Girl Talk: This House Is Not Just A House & Other Thoughts On My Dad’s Death

In the few days following my dad’s passing a few weeks ago, I received flowers from friends and coworkers, endless phone calls, emails and Facebook messages expressing condolences, and more than a few people offering to help in any way they could. It was wonderful and comforting, to be sure, and would, I thought, keep me going as I set about tying up all the loose ends of my father’s “estate,” something I assumed would take a few weeks to a month, at most.

Well, a little over a week has passed, the flowers have dried, the calls have died down, and people have rightfully moved on. But, I’m realizing, the shitshow is just beginning for me. I don’t know what I was thinking, assuming that settling my dad’s affairs would be a simple process, but it’s far from it. He didn’t have a will. I won’t have a death certificate for a few weeks, at which point I can then finally establish myself as the executor of his estate, which hopefully no one will contest. (You hear that, uncle of mine?) In the meantime, his house languishes in rural Hawaii, already two months behind on the mortgage payments. The unofficial “tenants” my dad had let stay there over the years have the run of the place; I’ve heard that they’ve already begun selling off his more valuable possessions (there aren’t many) like his TV. And I can’t do anything about it because Hawaii’s tenant laws allow any old person to establish residency in a home by spending a few nights somewhere. Seriously! Crash at someone’s house for a weekend and it’s suddenly your place! I will have to formally evict people who never paid a month’s rent from my dad’s home, as they sell off belongings I can’t even prove are his. It’s a nightmare.

For the most part, my emotions about my dad’s death have fallen into two categories: 1) wonderfully and bittersweetly nostalgic about the good times we had together and 2) incredibly stressed about the disaster he left for me to handle. I’m relieved that, so far, I haven’t felt particularly guilt-ridden — for cutting my dad out of my life in March and not having a relationship with him at the time of his death — or devastated. The heartbreak I feel is one I’ve felt for years — sadness over how he decided to live his life for the last 15 years, and it’s thus not particularly new or brought on by his passing. If anything, as I said in my essay last week, I feel more of a relief that he isn’t in pain anymore or causing pain to anyone else.

He is, however, continuing to be a pain in my ass. But I’ll get to that. First, the nostalgia, because it’s what’s making the stress manageable.

My mom brought over a whole bunch of photo albums on Thanksgiving, which I haven’t looked at in years. When my dad started using drugs heavily and became a completely different person, reminding myself of the person he had been was too painful. I couldn’t bear to look at pictures of him in his good dad days. But when I found out that he was dead, it was all I wanted to see. Flipping through the albums, featuring my parents’ wedding photo (taken at City Hall in 1979), my birth (in November 1979), my first bath, my first smile, early birthday parties, visits with adoring grandparents, and a trip to Europe when I was 5, I was reminded of how much joy my dad had in his life. (Above, my dad and I napping when I was a baby, and, below, a few other photos with my dad when I was a baby/toddler.) That he had joy for a long time, more joy that some people ever know, and while it absolutely devastates me that he gave it up, that his life became overshadowed by pain and addiction and loneliness, I can choose to focus on the good memories instead of the bad ones.

Never too early for Marxism, right, Dad?

I’m so relieved to have those memories, especially as I’m forced to confront the details of my dad’s end days reality. The fact that his home in Hawaii was characterized as the local drug den by a police officer I spoke with. That the local drug addicts were known to hang out in the basement level of my dad’s home; not with him, mind you, as his crippled body kept him confined to the upstairs. He had told me about a few of them, and while they weren’t the most upstanding of citizens, my understanding was that the relationship was mutually beneficial — they helped him around the house, cooked for him when he couldn’t, and, I have to assume, got him the drugs that eventually probably killed him. I hate that he was dependent on these people, that he used them and they used him and that they’re continuing to use him now that he’s dead. And now they’re my problem. While my brother and I have made it clear that they need to leave, legally speaking, they don’t have to go anywhere until I formally evict them — then they have 45 days to find a new place to squat. In the meantime, thinking about them there, with my dad’s stuff — junk, mostly, but his junk — makes my skin crawl. And being so far away, unable to do anything at this point but wait is making me feel so powerless.

The house itself is another matter. As these squatters set about selling off anything “valuable” inside, the only thing of true monetary value is the house itself. But I have no idea yet how much it’s worth, how much of his mortgage my dad paid off, how much it’s depreciated in value because of ill repair, and how much it may have increased just because. The money that could come from it honestly doesn’t mean that much to me — I lost my father, the last thing I really care about is how much money he left me in the form of this house that I’ve never seen let alone visited. But I’m mainly hoping it’s worth my while to go through the hassle of selling it, which could take a year or more, because I know it’s the one thing my dear dad, who failed so much as a parent for the last 15 years, really wanted to give to my brother and I. This house, however much it’s worth, is symbolic of my dad’s effort to still be a parent in some way, by leaving something valuable for his two children to inherit. It’s with that in mind that I would really like to see that effort through and finish the job for him. So that he could he could rest a little easier, wherever he is, knowing he was able to do something good for us.

I guess I just shouldn’t be surprised that he didn’t make it easy for me.