The word “father” has never really meant to me what I think it means to most people. For me, “father” was a cold thing, to which I attribute freshly pressed suit-jackets and long hours at the office. My father was never the one to show up to T-ball games, or take me out to see a movie late on a Friday night. The father that I knew was cold and distant. But I have learned that the funny thing about the world is that it’s always changing. Perspectives morph, and stories alter. My story with my father most certainly does not end here. Much to my surprise, it began only a short while ago.
My heels clicked on the stark white tiles of the hospice wing of the hospital. The frigid air seemed to be a fitting environment for my father, whose algid personality I had gone numb to years prior.
The hospital had called me a day earlier to inform me of his rapidly declining condition, mostly attributed to his old age. He had been admitted to hospice only a few weeks earlier. I arrived only to pick up a couple of things that he insisted I have, like the key to his safe deposit box and his house key.
I checked in and walked down to his room. It was empty, unlike the others that I passed on my way down. Those rooms had visitors, and were covered in flower arrangements and pictures of family members. My father’s room was empty.
His pale complexion caused him to blend into the washed out colors of the hospital room and the bed sheets. He turned to look at me, no sparkle in his eyes, not a trace of affection.
“Hello. They said you needed to give me something?” I said with crossed arms.
He grabbed a couple of keys from his bedside table, dropped them into my hand, taking extra care not to touch it, and turned back to the television, displaying some black and white film.
“Goodbye.” A twinge of anger surfaced in my voice as I said it. I wasn’t expecting a warm embrace, maybe some verbal acknowledgement, but this was all to be expected. I walked out, heels clicking the same as before.
He died 3 days later. There was no funeral, and rightfully so, as no one would have attended. My father didn’t actually understand the concept of building bridges; he got the burning part right though. And because my mother left when I was very young, it was just us. Our house was often silent, disrupted only by the muffled sounds of his voice during conference calls.
A few days after his death, I arrived at the bank. Earlier I had decided to get his things from the safe deposit box, and head over to his house to clean it. I found what I’d expected in the box. The Rolex my grandfather had given him on his wedding day, the deed to his home, some work papers and his passport. Underneath the years of paperwork that I shuffled through, I found a small key, shiny, silver, antique looking with a tag with my name on it, Allison.
Why he would label a key with my name, I did not know. But remembering the crazy antics of my father, I didn’t really care. I tucked the key deep down into my pocket and went on.
I tossed the papers and envelopes from the deposit box into my car, not bothering to sort anything out, just taking it all. My foot eased off the gas as I drew nearer to the long driveway at his home. My fingers moved quickly over the numbers on the keypad to open the gate, each digit seeming to come back to me from some blurred memory. I rolled up a little further, past the gate, to the front doors. I threw the car into park and took a deep breath. I pushed the car door open and stepped out.
All 4,000 square feet seemed to look down on me. I walked up the steps, placed the key, and turned. The same dull odor of leather and ink wafted from the doorway. No happy memories flooded back to me as I stepped through the door or as I walked down the long halls of his estate. The only thing I remembered was sitting outside of the large mahogany office doors for hours every day.
I shuffled down hallways, in and out of rooms, big boxes in hand. I stacked them at the front doors and sat down on one. Dust rose from the old box, one I’d found in one of the guest rooms on the second floor. It was ironic, really. We had 3 guest rooms, but no guests to ever fill them.
This was it. All my father was sat before me in 17 boxes. Granted, there was still furniture, and some larger items that I couldn’t put into boxes still in the house, but this was it. An unexpected nostalgia washed over me then. It took me back to the days in the 2nd grade, when he seemed to be a superhero. Back before my knowledge of the world wiped away my pretty pictures of my father.
I went back into the house. My hands ran along the crown molding, and I followed it down the hall. My feet stopped moving. My fingers had dropped into a small notch in the wall. I decided it was nothing, began walking again. Another notch, then a hole. I stumbled backwards, away from the wall. This was something that I had never noticed before, but it was there nonetheless. My eyes moved around the perimeter of a square that seemed to be part of the wall. A door.
I put my hand in my pocket, feeling around for the oddly shaped key that I had found earlier. I pulled it out, its shiny finish lighting up as I tuned it in my hands. I placed it in the hole in the wall. There was a click.
I dropped my shoulder and pushed the door open. This room wasn’t as dusty as the others, but it was cold and small. I flicked on a light switch and blinked several times.
In the middle of the room stood a ledger with a worn brown book. The carpets were a burgundy, red color and the walls are white, or at least I assumed all of them were. All but one of the walls was adorned in one-dollar bills. They were pinned up, George Washington side facing up. I walked to the ledger. My fingers brushed over the leather cover. I picked it up, feeling its weight in my hands. A million questions swirled through my brain. I opened the book.
Dollar 1: 14 years old. Paperboy
It was written in black ink on the yellowing paper. The rushed scrawl that was etched onto the paper could only belong to my father. I looked up at the wall, and then down at the book. I flipped through the pages, the memories, rather. As I read the ledger and looked at the walls, I saw that every dollar represented some event in the life of the man that I called my father. There is the first dollar he saved for my mother’s engagement ring, the first dollar my parents received for their wedding, and the first dollar his company earned more than 40 years ago. Each dollar on the wall had a tiny number that corresponded with an entry in the ledger. As I read, I found the dollar that matched each entry. Some dollars were crisp, new. They looked like they had just been shipped from the Mint. Others were crumpled. These held the best memories. Things like the dollar he earned in a bet with his best friend on who would win the 1966 World Series and the dollar he won from his dad when his high school basketball team won a game against their cross-town rivals. I didn’t even know my father liked sports or ever played on a team. As I read, I learned that he was not the business suits and ties that I knew. He was much more.
Afternoon turned to evening as I thumbed through the book. I finally got to the back, and a worn sheet of paper slid out onto the floor.
I know that I was not a good father to you, or at least not what a father should be. I was caught up with my job, my business. It became all that I cared about. I am sorry. I hope that out of my death, I can give you more than I could out of my life. All of these dollars on the walls, they are all yours now, along with all of my assets and my company. I couldn’t give you a father that you deserved, but I can give you this. Make more dollars Allison.
“Father” never meant to me what it means to others. But it does mean something to me now. It is not cold or formal any longer. There was some warmth as I re-read the ledger. I realize that my story with my father did not end with his death. Rather, it began.