Shortly after we moved into the mint green house on Main Street, a man would occasionally drive by and yell,
I’d scramble to the nearest window and peek behind the blind. “You see who that was?”
My mother would look up from her book and shake her head. With my cheek flattened against the cool glass, neck craned, all I could see was the rear of his truck, and all I could hear was the muffler’s fading chug.
Maybe he’s hollering at one of the neighbors, I thought. Maybe he’s nuts. Or maybe he somehow knows that actual mice skitter between our walls, clanging against the pipes, scaring the bejeezus out of me as I lay in bed at night.
Whatever the case, the mint green house was situated on a main road where lots of people yelled lots of things, and eventually the Mouse Man stopped his drive-by hollering and I forgot all about him. Until, that is, twenty years later, when Mouse Man returned.
Many of my earlier memories in that house were too painful to bear, shunted to some inaccessible corner of my brain. But the memories that stuck, that I refused to let go of, were mostly vivid snippets featuring my late father in the few healthy years I had with him:
(1) Early mornings waiting at the bus stop with him and Sunny, our Labrador mix, squirming restlessly at his side;
(2) The time our three-foot long Caiman alligator, Alphonse, chomped a chunk of his finger instead of a piece of raw steak; and
(3) Saturdays, early, watching him pack his work van with paintbrushes and paint cans and tarps, then watching him climb into the front seat where he’d tap the wobbling Buddha on the dashboard. And right before he slammed the door, I’d catch something gleaming next to the drivers seat, his flute.
Why that Buddha was on the dash, or why he carried around that flute — I never knew. What he thought about me —and what he imparted to me — during the measly nine years I had with him, I barely remember.
This is what I do know of his life, a cobbled together account of my dad’s 46 years on this earth:
Kevin Leete grew up in Andover, Massachusetts and was the youngest of five boys. He tested into the Phillips Andover Academy, a prestigious New England private high school, in 1962, attending tuition-free under the “eagle-eye” of his father, Bob Leete, the school’s football coach and dining hall manager.
In the Andover Bulletin, Bob Leete was described as a chain-smoking curmudgeon with a vendetta against sideburns and shaggy hair. To unkempt males approaching the dining hall, he snarled, “Get out, and don’t come back until you get a haircut!”
I imagine my crew-cutted father skulking through the hallways in avoidance of Bob Leete for four years until finally, upon graduating in 1966, he had the freedom to grow his hair to his shoulders and his beard down to his sternum.
When my father was due back for his senior year of college in 1969, he took a detour and made his way to Bethel, New York to attend Woodstock. I picture him swaying in the mud with his long hair, euphoric. Months afterwards, I picture my ardent Catholic grandmother, Helen (a small, thin woman with a firm, icy grip) and my grumbling grandfather preparing for my dad’s college graduation, only to discover he’d long since dropped out and never bothered to tell them.
There follows a hazy ten-year period, some of which he spent squatting in a Quonset hut on Martha’s Vineyard (a haven for hippies in the late 60’s and early 70’s) and some of which he spent cavorting around Mexico, lovesick, following a girl. His whereabouts are confirmed in only one instance, in a 1976 Andover Bulletin. Evidently, he decided to drop by his ten-year reunion. There he informed his fellow graduates, who boasted about real estate dealings, business successes, and medical internships, that he would soon be “travelling across the U.S.A. in a Volkswagen bus.” And that he did.
At some point in the late 70’s he settled back on the Cape, on the mainland this time, in Chatham. There he met my mom and fathered my brother, Kevin, his namesake. A year and a half later, with my grandmother clutching her chest in the pews and my brother perched in a high chair at dinner, my parents married.
By the time 1990 rolled around, my parents had amassed two more rugrats, me and my younger brother, Zak, along with their first mortgage on the mint green house with the mice between the walls. They settled one town over from where they first met, in Harwich. Gone were my father’s days dropping acid, island hopping, and chugging across the country in a VW bus.
Other than the occasional deep sigh (and sometimes, behind the newspaper, I’d catch resignation, mixed with annoyance), my father was happy with his new life. He took pride in the house, building bookcases from scratch and converting an extra sink into a terrarium for our painted turtle, Spot. (Caimans were illegal in Massachusetts, so our beloved, steak-loving Alphonse was sold to a couple down South.)
These are the days of the bus stop and the Buddha on the dash and other pleasant memories, like bike rides and scraped knees, and then all of that changed.
It began with a hacking cough that wouldn’t quit. My father accepted the eventual diagnosis of lung cancer with a hanging head; it was a doom he’d portended his whole life, often telling my mother, “I just have a strange feeling I’ll die young.”
The prognosis of “he has less than a year” came and went, and those days are layered with a thick, confused film, days spent driving to hospitals and doctor’s offices for experimental treatments and surgeries. Days my reticent father spent not talking to us or confiding in us, but now mentally skulking further and further away from us. He wore a navy bandanna that covered the last patches of suddenly grey hair. His mustache, the last vestige of his Woodstock days, he sported as long as he possibly could. When he shaved it, he looked odd. Like a different person.
One summer night, towards the end, we were watching an episode of Star Trek in the living room. All of a sudden there was a snap — it was the reclining mechanism in his chair — and looking back at him I saw the whites of his eyes. Zak and I huddled in the stairwell when the ambulance arrived.
The stroke largely robbed him of his speech and mobility, and a visiting hospice nurse treated him in my parents’ converted attic bedroom. Tubes and clear bags dangled from metal rolling racks. Mixing bowls were placed beside the bed for his vomit. I sat quietly in the corner, afraid to look.
A few weeks later, when I arrived home from the first day of fourth grade on September 8, 1994, he was gone.
Bagpipers marched up the hill of Island Pond Cemetery playing Amazing Grace. I stood in the front row, my eyes drifting from the casket to the black-clad mass of aunts and uncles and friends and strangers. I spotted my cousin, whom I’d just met the night before. She was beautiful, with poofy, Jersey girl hair, exotic red lips, and long fake nails.
Seeing her again now I perked up, smiled big, and waved, but my ebullience went unmatched. Her brown, saucer-shaped eyes pooled with tears and there was that look everyone had been tossing us: pity.
I looked down — I knew I should have been crying silent, respectable tears into my velvet black dress, not gesticulating wildly with a stupid grin on my face at my own father’s funeral.
“I think those New Jersey people go tanning,” my mother said later that day as she wrapped up the last half-eaten casserole. It was an amused, off-hand comment, harmless.
“She’s nice,” I said sharply, the inklings of rebellion rising up in my chest, a rage that would erupt much more forcefully in the years to come. I thought of my cousin’s nails scratching my back at the funeral home, the pleasant shiver snaking down my spine. I sensed I would never see her again, just like I would never see my father again, and at the thought of that, I cried. More shame.
My adolescence, though I didn’t recognize it at the time, mirrored my father’s. In the halls of my high school, an eagle-eyed disciplinarian watched my every move: my mother, the English teacher.
At home she kept me on close watch as well, not that I didn’t try to break free. One night, as she stood looking out my second floor bedroom window, she came to realize slowly, with horror, that her 15-year-old daughter just rappelled down the side of the house from a bed sheet to sneak out. (Unfortunately, I hadn’t anticipated the hollow sound of my body slamming against the mint green siding, or just what to do with the bed sheet billowing in the wind in my wake, so I made it about as far as the front walkway.)
Around that time I was a nasty person. Perhaps aside from typical teen angst a sense of darkness — a doom, like that of my father’s — loomed within me. I was at my best diffident and at my worst devastatingly insecure and had a resting bitch face before anyone told me that was a thing. When I hit college my relationship with my mother improved and I lightened up, but I never took the time to wonder why I was still so sad all of the time. Or why I had been so angry.
Further, I had never let myself wonder what parts of my dad lived on in me. So I have his olive complexion and light brown hair, but what else? I’d never been able to say (worse for my younger brother), “That’s because I take after my dad.” For many years I didn’t allow myself to reflect, to wonder, to investigate or ask questions of my mother or my uncles, to figure out who my father really was aside from a former rebellious hippie who painted houses and loved turtles.
By the time I turned 29, I was starting my own adult life in earnest, prepping for a wedding for which I had to figure out who’d walk me down the aisle. And in what should have been a reflective, emotional time, a time to mourn my father anew, I convinced myself I was okay with not knowing. He was who he was, I figured. And that’s that.
Two days before the wedding, I visited my mother at the mint green house on Main Street. She handed me a sealed envelope. “Someone left a card for you on the back porch. No return address.”
The card’s face featured a generic wedding scene of a man and woman on a bicycle and swirly calligraphic font: “Man and Wife.” Inside, teeny-tiny handwriting filled both sides of the interior and spilled onto the back.
I squinted and read the first line aloud.
“You don’t know me, but I used to drive by your house and yell, ‘Mouse!’”
— and with that, my eyes widened, a flood of warmth spread through my chest, and I burst into a sob. I looked to my mom. She cocked her head. I kept reading.
You don’t know me, but I used to drive by your house and yell, “Mouse!” I knew your Dad. I used to work with him in the 70’s. He called me Lighthouse, because I’m tall. I used to call him Church Mouse, because he loved breaking into churches and playing his flute. He’d be up so late doing it that when we’d pick him up for work (he used to live down by Swan River in Dennis, over off Rt. 28) that he’d be running out of the house pulling on his boots as he ran. He taught me a lot about life, how to really live. He was an amazing person. I remember his little Buddhas, up there on his dashboard, flung about in his car. I loved him. I saw you were getting married in the paper, and wanted to wish you a happy marriage.
- Dave “Lighthouse” Olson
The Mouse Man.
I squinted and read the rest: cursory, beautiful little vignettes. Or they seemed like vignettes to me — poetic characterizations of my father, on one little greeting card, in the hand of someone I never knew. Of someone who commemorated my father in his own private, cryptic way. My father was a loner; I’d never run into an old buddy, never spoken to anyone from his past life. That bellowing voice came right back to me, the voice of someone who cared for my father, someone who loved him, a friend. “Mowwwse!”
Receiving this card on the eve of my wedding felt serendipitous and eerie and fraught with import, but I had little time to think about it. There were table runners to cut, there were gift bags to pack, and there were other matters (of nonsense, now that I think back) to worry about.
I set the card aside and two days later, with my arms linked through Kevin and Zak’s navy-suited elbows, I walked down the sandy aisle of a beach in Wellfleet. I looked out at the throngs of family and friends clad in yellows and magentas — no black that I could see — and was met with the faces of close friends and family, faces of joy. No averted eyes, no pitying glances.
The moment my brothers gave me away, my father’s absence had never been so visual, so symbolic, and I’d never loved my brothers more.
“That was your Dad, I just know it,” a guest gushed afterwards at the cocktail hour. “Did you see the sun break through the clouds, right when you said, ‘I do?’”
I shook my head and said no, I didn’t see it — but as I walked away, I did feel something. Whatever or whoever is out there, or up there, watching — I felt it in the cool salt air, in my mother’s smile as she danced with her friends later that night, and in her tears. I felt him.
The whirlwind of the wedding and the honeymoon is over, and I now take out the card from Lighthouse, AKA the Mouse Man, and I am forced to think about my dad. I’m forced to see who he was and who I’ve become.
I’m forced to see myself, 30 years old, tugged by the visceral need to be alone, to take long, meandering walks or jogs, and to sit in silence while I eat my breakfast. I suffer doubts over having children and losing my freedom. I imagine I’ll don the same resigned look as my father’s behind the newspaper. Maybe my child will also wonder, Who is she, really?
I finally start asking my mother about my father. I sit with her on the porch of the mint green house and talk, I sit with her at breakfast before her treatments and talk; I lob questions I wouldn’t dare ask even a year ago. And she tells me, gladly, his stories bleeding into her own. She has cancer now, a fight that has far eclipsed the number of years my father suffered, and I’m acutely aware, as I wasn’t with my dad, that if her cancer shoots into her brain like it did his — the cells mutating and hurling themselves upwards, infiltrating her gifted mind, swift and unforgiving and unresponsive to the latest cocktail — that it will all be over. This house from which I was so desperate to escape will be gone, just like him.
And I think about how the stakes are so high, the time so precious, the love for my mother so strong, the pain from losing my father fading over time but his void ever-present.
Through these conversations my memory is jogged and loosened, and I see.
I see that whatever he needed to expel at churches late at night, whatever he was running from in his youth — whatever essence flowed from my father, I have faith it was rooted in love and expression. He passed it on to me and it leaks into who I’ve become: a caged teen jumping out her window from a bed sheet; a person who itches, in her adult life, to be more self-possessed and content; to be unmoored from a certainty of doom.
Even now, as I struggle to describe who I am (and I struggle so much I almost abandon the whole preceding paragraph, delete key ready), I’ll lean on a quote from one of my dad’s favorite Zen philosophers, Alan Watts:
“Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth.”
Lighthouse. Church Mouse. Mouse!
I do know my father. He is me.