When my dad died, we faced the question of what to do with his townhouse. My sister, who lives in California, thought my then girlfriend Liz and I should live there, which was the last thing I wanted.
I didn’t want to move into my dead dad’s house for a number of reasons. I didn’t want to live so close to where I went to high school. I didn’t want my future mother-in-law to be three minutes away from our doorstep. And I didn’t want to be constantly reminded of the parent I just lost.
Granted, I probably didn’t handle my dad’s death in what therapists would call a “healthy manner,” but the whole thing happened rather suddenly. In the span of three weeks, my dad went from the guy I saw every couple of months to a terminally ill patient, who needed to be “made comfortable” because he was past the point of treatment. I wanted to scrub the image of my dad taking his last breath from my brain, and I didn’t think having coffee in his kitchen every morning would help me do that.
Plus, there was no way Liz and I would be able to keep the house as immaculate as he did. If the dead really did check in on their living relatives as I’d been taught in Catholic school, I knew my cleanliness (or lack of it) would probably piss him off.
At the same time, I couldn’t argue with the logic of the move. My dad’s mortgage was about the same as the rent on our apartment, and taking over the loan was a simple process. Plus, our apartment was falling apart, our landlord was becoming more difficult to reach, and rent would only go up.
“Can you promise me this will only be temporary?” I asked Liz before we moved. She promised. She also went out of her way to make sure the move was as painless as possible for me by rushing to decorate the place to look more like our former apartment and less like a place where my dad lived.
Of course, there was only so much she could do. Even with Liz’s infamous hippy curtains on the windows, it still felt strange. For the better part of a year, it felt like house sitting.
It didn’t help that our homeowner’s association continued to address monthly statements to my dad despite my repeated calls and emails to inform them I was now the homeowner. In a desperate attempt to get the statements in my name, I sent this email to the association:
When I spread the remains of what the Lehman Funeral Home assured me was my cremated father’s body in the ocean along Delaware Seashore State Park, I was under the impression that my father, Gary Bilski, was actually dead. However, your dogged insistence on sending homeowner’s statements to Gary Bilski despite my repeated calls informing you of his death can only mean that rumors of my father’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Therefore, I’m asking you to please send some additional information showing valid proof of my father’s existence so I can reach out to the Lehman’s Funeral Home to find out whose cremated remains were sent to me.
Early on, I’d spent a lot of time wandering around the new place, picturing what my dad’s life must’ve looked like or trying to conjure up memories of my own visits. If I stared at the living room sofa long enough, I could see a hungover 25-year-old me sitting there drinking endless cups of coffee from the French press my dad had been so excited to show me.
Gradually, I settled in to our new home. And slowly, little by little, I learned to love the house – not in spite of it being my dad’s old home, but because of it. Living there allowed me to keep a small part of my father alive and helped me believe he could share in all the moments his death prevented him from experiencing in person.
The powder room sink is the very spot my wife placed a home pregnancy test as we watched two solid pink lines tell us our lives would change forever. The upstairs bedroom is where I, with the help of our Boston Terrier, Luna, proposed to a sleep-deprived nurse who had just finished her night shift. The living room coffee table is where Liz wrote the most beautifully honest tribute to a life – a tribute she handed out at her grandfather’s funeral.
After so many of these moments, my family’s memories took over. Now when I look at the living room, I don’t envision my dad’s former life. Instead, I see my daughter bopping around to “I Want to Poop My Pants,” a Beatles parody I’d sing to her on a daily basis. I see Liz and I on the sofa, wine glasses in hand, catching up on the backlog of awful TV (“Grey’s Anatomy”) in our DVR queue.
With a second baby coming, we need more space. That’s why, after more than five years, we’re moving. It already hurts to think about leaving this place, partly because of all the memories we’ve created here, but mostly because of my dad.
Saying goodbye to my dad’s house will feel like losing him all over again.