Back from the retreat of housesitting, faced with my room full of stuff, I began to panic again. But in slow, sad motion this time. Breaths were sighs, and I frequently stopped in the hallway, unsure if I was going to or coming from or what for.
I drove mournfully out to the strip mall to buy bananas. As a rule, I righteously execrate strip malls, but today something about being there made me happy.
I bought sesame sticks, toothpaste, a cutting board, a can opener, air freshener, a car cupholder (the General scorns such niceties), and a hoodie for $20.
Buying things made me feel safer, like I’m building up a shield against fallout, a stockpile against famine.
They anchored me to the idea that yes, I’m leaving. Yes, I’m attempting this enterprise. No, nobody can go with me.
I slogged back to my car through the August heat like I was in line at a wake. I wondered if this is how men feel before they get married.
(If so, I take back everything I ever said.)
I came home with the things I’d bought, to put more things away into boxes that I won’t look into for many months. Pictures, books, letters, ephemera whose merits for keeping I don’t have time to debate.
They are somehow important, but they cannot come with me.
I keep whittling away the supply of clothes I’m packing, as the memory slowly resurfaces of what “cold” really means.
When I told my parents about my intentions for the trip, they didn’t say much. Probably because I told them not to.
“I’m not leaving tomorrow,” I said. “I just wanted to give you a heads up. If you have concerns and questions, we can talk about them another time.”
So they said nothing.
Being alone is one thing; being left alone, my greatest fear, is another.
But those aren’t the only two possibilities.
There’s this third thing I’ve discovered…a slow drift, ineluctable, at a pace barely noticeable. You realize you haven’t hung out or freaked out or even “vented” with anyone for months; maybe longer.
The words you used to hang on from people you love seem now to come from the bottom of a well.
This drift is a guilty thing.
Worse than that—it’s a guilty pleasure.
The dreadful isolation that you’ve desperately fought, all of a sudden, makes sense. In fact, you find yourself welcoming it.
At least, I do.
They people I love have lost their power to make me stay.
My dad and I have been through a lot in the last year. I can’t explain it too well, because I don’t understand it.
We were always really close, and then suddenly we weren’t. It was really awful. We were constantly hurting and ignoring each other without meaning to, and then stiff-arming each other in protest.
One night, reminded by a Bach concerto how much I missed my dad, I asked if we could talk. It blew up into a fight truly grotesque in how little sense it made. I watched his face turn red and heard anger choke his voice out; he made as if to slam his palm down on the table but, as usual, couldn’t bring himself to show that much potential to wound.
In the midst of the hurt I felt at hurting him this deeply, and the anger I felt at him for making me feel guilty about my anger, I realized suddenly, ”He’s not angry at me. He’s angry that he’s helpless.”
Maybe a month later, things changed back to the way they were before. Better, actually. But there’s no moral to the story because I don’t know what repaired us, any more than what messed us up.
In regard to my trip, I didn’t feel the need for his approval. I just needed to know whether I had it or not.
I needed to know what I’d be risking.
“I have reservations about it,” he says. “Mostly because I like having you around. And traveling means you won’t be around.
“And also the concerns about safety, and finances, and all that kind of thing. So it’s hard for me to be”—he punches the air, awkwardly, because in real life he’d never do such a thing—“‘woo hoo,’ you know? ‘Go, go, go.’ When I’d be just as happy to have you ‘stay, stay, stay.’”
I can hear M. Ward in the background, singing “Here Comes the Sun Again.” I love that song; it’s maybe one of my favorite sappiest simplest songs, and right now I could just listen to it all night. Something way down inside me is floating like it’s on a lazy river.
“Several months ago,” he says, “I thought about telling you…there were things I wanted for you. That I thought would be good for you to want out of life. But I didn’t…”
He pauses, reformatting. He holds out his hand, counting.
“Those things are a settledness. And stability. Emotionally, financially. And I don’t see that this trip is a way to get them.
“But I don’t think that you have to want those things for yourself. I don’t think that’s the most important thing for you.
“And if this trip is something you want to do, and before God you think it’s something that he’s called you to, then I think you should do it.”
It’s hard to hear everything he’s saying, now. He’s saying something about freedom, about a Ted Talk he recently listened to, about a couple who put a stop to the success track they were on and backpacked with their one-year-old around Australia.
He’s rambling, like how my seventeen-year-old brother rambles when he gets on the subject of politics. This is what makes me realize that he’s matured, or maturing.
It’s wonderful that that can keep happening.
My dad is verging on sixty, and he’s lost weight on the “paleo” diet, is trying to adopt three African children, and now he’s telling me that he sees things are different in our modern world, the world I live in, than they were for him. And that maybe his world had it a little wrong.
And that he wants me to do what makes me happy.
This from the man who occasionally signed his emails with the Bob Dylan quote that “happy is a yuppie word”…and, given the right opportunity, might still do so.
But for me—for me—he’s changing his tune.
“Growing up,” he says, still on the subject of freedom, “I never thought about that. You know, doing what you love? It was go to school, get married, have kids, go to work. And I’m not complaining…”
He holds up his hand as if to stop one of us from speaking.
“But for you, and your sisters and your brother, I really want you to do what makes you happy. Before God, always. But I want you to do what makes you happy.”
I open my mouth; my voice is choked out.
“What?” His eyebrow quirks.
“Nothing,” I say. “It just makes me really happy to hear you say that.