Personal Essay

Is That All There Is?

A simple question provoked an existential crisis

Mindi Boston
Contemplate

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Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

On a hot Texas afternoon, I stood inside a stuffy storage unit contemplating life. I was there to pick up some old furniture, which he’d insisted I take. I was torn as I had a whole house of perfectly suitable furniture at home, but it seemed to mean so much to him that I’d agreed and recruited my husband for help. The task quickly turned into much more effort than just taking the few pieces we’d previously discussed.

“Is that all there is?” asked the tall man, ten feet away in the disappearing shade of the overhead door.

Good question, I thought to myself, but only nodded in reply. He was referring to the contents of a hastily packed box, three-quarters of its cargo broken beyond repair. I was thinking about what was left of my father’s life after living three-quarters of a century.

I’d driven in yesterday to visit my parents, who lived hours apart. It would be a breakneck pace — three towns in four days, all with a cargo trailer and our border collie riding shotgun. I was tired before we even left home, knowing what might be in store. We spent the previous night with my mom, unloading our trailer at her house before heading to my dad’s storage.

Even though it was technically spring, no one told the state of Texas to turn down the heat. Sweat plastered my hair to my head and my t-shirt to my back. I was bent down between two half-empty boxes and a row of poorly repaired antique chairs. I tossed another broken pane of glass into the big trash box, already overflowing with rusted tin pans and cracked kitchen wares. I crouched down to hide behind the cardboard wall as tears threatened to spill over my cheeks.

“You okay, dear?” my husband called from inside the sweltering cargo trailer as he strapped down an antique hall tree.

“Something wrong?” my father echoed from his walker just outside.

I bit back a sob. My arms and legs ached from moving furniture around a dusty concrete floor. My back protested from three hours of hunching over various containers. I was tired and hot, but mostly, the tears were due to the vast emotions I had no time or idea how to process.

“Yep,” I choked, waving a hand above me, a sort of surrender to stop the worried questions.

I lifted the neckline of my shirt and pressed the inside of the fabric to my nose and face. Two imprints from running mascara made a sad face on the pale material, a record of my innermost thoughts to deal with later. I stood with a deep sigh, surveying the pieces of my father’s life that stood around me like monuments.

I wrestled my way to the back of the unit where the last of the cardboard boxes hid in a corner. From the first one, I pulled out a black leather briefcase — the kind that opened on top and had dividers for salesman samples and carbon forms. It was an unexpected reminder of my childhood when Dad brought home his sales reports for me to log and file for the weekly sum of five dollars. A couple of big road atlases spoke of our travels together in the days before GPS and cell phones, stopping at rest area picnic tables for soggy sandwiches and thermosed drinks. At the bottom rested a shoebox full of old Polaroids and Olan Mills billfold portraits.

A tall man with dimples held a tiny brunette with a matching pair of dimpled cheeks, her hair in lop-sided pigtails. They gazed at each other, laughter in their eyes and smiles. Beneath it, another shot showed the girl, a couple of years older, grinning at the man as they modeled matching pajamas. I turned to look at my father, who had seemingly shrunk in his last years, turning red in the indirect blaze of an afternoon sun. While my dimples had disappeared with age, his had cut deep lines into his cheeks.

“Why don’t you wait in your car, Pop? Get some air going and I can ask if I have a question about anything.”

He nodded and shuffled toward his car, the walker escorting him in stuttered steps. The defeat in his slumped shoulders spoke volumes. I watched him teeter along until he was out of sight and then let go, crying for my fallen hero. I shook it off after a few moments and reached into the box for an old World Atlas I’d once used for book reports. A spider scurried out from between the pages as I tossed it into the junk pile. Once upon a time, these were his treasures. Once upon a time, they represented success, a life well lived, a life pregnant with possibilities. Now, they were tomorrow’s garbage. I couldn’t help but shake my head at the unfairness of it all.

Returning to the photos, I stared at the dad of my childhood memories. The girl in his arms was a mere suggestion of who I would one day become. I felt like I’d lived whole other lives before arriving there to take custody of some of his most precious possessions. At almost fifty, I felt like my memories could fill a warehouse.

Instead, our shared memories went into the shoe box — photos of my parents at their 1971 wedding, of their first house, of their first (and what would be their only living) child. The rest of the shots were of people, landscapes, and buildings that meant nothing to me, so they went into a Rubbermaid bin for my father to sort later.

At the bottom of the boxes was a familiar face. My stepsister, who had long since passed, stared up at me from a school photo, her smile crooked and innocent. Stacks of greeting cards, photos, and ephemera detailing the life of a much-loved woman went from the dirty box into clean bins. I’d been warned these mementos were triggering for my stepmother, who was in the throes of dementia. Was it a blessing or a curse that sometimes the pain was buffered by the loss of her memories? I wasn’t sure if it was her or another person who’d hidden them away for later, maybe a time when she felt stronger.

Remembering the way it had happened, the way it had affected those I loved, and how I had identified so closely with her loss, made the small space suddenly cloying.

My husband peeked in. “You okay?”

I lifted up the photo and showed him. “How does it end like this? How does someone survive such unimaginable loss and pain and just keep living, only to grow old and sick anyway?” My voice cracked, but I waved him away before he could press further.

He nodded and squeezed my shoulder, sensing any measure of comfort would undo the careful control I wrestled to maintain.

I wonder how different it would have been if she was still here.

The thought came unbidden into my mind. Her death had been the beginning of the end for many things. While we hadn’t been close, her death had been the catalyst for my divorce. I’d realized mortality in a way all of us eventually face, and knew I could no longer stay in a toxic marriage just waiting until things got better, until the kids grew up, until everything magically made sense again. My dad had faded from our lives as he comforted his grieving wife over the tragic death of her only child. She stopped sending birthday cards or buying Christmas gifts for me or my children. My kids stopped remembering holidays when their grandfather was present. I got bitter. He got distant. Now, I was the only one left to help two people who didn’t seem to want my help.

In the years since most of these pictures were taken, my mother had remarried. I lost three more step-siblings. My mother was widowed. My grandparents passed. My kids grew up and left home. I got sick. My father fought cancer. Then, my stepmother was diagnosed with dementia, and she and my father moved into senior housing as they lost their ability to care for themselves and a home. The last of their existence was packed off to this ten-by-twelve metal coffin.

“Can I keep these, Dad?” I asked, holding up the photos of myself and the family of my younger years.

He motioned me to the car so he could take a look. “Oh, man. Look at these!” He picked through the snapshots, some of my mother who he’d divorced thirty years earlier, some of us through the years visiting family or taking vacations. His face then changed to one of sadness. “Sure, I mean… I’d like to keep a couple but you can take them.”

When he raised his eyes to me, I saw it. Beneath the ravages of time was the same man who carried me on his shoulders at the circus, who punished me through the dramatic teen years, and who’d felt the weight of every choice he’d made, good or bad, in the heat of a Texas afternoon. That one look told me that he knew the chances to pass these things on were dwindling. “Sure, you take them,” he repeated with a nod, then turned to stare straight ahead. Redemption is a dish you must digest alone.

With the material contents of his life sorted into piles of keep, trash, and “deal with later when I feel stronger,” I pulled the door shut on the almost empty unit and handed my father the key. My back protesting, I leaned through the open car window and hugged him goodbye. I thanked him for the furniture and keepsakes and told him I loved him. He asked when I could come back and visit, and I promised it would be soon. But we both know that intentions and facts can be disproportionate.

As his car disappeared into a cloud of dust, I found myself wondering, as I do most visits the last few years, if that would be the last time I saw him. His words echoed in my ears: “Is that all there is?” Would my father’s final lesson to me be that life is so simple it can be divided into piles of keep, trash, and “deal with later when I feel stronger”?

With the trailer loaded, we hit the road for the long drive. My husband squeezed my hand, knowing that in the silence, the tears would come. Acre after acre of farmland whizzed past and I thought about my own children and the boxes of family heirlooms I kept in hopes that one day they’d want them. When my time came, would they want the shoebox of memories or would the pile of trash be overflowing with things that in the end meant nothing?

“Are you okay, dear?” my husband repeated once more.

I swiped at my wet cheeks, not sure when the tears started.

When I didn’t answer immediately, he added, “I’m glad you have the box of photos to bring home. Is that all there is?”

I couldn’t answer him. No, it wasn’t just pictures or antique benches. That afternoon, my father had given me the chance to start a long goodbye to the pain, to the past, to my grudges, and to my father, the hero.

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Mindi Boston
Contemplate

Mindi Boston is a novelist and freelance writer out of the Midwest. For more information, visit www.mindiboston.com