No Other Options

By

I always imagined that if I had to dig through the remnants of my childhood, it would be before a funeral or after a fire. Instead, I sifted through my dad’s stuff, as he lay in a hospital broke and homeless.

Losing your home to repossession, or foreclosure, or whatever you want to call it, is a slow process. As I crouched on the dingy warehouse floor tossing photographs into my bag, that’s what I thought about—I couldn’t publicly mourn because, unlike with a funeral or a fire, outside of a few close family and friends, nobody knew this had happened. It was quiet and bruising. My dad wasn’t dead; he was simply homeless.

Five months prior to my trip to the warehouse, my dad called me after I got out of work. “I have no place to live,” he said. “I’m homeless.”

I was supposed to be heading straight for my graduate class in Boston, which started at six that night. Instead, I emailed my professor that I’d be missing class due to a family emergency. I had never used the term before, but figured this was the right time. “I’m on my way,” I told him, not knowing exactly what I might find.

My dad’s landlord, who inherited the property, never really wanted to do the job. Eventually, he stopped taking my dad’s calls, never came by to fix anything, and didn’t collect rent. The other tenants slowly moved out, leaving empty apartments that the landlord never filled. My dad took over the utility payments. Eventually, the foreclosure notices started coming in the mail: The landlord had failed to pay his mortgage, and the bank was taking over the house. My dad, who is disabled, didn’t know what to do. He had no savings to move to another apartment, and hoped he had some kind of legal case because the landlord hadn’t fixed a number of necessary things—pipes leaked from the upstairs apartment into my dad’s bathroom, the heater in the basement burst and left him cold in the middle of February, the fire and carbon monoxide alarm no longer worked.

As the notices piled up, my dad ran out of options. He knew he couldn’t stay, but he also couldn’t afford to leave. He crossed his fingers the bank would offer him money to move, as banks sometimes do when they foreclose a house with apartment renters left behind. Then he got the forty-eight hour notice: The piece of paper taped to the front door that said he would be forcibly evicted if he was still there on Monday, and that whatever property he left behind would be seized and taken to a warehouse storage unit, where it would be kept for six months. This is what my father told me after the warning had expired. So,  I drove that Monday night to the neighborhood near his house, where he was sitting in his used 1998 dark green Buick Century, which was stuffed to the doors with every belonging he’d been able to fit inside.

As a kid, I’d imagine what it might be like to rummage through my belongings after a fire. I can blame that on the fact that I read The Baby-Sitter’s Club #131: The Fire at Mary Anne’s House. In vivid detail, I pictured Mary Anne sifting through the ashes of her home, and I felt like I had a roadmap for what that might look and feel like, should it ever happen to me. I also had plenty of roadmaps for funerals in books like A Series of Unfortunate Events and my own mother’s funeral when I was eleven years old.

In books and stories, picking through your stuff after a tragedy is supposed to represent mourning, and sometimes even rebirth. But when I was packing up my mom’s and my things after her death, it was a process of claiming:

I’ll keep this, it reminds me of her.

You can have this item because you gave it to her.

It was a physical process that allowed me to reflect on our life together, and the new life I’d have after she passed away. I couldn’t keep everything, so it was also a chance to say goodbyes to any part of my history I didn’t want or no longer had the space to keep.

None of the books I’d ever read provided a roadmap for what to expect for looking through your dad’s stuff after a foreclosure. The stuff from my dad’s house was mainly his, with some items from my childhood. But my dad wasn’t dead. He was currently staying in a hospital while he waited on determination from social security. He’d been dealing with various disabilities for years, but was finally pushed to file for disability benefits because of a traumatic brain injury and the loss of the house.

Five months after his eviction, in the warehouse, I looked through cardboard boxes, stacked on top of one another like a game of Jenga. As the two male storage employees looked on, I shoved photographs, old books, pieces of clothing, and jewelry boxes into my bag. Technically, I was only allowed to take items of “sentimental value,” not anything that was worth money.

“You have to pay to take anything, and you have to take it all when you do,” the owner insisted, gruffly, when he finally answered my calls in January. He changed the cost every time I talked to him, but the lowest he would go was $900 that I didn’t have. $900 for me to take what I wanted and his employees to dispose of the rest.

It wasn’t until I contacted a lawyer, who told me I was entitled under the law to make one visit to take items of sentimental value that the warehouse owner budged. He agreed that his employees would let me into the warehouse at 9 a.m. on a Saturday.

“You have exactly two hours,” he told me. “You can’t take anything that has value, only pictures, documents, things covered under the law. I’m warning you, it’s not going to be easy. The stuff is just piled on top of each other and my employees aren’t legally allowed to help you. It’s a mess in there.”

He hung up, unapologetic that my dad had lost his home, his childhood cookie jar, and his late mother’s hand-painted lamps.

I broke the rules of repossession every time I came across something that was both. Both figuratively and literally, the employees looked the other way. “We’re not supposed to help you. It’s a legal issue,” one of them told me, “but if you really need us to move a box or something, we’ll do it. We were the ones who emptied out your dad’s house that day. It’s okay if you take some clothing or jewelry, but nothing big: No TVs, no furniture, nothing our boss could sell at the auction.” As if my grey Hyundai Accent could fit my dad’s computer table or a rocking chair.

My partner made gentle conversation with them to pass the time as she hoisted down boxes for me to unpack.

“What are some common things you, uh, run into on the job? It must be hard,” she said. My partner’s an empath and always politely conversational. It felt laughable in this moment, the same way every word did after my mom died. It was so laughable that I actually did laugh at my mother’s wake—at the front of the room, giving my speech, I started laughing and couldn’t stop and I had to be walked back to my seat.

“Mainly it’s just hard to see the families dealing with this,” one of the workers answered. They were both kind and helpful, but I forgot their names. “We’ll show up, and there might be a lot of little kids and people crying. They sometimes have nowhere else to go. Sometimes we find a dead body in the house, and that’s always awful.”

“Like someone killed themselves?”

My dad, I knew from our conversations, had this exact thought when he finally got the forty-eight hour notice: He could die by suicide, but then that would leave me.

If my dad had killed himself in his house, how would the warehouse employees know who to call? Would they call 9-1-1 for a body? Probably not, I reasoned. Who would contact me? I flipped over a folder of letters and cards from my dad, which he always signed, “Love always, your dad,” as if I wouldn’t know his slanted handwriting.

Would they contact my uncle, who is my dad’s legal medical proxy? Would I have gotten a call that Monday at work, with my uncle leaving me a voicemail? I thumbed through some early photos of my parents: my mom’s high school senior picture, my mom and dad when they got married in a courthouse, me at age two between them on the couch.

My uncle probably wouldn’t have said “Your dad died,” in a voicemail. He would just say that I should call him back immediately. Would he have waited to tell me in person? When my aunt died, my dad and I drove over an hour-and-a-half to tell my cousin in person because we didn’t want it to be a phone call. I held up a picture of my dad and his mom at his high school graduation. The picture is a little off-center because my grandpa was a terrible photographer. My dad and I re-created the pose at my high school graduation.

I looked through another cardboard box. The boxes didn’t have much order to them, but the employees vaguely remembered where boxes from certain rooms had been placed: “The kitchen is over here, the smaller bedroom is mostly right here.”

I unpacked another box. It was from room I’d lived in when I was with my dad, so it was mainly childhood memorabilia left behind. A packet from my mom’s funeral was inside—a copy of her obituary, a hand-drawn card from a neighborhood kid with a crudely drawn house, a book of signatures from the people who attended her wake.

If my dad had died, this would have become a public mourning. I could send the email: “I’m sorry, I can’t make it to my graduate class tonight because my dad is dead.” Weeks of sympathy cards and text messages, voicemails clogging my machine, looking at photos of my dad and then putting them away, turning off the radio when his favorite songs came on, thinking about him when the new season of Shameless premiered on Showtime.

The warehouse employee answered me: “Yes, a lot of people kill themselves. It’s extremely sad. They often feel like they had no other options.”

“No other options?” I hoisted up a copy of a book I’d written when I was twelve, a memoir about losing my mom, decorated with my own front cover illustration and the title An Angel’s Wings in a 2007 Microsoft Word font. My dad had taken me to a community program to print and bind the book, and then we’d read it out loud to each other before bed each night.

Are there no other options? That’s what I’d asked my dad, when he called. I loved the idea of options. They made sense to me. A person couldn’t just become homeless, could they? But suddenly, here was my dad, who’d once worked two jobs for eighty-hour weeks to save money for an apartment with my mom. Here was my dad, who’d driven a taxi in some of the worst blizzards in Boston’s history. I’d been told things over the years, like: “Your dad is one of the best dads I’ve ever seen. He really did a great job after your mom died.” “Your dad’s the nicest guy I’ve ever known.” “Everyone knows your dad in this city.”

I didn’t understand how those sentences, and the hundreds of similar ones I’d heard, could coexist alongside this reality where my dad had no other options. In a crumpled stack, I found notes my dad had written me for my middle school lunches and other days when I needed a boost. There was one that just said: “I love you! I love you! I love you!”

I wanted to blame him. Blaming him would give me someone to hate. When my mom died, I didn’t get anyone to blame, since she’d died suddenly of a seizure. At first, I’d tried to blame doctors for not being able to keep her alive. Then I’d tried to blame myself for not recognizing the symptoms of the prescription drug reaction that had led to her seizure: Chills, confusion, paleness, shortness of breath. Now, I clung to my ability to blame, that hatred, like it was the last box of my childhood diaries being taken away to a foreclosure warehouse. What else did I have? I had a terrible letter I’d written to my dad after a fight when I was a high school senior. I didn’t re-read the note, and threw it back in the box.

As I sifted through the detritus of his home, my dad was in a hospital, trying for social security again. He needed it to work this time. I needed it to work. I was literally picking up the pieces of his life from the warehouse—at least, the pieces I could find and the ones I could hold. In the last year, he’d been displaying symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s disease—calling me in a panic to ask where I was although I’d told him a dozen times I was going to the beach, telling me over the phone that we hadn’t talked in weeks even though it had only been a few days, losing his driver’s license for six hours despite being a stickler for orderliness. We wouldn’t learn until seven months after this day that these symptoms were actually a traumatic brain injury caused by a minor car accident, an injury that made it too difficult for him to keep working.

When my mom died, I had one demand of the higher powers: Don’t kill my dad, too. I’d actually prefer it if they didn’t kill anyone I loved, but I was specific about my dad. I wanted him to survive until I got married and made the choice to have kids with my partner.

“Dealing with suicide must be really hard to deal with,” I said to the warehouse employees. A lot of professions have a body count associated with them: Firefighter, police officer, medical examiner, surgeon, veterinarian. Cleaning out foreclosed homes isn’t a job that’s usually associated with the title ‘hero,’ but I can’t imagine walking into a house full of belongings and finding the body of someone who got the foreclosure notice and decided they couldn’t live.

I picked through another box, shifting my weight out of discomfort but not wanting to sit down and touch the dirty warehouse floor. This box held diplomas (my high school, my mom’s high school and college), a Lisa Frank diary from fifth grade that declared how psychic I thought I was at the time (I swore I predicted my best friend’s cat dying of cancer), and an old photo album that was falling apart. Mainly crappy wayward photos nobody cared about, like a blur of a cat’s paw, but there were a few I recognized: My dad and I, when I was three years old, at a park near Breakheart Reservation, a hiking trail north of Boston. Back when my dad had a head of nearly black curly hair. He was a tall, skinny guy in a T-shirt and shorts and I was a tiny kid with a light brown bob and blunt bangs. We were holding hands in one photo, and he was pushing me on the swings in another.

Before I went to the warehouse, my dad insisted I needed to keep trying to bargain the owner into letting me take more. “I don’t need all that furniture, but I want the things that mean something to me. My mother’s lamps, my cookie jar, and my photo albums.”

“This is your fault,” I had said. “It’s not my problem. I’m going in to take my stuff and I’m leaving! Fuck your stuff. I don’t care.” He hung up the phone.

About fourteen days later, I was in the warehouse. I held up one of the photos before putting them all back in my bag. In it, my dad and I are both smiling. I’m looking at the camera; he’s looking at me. I thought about the moment when, in the hallway of my apartment building, my dad hugged me. I’d picked him up after they vacated his apartment to help him figure out his next steps. He wrapped his arms around me and said, “I didn’t do know what to do. I thought about killing myself, but then I thought of you.”

I turned to the warehouse employee who was behind me. “Where did you say the boxes from my dad’s bedroom were?”

I sifted through my bag one final time to make sure I had everything—at least, everything I could find that I was allowed to take or could easily sneak without notice. I hadn’t found my dad’s mother’s lamps, but I had found a collection of childhood art I’d given him and a few of his favorite gifts from me that sat on his bookshelf. And I had my things: birthday cards and letters from my dad, childhood photos, my memoir, letters from my friends, a jewelry box that used to my mom’s, my mom’s high school and college degrees, lunchbox notes from my dad, pictures of my dad before he was my dad, and the few photos of my parents together, often with me in the middle. Where I belong.

I brought these things back to my dad—small pieces of his life that only I could give back to him.

***

Rumpus original art by Hadeyeh Badri.


Alaina Leary is a Boston-based editor, writer, and activist. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, Cosmopolitan, Teen Vogue, Marie Claire, Brooklyn Magazine, and more. She spends most of her time reading and covering the world in glitter.  More from this author →