Three years before he would take his life, my father reached out to me by email, which was his preferred method of communication. He had not been in touch for years, despite my selfish calls and letters or pleas for him to send books I’d left behind at his place after a failed attempt at living with him one summer. I had moved in and left my things behind, believing it would be enough to make him invite me back. But I never saw the inside of his house again once I left.
I was used to a love that was a locked door. It did not revolve, it was never left open in case I changed my mind. This carried over into my personal relationships, despite my best efforts.
By the time he finally opened up again, I finally understood that even if I didn’t want to love him or claim him as my father, I had a deep need to understand us. I was the doer in the trinity that was my distant father and my overly present mother. He was the one who withheld. She was the one who smothered.
They merely reacted to me, to life, on their own time tables. I was so desperately lonely and confused about how to be an adult who also loved someone appropriately who was not my parent or relative that I simply gave up my natural reserve and told him that I needed his help.
“My best friend moved in, and we tried to be together, but now he’s moving out,” I wrote him, nearly a decade ago now. “The walls are bare. All I have are my books and a TV I never watch.”
In classic form, he did not respond to these words with another email, but with two paintings. One was a print of Picasso’s Girl before a Mirror. The other was this rendering Oshun — perhaps my father knew and perhaps he didn’t. She was my favorite then and still is, but when I left Texas, I tucked her in the garage with other things I thought were too much for me to carry into the new life I wanted. After he died it was hard to look at what he had given me. It was easier to just leave it behind.
I went to Austin recently to visit the house. It is still mine, but the walls now belong to others who call them home. It felt good that it was being lived in, still, a different dog enjoying the sun in the backyard, housewarming-gift lilies still sprouting aggressively beside the front door.
I could remember the hours I spent rounding the corner to spot them, the time I spent staring up into the big wide blue sky like I was looking at all of Texas’ air. One of my tenants offered me a sweet, gentle word of permission to look around, misreading my hesitation for something other than too many emotions to name. I glanced briefly in the rooms, then the garage. It was there that I found this painting that I had left behind, perhaps to be taken by someone else because I felt I didn’t deserve it, felt I didn’t need to be reminded of this other side of my father, felt like it was just one more haunting reminder of the many people and loves and potential relationships I lost.
I picked it up, amazed to see it, knowing that it was still there for me to have. Everyone looked at me clasping it like I’d found my safety blanket and I said maybe two or three words about it but knew they wouldn’t understand if I tried to explain it to them, so I didn’t.
My walls at home are not as bare as they were back then, back there. They all feature pieces of my heart reflected back in gifts — a poster from the Women’s March, a print of Audre Lorde warning perpetually against the false safety of silence, two wooden gifts from Africa. This painting is one of the final pieces of recovery. It is what makes my new home completely mine, now, this otherworldly gift.
She reminds me we can carry it all, whether we want to or think we can or not.