gasps, and somehow I was guided back to bed, falling back into slumber only after crying for loss and fear that he would not return.
I wish my father had stayed longer.
I walked away, defeated, knowing I’d have to complete the body identification to get the key. But did I want it?
“I want you in charge of things, Erika – if anything ever happens to me,” Dad had said, giving me the key a year and a half before his home was abandoned.
But this key proved fruitless even in my desperation, even with Princess barking frantically on the other side of the door; she knew she’d been left and probably peed the floor. The key that now lay in my sweaty palm didn’t work—he’d changed the locks. Superhuman strength was my wish as I threw my weight into the barrier before me, cursing, as the dog’s squeak-like barks eerily subsided. How could someone just leave life like that? No warning.
I gave the condo building where Dad had lived one last glance, imagining myself breaking a window after scaling the now-peeling, painted wooden siding that stretched espresso brown about 12 feet across where the living room window had seasonally showcased a small Christmas tree for at least a decade—a tree that I always helped decorate. The small, green lawn that separated me from my potential climb stretched out just enough to the sidewalk to hold a very old, once-brown-but-now-gray picnic table that Dad had built himself. Many grilled meals had been eaten at the table, never lacking barbecue sauce and a bit of the tasty char that I loved. Noticing the improved siding as the building stretched upward, I imagined myself running up the stairs to the second floor, where Dad had once stood shaving at the bathroom sink, careful to preserve his Kenny Rogers-like visage. This condo building before me suddenly seemed bland, especially when an equal number of attached condos maintained the same, slightly worn look on either side. But at least they still held life.
Later that night, after we’d completed the body identification and gotten the keys, I returned only to retrieve the dog. I cried when I saw her, telling her with my eyes that her owner would not return and that I felt terribly guilty she was hungry, uncomfortable, and scared. My depleted energy gave me just enough strength to gather her bowls, food, and leash; it’s as though I could see nothing else in my father’s residence that night. I would have to deal with what he left another time. Princess was saved and shared my bed that night, where she nipped my fingers every time I moved in a fitful sleep. Two months later I would learn from one of Dad’s best friends, Posey, who worked with him at the bar, that he had been so drunk on St. Patrick’s Day and had broken his key in the lock; he’d changed the locks just two weeks before he died because he had to break into his own place.
I entered Dad’s home again two days later with trepidation so paralyzing that initial, normal smells were suffocating. How could Winstons smoked several days before still be evident, trapped? And didn’t the living’s scent just die along with the living?
Truly abandoned was this place with cigarette ash still powdering the tray next to a well-worn chair. Shoes sat frozen beneath the coffee table my younger brother once jumped from, planting a nice goose egg right-smack between his eyes. Light did not touch the top of the stairs, and I quickly glanced away, knowing that’s where the ghost would be. I did not know my purpose in the midst of this place that suddenly claimed me as responsible owner. It needed to be purged and rejuvenated as most abandoned homes rightfully should be, but I could not bring myself to rid this cavern of memories. My first task? I dumped molded coffee grounds from the unit that had been last preset three days earlier for automated caffeine. This task alone took great effort; unclean dishes would have to wait their turn. It was all so overwhelming, this owner’s sudden disappearance. Then I sat, falling into my dad’s overstuffed chair, feeling abandoned myself. The chair initially jerked with the sudden addition of my weight and then settled into a steady rocking, as if to calm me—just as my dad used to rock me to sleep.
My father’s death had reached out and pressed my world’s pause button, yet everyone wanted decisions quickly made. I was 24—half of Dad’s age. I needed to offer Bible verses and songs to the priest as I sat in the church office with my siblings, planning the funeral mass at St. Anthony’s, where Dad had been an altar boy and drunk the wine when the priests were out of sight. I had already drained my graduate-student-plus-two-jobs savings in three days to cover the church service, priest, and organist. The next day, I would pick out flowers and arrangements with “Father,” “Son,” and “Brother” banners; and the flowers had been selected only after I had dropped off Dad’s funeral clothes with the funeral director. Flowers that I made sure were included were among my favorites: white stargazers, a beautiful, sweet-smelling lily with speckled pink petal centers and strong, tall stamens, in recognition of the many times Dad and I had spent looking at stars, whether camping or just outside his home. Often I told him that I wasn’t going to bed until I saw a shooting star, no matter how much my neck strained.
Dad’s funeral clothes were one of several rubs with his family, this time with Grandma.
“He should be in a suit,” she insisted.
“Grandma, with all due respect, I can count on one hand the number of times my dad wore a suit, and that includes his three weddings,” I said calmly. “Dad needs to be in his black jeans and Harley vest, but I’ll consider a nice shirt.”
She huffed over proper funeral attire for the deceased in a few conversations, but just as Dad ducked her scissors several times when she threatened to cut his ponytail, I would not allow her this final victory in choosing his appearance. I could feel Dad’s gratefulness.
All of these considerations comprised a stifling weight that seemed too large for my shoulders during the week of his death. Yet I mechanically and strongly pressed on. I had come to the abandoned residence to escape my phone that rang at least 30 times per day to soak up Dad’s spirit in any way possible and to just somehow be with Dad. Sitting in his place gave me comfort and chills at the same time. Dad had died unexpectedly at work, but his place gave off the sense that he had died there in some painful, sudden way. And maybe I hoped he’d walk through his door, claiming it was all a big joke. I just wanted him back.
I dared to go upstairs, turning on every light possible, knowing my fear. The bathroom included his brush on the counter, thick with his long strands of blonde-gray-brown hair. The yellow glow of the bathroom and open shower curtain visible from the hallway seemed stagnant. I walked through the door connecting his bathroom to his room and suddenly felt my stomach drop in the bedroom that was low-lit and still holding stale smoke. I flashed back to a year and a half before when Dad led me to his room and said, “If anything ever happens to me…” and proceeded to show me his lockbox with important papers and the underwear drawer that held his gun. He didn’t actually show me the gun at the time, but when I asked—surprised—why he had one at all, he admitted that he “bought it off of a buddy at the bar who needed money” and unconvincingly added that it might be good for protection, too. My dad was not the violent type.
I was in charge. Yes.
The gun. Dad had a gun, and I needed to make sure I was tracking things he’d specifically noted on that when-something-happens-to-me tour. Walking to his dresser, I cautiously dug through the middle drawer and unexpectedly jumped back when my fingers found the cold, dense metal of the pistol. I felt amped, and my dad’s bedroom felt heavy with his scents, his presence. I had never held or fired a real gun, and somehow I expected that the gun could easily fire. Recovering and searching for consolation, I pulled at various clothing in his bottom dresser’s drawers, determined to find something that would warm me. A deep chill within only deepened with the cold emptiness of this abandoned place. I found his plain charcoal sweatshirt and buried my face into the faint, comforting smell of Winstons and Old Spice. Then I was suffocating. Tears consumed me like floodwaters without bounds. I blindly hit light switches on my way out of his room and in hallways and bounded down the stairs, glancing at baby pictures of my two same-father siblings and me on the wall of the staircase – pictures Dad had positioned there about two years before he was gone.
Turning off the light in the kitchen, I noticed the countertop left as if someone would return later that same day to clean and order items as they should be kept. But he would not return. The table was strewn with keys, newspapers, and two packs of cigarettes.
Sunday mornings at Dad’s. I would step into the hazy, smoke-filled kitchen, Sunday paper sprawled out across the table with the comics – already read – on top, an ashtray full and smoldering, coffee mug half-full and steaming, open canister of powdered coffee creamer and milky spoon nearby, heavily buttered toast tucked within the clutter on the table in this cluttered scene. “Good morning, sleepyhead,” he might say, even though it was usually only about eight in the morning.
I had paused long enough and needed to get home to Princess who would need a new, dependable owner as soon as possible. Lights off and the empty house speeding my departure, I felt the deadbolt find its place and walked nervously to my car, glancing over my shoulder, wondering if I’d see Dad’s ghost. Dad would typically follow me out when saying good-bye; at the short staircase leading to the parking lot, he would stop, hug me, and watch me walk to my car. Dad wouldn’t leave until I’d started the engine and waved.
ERIKA M. SCHRECK is a writer, reiki master, communications and marketing consultant, tarot reader, and crafter who grew up in southeastern Wisconsin but found her home and peace in Colorado. After spending 14 years as a university writing instructor, Erika now offers holistic and intuitive services and assists entrepreneurs and writers with a multitude of professional services. She believes life is too short to be crabby and deeply loves and appreciates her wise dog Harley. @ErikaMSchreck