The Return of the Stay-at-Home Dad
Forever My Child
My daughter's mother, my ex, died. The news stopped the flow of blood to my head.
The funeral was to happen in 48 hours. I scrambled to find the quickest way back to Minnesota from Bali, Indonesia. I told my daughter to do the best she could with the funeral arrangements until I got there.
I believed this was the end before I jumped into a live volcano.
My new wife looked at my horrified face and looked frightened. "Please don't leave me," she pleaded.
"Don't worry," I reassured her as I packed. "I bought a round trip ticket."
I boarded the plane carrying my head like it was stowaway luggage. I had been gone from America for over three years. I remained positive as much as one can after having another harpoon stuck in my heart.
I knew one day I would return to the States, willful or regretful, but this wasn't what I imagined. I stared out the airplane window again, trying to make sense of my journey.
"Would you like a glass of wine, sir?" The flight attendant smiled.
"Spare the glass," I sweated. "Do you have a large bottle?"
I passed through American customs at the Minneapolis airport. Reverse culture shock put my brain in a specimen jar.
The conveniences of first-world technology. The things I learned to live without. The cleanliness of the bathroom caused me to pause and snap a selfie in front of a washbasin that had hot water.
The Minnesota mid-March frigid temperatures overwhelmed my skimpy tropical attire. I waved down a taxi with a cold blue hand and jumped into the back seat.
I began my travel decompression by reading the local newspaper. The headline was about a higher chance of being killed by police for a black person compared to a white person. The second headline was about a bid to build another billion-dollar sports stadium. For a football team that could never win a Super Bowl?
I reflected on my job as the son of the zillionaire franchise team owner. A music business venture. That ended with him ordering his private security thug to strangle me as a warning not to cross him.
The help-wanted ads had shrunk to half as many listings. The crusty, "Sales Closer Needed" want ad was still there in bold ink. "The world would always need talent for turning a "no" into a yes," I mused. All that is required is a 'positive mental attitude.'
There were no more stories about the Occupy Movement. Or the millions of Americans who got ripped off in the 2007 Wall Street Great Recession scandal. That period, like the rest of America's "selfies," got filed under the next news cycle.
In another 10 years, there would be a movie about what happened to me called "Nomadland."
I told the taxi driver to veer off course and swing through my old neighborhood. I wanted to catch a glimpse of how things changed. When I reached my old home where I raised my daughter, I fell into the 23 years of memories left there.
My daughter moved out of her mom's house a year ago, and after mom found a new boyfriend put the house up for sale. She was not able to sell it.
"Please pull over here," I asked the taxi driver. "I'm sorry, what is your name?" I introduced myself.
"My name is Mohammad," he said in a thick African accent.
"Where are you from?" I asked.
"Somalia, mon. I work to bring my family of six," he nodded in a friendly way.
"I know how it feels to separate from your home and family," I replied. I pointed at the house. "I used to live there."
"Nice house, mon," Mohammad approved.
I was happy to see my ex was able to improve the property. Visible from the outside, I could see the new remodeling through the window. She had planned to fix it up and sell it.
I could never forget the childhood years I spent as an unemployed stay-at-home dad. I missed dumb things like my riding lawn mower and the crop circle designs I made with it. The smell of the wet leaves stuck in the gutters. A mailbox stuffed with junk mail. My cat Boo Boo is on my shoulder. Salmon on the grill, cold beer in hand, campfire, and my favorite songs going down with the sun. The secret place I buried my pets and the tree where I pushed my baby girl in a swing.
I could still hear my daughter and ex laughing in the garden. To rid the house of any disreputable spirits. I needed a Balinese holy man around to perform the mecaru spirit cleansing ceremony. The house was empty, but not from a lack of energy. My family's soul would be there forever.
My neighborhood once loud with children, now grown up, and moved away, added to the void. What happened to my neighbor who lost his job too? Sold everything, and went to work for a children's orphanage in Sri Lanka? It was a lifetime, gone. One I loved and dreaded.
By the time I reached my daughter's rented house, Mohammad and I were friends. I stood in front of his taxi with my arm around him and snapped another arrival selfie. I gave him a good tip and wished him luck in getting a mission to sponsor his kin from a Somalian refugee camp.
I knocked on my daughter's door. A moment later, my little mermaid stood in the doorway shaking.
I gave her a big daddy hug. "I'm sorry I wasn't here with you when mom passed. We're a team again, okay?"
The task of preparing her mother's funeral arrangements was overwhelming.
"I'm glad you're finally here," she cried. "Sorry, there isn't more time. Tomorrow is the funeral."
I nodded as best one can when kicked in the stomach by grief. "I'm here to help now. Do you have a bed for me?"
She picked up my backpack. "Follow me, Dad."
"My head is still in Asia so please wake me if I am not up," I said, dizzy.
I moved into the basement of her rented house with her four male roommates upstairs. Compared to my circus gang. The twenty-somethings were responsible except the food rotting in the fridge. The toilet was dirty, and coming in when the bar closed. The only thing missing was the born hell-raiser beer can pyramid stacked in front of the stereo.
"It's a transitional living arrangement," she assured me.
"When I was your age, I moved with your mother into an apartment surrounded by drunken neighbors. It was in the bowels of the inner city," I explained. "Mom was the waitress and I was the short-order cook at a neighborhood dive.
"I would like to see where you lived," she said.
"If there's enough time, we can do a tour of mom and dad's old haunts," I reassured.
She wanted me to be close to her, and I was happy to stay in her moldy, cold basement. My makeshift crash zone in the basement was complete with hanging blankets on walls. The air mattress was a scene out of my teenage, hippie era, lifestyle.
"See you in the morning," I hugged her again.
"Goodnight Dad. I'm so glad you're here," she exhaled.
I laid there staring off into space. I pulled the electric heater closer- trying to hang on to my sanity.
I was too tired to think, and before I knew the time the sun lit the basement windows.
My daughter and I loaded up the car in silence with things needed for the ceremony. The emotional weight and the fact I forgot how to drive a car made it the longest twenty-minute drive of my life. The shock of where we were going turned our faces a speechless, tombstone white.
I stood washed out by jet lag next to her in church. She leaned on me through tears as she gave her mother's eulogy. I wanted to say something to the relatives and neighbors. Since the ex's fiancée was there, I felt it best to let him speak.
My daughter and I finally got a moment to share our grief. We went through the many boxes of her mother's belongings. We found the old photo albums. It was heartbreaking to go through her younger sister's funeral. Our wedding. Her baby photos, the trips, the friends, the holidays, the lifetime of one family's time on this Earth.
"How do you feel?" I asked.
"Like I lost everything- mom. The house where I grew up, and you living halfway around the world," she expressed grievously.
"Me too, hon," I choked.
Back in Bali, I had been the philosopher dad. Now any wisdom was overtaken by mourning. I remembered how I felt when I lost my brother and parents.
The moment locked.
To leave my daughter, the inescapable sense of falling.
The next day a copy of her mother's death certificate arrived in the mail. I opened the letter and read the cause of death out loud to her, "Complications due to alcoholism."
If time could be as a physical object. That moment when any remaining uncertainty someone you loved was dead. The paper of proof was too heavy to hold. An official document that said her mother no longer existed sucked the air from our lungs.
"After you left, Dad, mom got bad with the drinking." My daughter tried to touch the certificate. "Her boyfriend drank with her."
"Forgiving," I swallowed a big chunk of sadness. "It's all there is."
"What should I do with Mom's ashes?" She gazed, lost.
"I leave that up to you. Let your soul guide you," I urged. "There's no rush so give it some time."
"We will make new memories," I said to change the mood. "It will be hard without mom, but we can do it."
The days flew by as I did the dad things like making sure her mother's car worked. Legal stuff. And assembled a Walmart grill for one of our special, togetherness dinners. The moment was in honor of our many backyard picnics. We spent many nights vegetating in peace.
My daughter lamented that I was leaving too soon. It seemed I was always leaving too soon.
For the sake of my daughter, I should have stayed longer, and I regretted it. It was my bad for not taking her on a healing tour to the places where her mom and I lived and hung out before she was born.
"Is my cat Boo Boo, okay?" I asked.
"He is happy in his new home, Dad," she said. "I'm sorry about what happened to the murdered woman in your villa. And, I'm also sorry to hear that 52 died, too. What an awful thing to happen."
"Experiences, which left a scar," I admitted.
She left to run errands, and I stepped out to look up a few old friends.
"So, what's it like over there?" Frank mustered a cloudy reception over a beer.
"What you're led to believe about Islam is wrong," I saw through his question.
There was some doubt about my choice of relocation. It appeared that I am disgruntled with America. In retaliation, sought to become a radical Islamist. Join a terrorist group, and plot my revenge against the powers that screwed me. I married the enemy after all, and what more proof? Likewise, I had experienced some of the same backlashes when I went to South Africa. When I railed against apartheid. The best I could do under these circumstances was to let the misinformed know they were wrong and move on.
The next reception arrived as an invitation to a friend's cabin. Along the north shore of Lake Superior in Grand Marias, Minnesota. Up there, late at night, I soaked in as many Northern Lights possible. During the day, I visited an area on the Gun Flint Trail where my daughter and I had camped out.
I hiked down to the shoreline of Lake Superior and huffed over my fate. If only things had gone different for me? The land of the loon was worthy to call home.
I sat there on the rocks lotus style as I had done at the Bali airport. Staring into the water that bubbled over the rocks. I was still as insecure as the first time I had run away. Caught between the pages of a passport. I could never call this my home again. It was a sacrifice I paid for the blessing of loving people in another place.
As much as I wanted to stay, my new wife was waiting for me, and I failed to reconnect with memory lane. The moment reminded me of a Zen koan I called "contraposition dislocation." I didn't fit in where I am nor did I fit in where I was. It was getting cold. I said goodbye to my old thoughts at the lake.
Weeks later, the basement was getting old and there was no other place for me to stay. It was time to pick up where I left off.
My daughter laughed. Wrapped her arms around my tense body, and massaged me with tenderness. "Love you too, Dad. I know you have to go back."
For reasons I did not inquire, I didn't bring up the subject of her mom's ashes again.
"Are you sure it's cool that I am leaving?" I looked into her eyes.
"Don't worry, Dad, I learned a few things when I visited you in Bali," she winked. "You were there when I needed you like you've done my entire life, and that's what counts."