Cleaning House

The Recipe The Recipe

I found it under a pile of papers: an innocuous looking blank page from a hotel notepad. Surely I had saved it for a reason? Turning it over I saw the words, “Cook sweet potato in microwave.” My throat tightened. I remembered searching the kitchen for an odd scrap of unused paper, as Dad started telling me how to make sweet potato pie. The phone call was at least four years ago, but the immediacy of my quick pencil scrawl brought it into the present, along with the realization: no more conversations with Dad. I set the paper back down, and walked out of the room. Finishing cleaning the countertop would have to wait.

It’s not like I needed anything to make cleaning more difficult for me. When I was a child, the main obstacles were finding things I would rather be doing (usually a book to read), or finding things that I was required to do, and hadn’t gotten to yet (usually homework.) As I got older, half-finished projects became their own category – things that malignantly chided, “You and your big plans – you never follow through.” But those stumbling blocks were nothing compared to cleaning the house after my father died: Losing him has turned my house into a grief minefield.

If I clean for long enough, it is certain that I will find something that I associate with Dad. And thanks to my a lifetime spent honing depressive thoughts patterns, loss sticks to everything once it is unearthed. If I keep cleaning past the initial shock of a “Dad find,” other items stimulate pre-emptive grief – reminding me of friends and family members who are not dead, but who I will miss one day when they are. Of course, maybe I will die first, and if I am feeling maudlin enough, this too will be considered: will this object cause my daughter to burst into tears remembering me? Putting away the Christmas tree ornaments this year became a masochistic exercise: “How many losses can one person remember and/or anticipate, before he flees from a pile of red and green tissue paper?”

I have finally learned to ignore the books I haven’t read, to breathe steadily even when confronted with forgotten would-be store returns. I am beginning to talk back to the half-completed projects, and am learning to figure out what ill-considered purchases need to simply be shared with others who are more likely to use them than I am. But more than three years after his death, I haven’t managed to get past finding something that reminds me of Dad without feeling achingly empty.

I hadn’t anticipated that. It isn’t like I had never lost anyone before: my grandparents, several aunts and uncles. But over time, those losses transformed, leaving only happy memories and gratitude – and sometimes a much needed assurance of forgiveness for myself in the relationship. But Dad’s death was different for me, and it has made me realize how little I really knew about grief. How little I know still.