Sitting at my desk in my home office is my usual spot after returning from my morning kickboxing workout. I settle in with a cup of tea and get ready to take on the tasks of the morning. Scan emails to see if any clients are pissed off at me. Check. Read facebook to see if any friends are pissed off at me. Check. Surf the web until I feel really guilty that I have not started my real work. Check.
My charming little purple office was a gift to me from my husband. After quitting my corporate job and deciding that I wanted to be a consultant, I spent a few years working from our enclosed front porch that I always dreamed would be renovated into a little oasis for me to snuggle up with a good book or simply stare out the window and watch the passing traffic from atop the hill on which our house sits. (It sounds more majestic than it is but it provides us with enough buffer from the noise of living on a main road.) Alas, the children came and the lovely cushioned wicker chairs with Pottery Barn pillows and throws were quickly replaced with plastic containers filled first with assorted Fisher Price toys – Little People then Rescue Heroes then GeoTrax and then were emptied and refilled with the mountains of Legos that found their way under the Christmas tree each year. With all the pristine decor gone and my dreams of a cozy retreat dashed, I decided to carve out a section of the long, narrow room, enclosed with windows on three of the walls, to house my modest home office. I needed a desk for my computer, a small filing cabinet and some storage drawers. Nothing too overwhelming. The moment I set up shop, however, both of my kids begged for desks of their own so they could do homework alongside mommy. They wanted their own little offices too and promised to keep their sections neat and tidy. So we expanded the desk to include two more components and stretched the “office” space to corrupt half of the room. And, it all went downhill from there.
After two years of trying to work in peace while my children were underfoot or were just a room away watching TV and fighting with each other, Dan agreed to bring in some workers and carved out a section of the basement that he had intended for his own home office and enclosed the room with four walls, a ceiling and a door! The first time I shut it, my heart raced as I enjoyed solitude for the first time in the 10 years since I had become a mother. No room was sacred in my house. My children exhibited no shame in walking into the bathroom while I was in there. They barged into my bedroom and climbed into my bed to arouse me from sleep or distract me from work, reading, watching TV, pretending to sleep, in order to tell me the very most important thing that just happened that could not wait one more second for them to tell me. Closing that office door and looking around at the furniture I had splurged $1000 of my newly earned consulting income on at Office Depot, I felt liberated. I had my own room – my own place. Even though I had lived on my own after college, I had roommates. Even with my own bedroom with a lock on the door, I never actually felt like I had a space all my own. After that apartment I moved in with Dan, my soon-to-be-husband, and my solitary life was history.
The irony of building an office for myself in the basement of my home was not lost on me. The basement of my childhood home held many painful memories and, in fact, I resisted coming down into our basement in this home as long as I could. Dan finally insisted that I succumb to the family’s needs and start doing laundry or, heaven forbid, put water in the furnace. I dreaded it and felt the same cold, dank feeling I had in my childhood in this unfinished basement but now I had a pretty purple room with recessed lights in the ceiling – with dimmers! – and all of my precious belongings spread out for me to feel safe and comfortable. I put up multiple cork boards so I could display years of artwork from my kids, special cards from Dan, photos of all the people I love, reminding me that my life is different from what it was. I created the sanctuary I never had. I created a space for myself that would erase the nightmares of the past and let me move forward in a happy and healthy way.
Buried inside the walls, however, behind the purple paint and the recessed lights were the demons. They seemed to always come out when I was sitting at my desk having contemplative moments. It was right there at that desk that I realized that everything was starting to crumble apart.
It was a Wednesday night, the night before my older son Thomas’ field trip to Trenton, NJ. I had agreed to chaperone his class after much begging on his part.
“You never volunteer, Mommy.” He was right. I never did. I was always too busy. I was a working mom with no time for such things. And, I was always guilty.
“Just this once, pleaaaaasssssseeeee.”
I relented. I could not stand up to that level of torture. It was his own version of mommy waterboarding. I needed to get to sleep because we all had to be at school early and it was no easy task to get both kids out the door with me actually showered, dressed and presentable. The short few years since I had left the daily grind of the commute had turned me into a slacker. I was lucky if I could pull off a shower before I took the kids to school at 8am and it was an even bigger feat to adorn myself with more than a pair of yoga pants and a sweatshirt. Thankfully, most of my business meetings were conducted via phone and I could remain incognito.
It was already close to midnight and I was struggling to fade off to sleep. All the stuff I was pushing off to join Thomas’ field trip was weighing heavy on my mind. Realizing that I was probably not going to see shut-eye anytime soon, I decided to grab my iPad and check out Facebook. There should have been ominous music playing like in a movie when the protagonist is about to open a closet door to find a hanging victim or some other gruesome discovery. Like the late night phone calls that never yield good news, late night Facebook surfing is never a good strategy if you really want to fall asleep. I opened up my app and immediately saw the icon indicating that I have a message waiting for me. Then I saw that it was from Terry – my father’s daughter from his first marriage. As could only happen in our modern technologically connected world, I never knew Terry until she friended me on Facebook several years ago. I knew who she was but I had never met her and didn’t know much about her except that she had a daughter who was a year older than me. As a child, I was fascinated with the idea that, technically, I had a niece who was a year older than me. Through the magic of Facebook, not only did I learn about her life but I could see images of all these distant “relatives” in her various online photo albums. I always felt a little like an uninvited guest peering through the window as I browsed through her photos trying to find connection points. I would look into Terry’s eyes to try to see our shared DNA. I could certainly see the resemblance and yet I knew how fundamentally different we were. We shared a father but absolutely nothing else. It seemed that I should feel more sentimental about this fact but it was always so surreal to me that I had a hard time making it concrete in my mind. Terry had sent me messages here and there, trying to piece together her own puzzle. After all, my father had abandoned her and her brother and their mother after he and my mother’s torrid 1950s affair resulted in a pregnancy. My mother, resolute on getting her man, walked up to the front door of my father’s marital home and brazenly announced to his wife that she was pregnant with her husband’s baby. Meanwhile, my mother simultaneously assured her husband at the time that they were about to experience the most wonderful miracle as they started their family together. I never considered the disruption to Terry’s family and the struggles that she endured as she had to make sense, in her young mind, of how her father could disappear from their lives and create a whole new family elsewhere.
This night, Terry’s message to me was not wrapped around questions or pleasantries. Instead, it was a contrite missive.
“Nick is dying. Not sure if he will make it through the night.”
Our father, just shy of turning 89, was about to see his final demise.
I sat silently, staring at the words for what felt like hours. My brain was trying to find ways to connect the dots for me to understand this impossibly complicated situation. I peered over at Dan, snoring happily next to me, and contemplated waking him thinking that if I spoke the words they might make more sense. I just sat there and pondered. And, slowly, I began to feel my insides start to shred. Surprisingly, shockingly, amazingly, I was overtaken with grief. This was so confusing to me since I had not seen or spoken to my father since shortly after I graduated from college. He and I had been estranged for most of my childhood after he left my mother and abandoned another set of children but we had tried to find some type of “relationship” while I was away at school. He tried to help me out a little bit financially but he did not have much money after drinking and gambling away his fortunes accrued from years of owning a fleet of NYC taxis. At his high point, he was worth millions and at his low, he was walking the beach in Hawaii, drunk and homeless. He left my mother with nothing and, despite her efforts to sue him for child support, there was nothing to give. He had lost everything. When he appeared back in my life while I was in high school, he was a virtual stranger to me. He looked familiar, for sure. For years, friends and family told me how much I looked like him. I could see my features in his face – our nose, our jaw line, our pronounced overbite. We were one in the same. I had my mother’s freckles and her straight, baby fine hair but, other than that, I was a miniature, female version of him.
Everyone also told me how wonderful he was before the drinking. “He’d give you the shirt off his back,” I’d heard countless times. Unfortunately, he had given away his last shirt and there was none left for me. I was abandoned and alone at the ripe old age of 8. He and my mother had already been fighting for years at that point. I was familiar with the 111th precinct police station and the local motel across the street from the police station where my mother camped out with me and my brother the night she was certain my father would kill her. Their fights were epic and I watched as he beat her viciously after downing a bottle of J&B or Tanqueray. Gin and tonics were his thing. That much I can remember. And there was no shortage of it in our house. The green bottle was constantly replenished and carefully nestled next to his favorite crystal high ball glasses.
The complexity of my emotions overwhelmed me. I ran laps around starting with disgust, then sadness, then guilt, then fear and all the way around again. Surprisingly, I never settled in on the one I most expected – relief.