There were complications in the simple journey I planned to make to meet Harold, the largest of which was having no car. A wonderful problem in Chicago, where I didn’t have to worry about parking, accidents, insurance, maintenance, or theft. It made me resourceful and independent in a city teeming with hidden gems, and an amazing public transit system. But getting to and from Rockford would be an issue. The Metra could get me within about 20 miles. But I would need a car to get the rest of the way. And no one else knew about the correspondence.
“Hi, gramps, nice to meet you. Any chance I could trouble you for a ride back home?”
I needed help. My sister, though shocked and scattered at learning about the situation, was intrigued. It was an impromptu, albeit sneaky, trip home. Didn’t mention it to my folks, which made me feel a little bad. Kristy would pick me up, and I would stay the night at her place. We would drive over in the morning.
And I was calm.
One thing about the way my brain works, though it can often resemble a cranky, old, unbalanced water wheel, turning slow and with great effort, when I’ve finally set my mind to do something, I’ve often ironed out any potential anxiety that would deter me from doing it at all. So I rode the train home with my head stuffed in some forgotten novel, music at my ears, barely batting an eye at the truth of my destination. Kristy picked me up at the station, and exchanged hugs and pleasantries in the usual way. The evening was uncomplicated and restful.
The next morning we dressed like we were going to church. I felt silly in the bulky shirt and slacks. Not my style. Here I’d already made a mistake. Too late to change now, as my t-shirts and pairs of bluejeans were 100 miles away. My brother-in-law kept circling in the apartment, his own nervous energy poking through in his childlike smile, moving from chair to chair, the restlessness preventing him from sitting still for more than a few moments.
“You ready?” he asked. It may as well have been a pregame interrogation.
“Sure,” I said. And I was. I was in my own shell. Calm.
My sister, on the other hand, was wide-eyed as she came out of the bathroom, hands fumbling for her keys, checking the evenness of her skirt, hunting for shoes. She may as well have been headed to a court appearance.
“Okay,” she announced, purse in hand, and all we could do when we looked at one another was laugh. All of us, giggling because we knew no other form of expression for the moment, my little niece joining in the way children do.
Twelve minutes to get there.
“I don’t know what I’m going to say,” she admitted.
“Don’t worry, I’ll handle the first part,” I offered, thinking of that awkward few moments at the front door, which might very well be slammed in our faces once we’d explained ourselves.
I have friends, lots of them.
Most of the drive was silent, turning into unfamiliar neighborhoods. The home was situated down a short road that ended in a cul-de-sac. That was when it hit me. I was terrified. All of the reality of what we were doing came flooding through my protective coating. Suddenly didn’t know what I was going to say. We edged forward, scanning house numbers, not sure if we should park on the street or in the drive.
An irritating car horn jerked us back to reality. In our collective daze, moving forward just a couple feet per second, we hadn’t realized we were keeping another car from leaving its parking spot.
“I just don’t know what to do,” my sister laughed hysterically, finally swerving out of the way to let the other driver pass, and I felt the same way, wondering if we should just turn around and head home.
Not looking for any new friends right now.
My stupid shoes. Should have gotten a haircut.
“Park in the driveway,” I argued against myself. “I suppose that ruins our sneak attack,” referring to the car horn. We both laughed. “They’re gonna think we’re Bible salesmen dressed like this on a Saturday morning.” Kristy humored me with a chuckle, but from the hollowness of it I realized I was trying too hard to ease the tension. One joke too many.
We sat for a minute or so in the car, letting the seconds tick by, rocks in our shoes.
“Well, c’mon,” she said, opening her door, and to be honest, I’m not sure I would have gotten out of that car without her prompting. Apparently I’d need more from her than just the ride. My confidence had deflated like a balloon.
Short, careful steps up the walkway was a startling experience for both of us. Small trinkets and statues dotted the landscape as we walked, and for a moment, we both felt like we were walking up to Grandma Bonnie’s house. There was something reflected in the decorations, a personality, a perspective that we’d only seen in our paternal grandmother’s decorative spirit. And there, next to the door, a sign that read, ‘The Laffertys.’ So eerily similar to the one Howard and Grandma had that it stirred up the frozen moths in my belly.
“Guess there’s no turning back now,” I whispered, cursing quietly, one final laugh before we rang the doorbell.
I wish I could say that the rest of the day was enlightening, powerful, warm. That Bobbi opened the door and we hugged like old friends. That Harold was stubborn at our arrival, but softened at my sister’s cutting humor. She can get anybody going. I wish I could say that we laughed. That we avoided conversations that would have created bad feelings. That we had coffee and ate cookies, and made arrangements to see them again in a couple weeks, maybe with Pops.
But that door never opened.
We stood there, smiles stretched across our faces, waiting for a moment that would never come. They weren’t home. And that’s when the feeling hit me again.
I’m not looking for any new friends right now.
I was a stranger here. My damn name was next to the door, but I may as well have been on the moon. The golf course that butted up to Harold’s backyard contained fairways my father had walked countless times. The collection of baseball diamonds where I played as a kid just a few streets away. But I was an intruder here. Intruding upon sickness and sadness and a small bit of hope that didn’t belong to me, even if it was my blood. Harold could be heaving his last breaths in the hospital right then for all I knew.
Neither of us had anticipated the door not opening, actually, as our focus had only been on what to do when it did, so we gathered our will for the heartsick walk back to the car. Very little chatting on the ride home. We compared notes on the eerie similarities with knickknacks between Grandma Bonnie’s and Harold’s respective homes. Agreed on the bizarre feeling of seeing our last name on the sign. We discussed heading back in a couple hours to try again, but that feeling I got on the front porch, along with the echoing words of his letter, had already made up my mind.
Listen to your father.
I think that was the one that stuck with me most. That’s what paused me in my tracks, and opened a new kind of understanding about what I was after. I had no beef with this man. Just wanted to meet him. Put a face to a name. Unearth some sense of identity I’d been searching for. But there was no way to find that now. Even if the door had opened, his current state most likely would have hindered the enlightenment I was searching for. I’d been too late for that. Perhaps when he was less sick. Perhaps when he’d had less friends. Perhaps before he’d had to face Death the way he was at that moment, when surrounding himself with the simplest things he knew was most important. Not me. I knew by the time we walked through Kristy’s front door that I’d never meet my grandfather Harold. But I also knew I owed it to my father to tell him what I’d done. It might have been too late to establish my own relationship with this man, but perhaps there was still enough to bring a little peace to others.
Pops blinked hard, and looked at me from the chair in his living room. My father smiles a little when he’s caught off guard, like he’s waiting for a punchline.
“You what?” he asked again, eyebrows furrowed above his half smirk.
“I wrote a letter to your old man,” my voice cracked.
It might be the hardest thing I’ve ever had to say to him.
He blinked hard again, a shake of his head, clearing the cobwebs of thought away as we watched the Cubs game together. This was a week or two after knocking on my grandfather’s door, during a planned visit home to see my family. My mother had left on a pretend errand a half hour before, giving us time alone to speak. She’s pretty amazing that way, putting everyone before herself. It had taken me 30 minutes to work up the courage to say it to him, but I knew it had to come from me.
“Where the hell did you find him?” I hadn’t expected this question, although he wasn’t as savvy online as he is now, and there was some comfort in knowing that neither of us had thought enough to type his name into a search bar. Once I started speaking, the rest came flooding out. A swarm of bees that probably stung as they spiraled at him. How close he lived. Why I wanted to meet him. How I was sorry I didn’t tell him ahead of time.
“I wouldn’t get my hopes up about getting a letter back,” he grumbled, turning his chair to face the television.
“Actually, they already wrote back,” I mumbled. “Would you like to see the letter?” Again, the slight smirk, eyes blinking hard, like I’d just told him I was dating an alien and wanted to move to Neptune.
He did want to see it. He read it in disbelief, snickering and shaking his head at the lines that had been running through my head for days. The ones about friends. He criticized a few of the untruths in the letter, the flubs of names and places. He wasn’t angry, which was a positive thing, nor did he seem to feel betrayed. I’d been expecting far more 4-letter words. There was a hint of disappointment in his tone though, a darkness that I could feel wasn’t aimed at me. More at the man who had perpetually let him down. We spoke for a short time about our thoughts on the whole thing. Harold was sick. Dying. It was out of respect for Pops that I brought this to him. I wasn’t saying he needed to see Harold, but there wouldn’t be much time left if he wanted to. He countered with doors closing a long time ago. There was peace in it for him already. It wouldn’t change a thing to go see him. There was a lot I didn’t know.
I agreed with him on that one. I asked him to consider it for a few days, and he agreed to give me that. And then, out of nowhere, it came spewing out again.
“We need to drive out to where you grew up,” I said. The string of sentences that spilled from my mouth probably sounded planned, but, holy hell, they weren’t. Road trip. To Freeport. And everywhere else he’d lived. He was right. I didn’t know nearly enough. And it was time we started talking about it. Seeing it. Embracing it. I was tired of skating around it all the time. Piecing together bits of story from different people. A ragtag history of my own heritage when the damn stories were sitting right in front of me. Harold didn’t need any new friends, but perhaps it was a chance for Pops and me set a whole different tone. He thought on it for a few seconds, shaking his head at the letter one more time before tossing it on the couch next to him.
“When you wanna go?”