IT SEEMS LIKE lately I’ve been losing everything I’ve ever known. In the span of a few months my father died and my grandmother sold our childhood home. It’s a strange thing to grieve for a house. In essence, you’re grieving for an object, something inanimate that you have the nerve to claim as your own.
A lot of people have asked my about my instagram/email/facebook handle @homelessbirds. Instagram handles have become little clues necessary to decipher, little cryptic presents ready to unfurl another layer of knowledge and illuminate the human behind the social veneer. For instance, my sister goes by @deathtonostalgia on the internet, which for anyone who knows her is both ironic and heartbreaking. I’m not entirely sure a more nostalgic person exists on this planet. And yet, in her heart, Frankie recognizes how problematic it is to go through life with one foot up against the past, desperately bracing yourself against what came before.
Homelessbirds is young adult book by Gloria Whelan about a thirteen-year-old girl in India who is married to a sick, young boy. He eventually dies and the girl is abandoned in Vrindavan where widows flood the streets in a sea of white. Homeless birds. She eventually finds her voice by creating tapestries that tell her stories. I read this book when I was thirteen and felt inexplicably and forever bonded to this child—a bond that has lasted fifteen years.
Two months ago I left Portland, Oregon for the second time. I am twenty-eight years old and I’ve moved twenty-eight times (albeit sometimes to the same house). As a child, we moved twelve times before I was twelve years old but I don’t remember any of those moves to be a burden or a hardship. I remember lilac bushes that hid forts, new rooms containing any number of secret passages. I remember a manhole that burst under the siege of summer storms. When we moved in with our grandmother we had a place to live for years to come. The house was built in the early 1900’s and contained secret doors, built in bookshelves that housed my grandmother’s massive collection, closets that seemed to extend to infinity.
When we said goodbye to Tangy’s house I didn’t want to linger. I barely looked at it. In the back of my mind I couldn’t truly understand what it would mean to never go back.
Tangy’s house was like a tide, an elemental constant that I knew would always return to me, and me to it, regardless of the fluctuations of current. No matter the hour, no matter the circumstance, I could always enter.
It’s beyond my imagination to understand that I can never return. I know that home so well I can climb the stairs in utter darkness, navigate its turns and platforms, and it’s impossible to understand that what feels so close to my body, spirit lizard skin, can no longer be mine.
ON NOVEMBER 11TH, the doctors called me to tell me that my father’s oxygen was crashing and he needed to be intubated imminently. When I arrived at the hospital I rounded the corner to see my father bolt upright in bed, doctors surrounding him, his greasy-grey hair levitating about his face. I’ll never forget the look in his eyes, the pure, wide-open vulnerability and terror that lay there. “Sam,” he said, as if he was surprised, as if he was lonely, as if he was a child who was very, very afraid. My father turned to face his doctor who I’d met several times. “That’s my daughter,” he said. There were so many machines, so many people in the small room, I couldn’t think of anything except the need to get out of everyone’s way. I squeezed my father’s hand and told him I loved him and that I’d be waiting in the next room. He still had such strong hands—the whole of his body shrunken and starved and yet his hands remained calloused and tough—molded by years of ready man labor and an entire life I’d barely seen. He squeezed my hand in return.
It wasn’t until a few minutes later as I signed the paperwork with his doctor that I realized that unless my father’s lungs radically improved, he would be sedated until his end. Those were the last things we would ever say to each other. Those were his last words to me: “That’s my daughter.”
I recognize that death is unique in its permanence but we rarely recognize loss when we meet it. I am unable to process what is leaving when its hands is in mine, when I can still feel its grip
I wish I’d discovered the trick of looking at what is leaving me—the capacity to hold it within my sights and still let go. It is unclear to me if my inability to recognize an ending is deliberate ignorance (you can’t lose what you don’t acknowledge) or if it is something slightly more magical, more personal.
Perhaps it’s that loss rendered my future a place without my father and therefore made any moment past the present incomprehensible.
Not only did my father's time on earth end, but my life with him in it also ceased to exist. As unhealthy as it was, my father and his existence was the watch I set my life against. I can’t remember a winter in which every snowstorm didn’t leave me terrified, guilty for having what it seemed my father never could.
As constant as Tangy’s home was, my father was its equal in inconsistency and yet, for as long as I can remember, my positioning could be calculated by the measurements of his distance, his drift. His arrivals and disappearances were the gravitational pull that set all inner pendulums rocking. Without that center, it’s as if the plane of reality I’ve inhabited has been shattered.
It’s not that my life will be different, it is that the life I’ve led is now impossible.
So perhaps, in the end, what I’m feeling is the presence of time. Another impervious and elemental form of loss.
There was never any going back. Beyond death or the loss of a childhood home, the past is a landscape that is determined inaccessible with its passage. The more I return to look at it, the more the vista is skewed through fog or haze, as if peering through ancient glass.
We all choose the worlds in which we decide to belong and now I’m reckoning with the realization that the world I lived within for so many years no longer exists. And yet, perhaps in that breaking apart, within the disassembly, a new world, a new plane is emerging from what was subsumed.
My grandmother no longer lives on Downing Street.
Whenever I see a man with a backpack, loping, shoulder-heavy down a Denver street, I can no longer hope or dread that it is my father walking away from me.
But I’m writing from this apartment while my girlfriend practices and the sound of her voice opens something new and I feel myself reaching into the fabric of my life and generating a new plane, a new orientation.