Thursday, January 2, 2014

What seeped into the walls

Decades of living in an apartment can be detected easily, even when vacated of its residents. Patterns of walking show up in how furniture is laid out. Ways of eating in how food is cooked and stored in the kitchen. Means of passing time are apparent in how TV is displayed, magazines strewn and books shelved. Bedrooms tell the story of intimacy expected, protected, and shown. Pantries of our hunger. Closets display how we organize our minds.

We seep into the walls that surround us. I realize just how much only when I visit my dad’s apartment a few months after his death. 

In the display cabinet are souvenirs and tchotchkes collected over a lifetime: each tells its story in short strokes. Places visited, objects collected and adorned. Slivers of ordinary things made meaningful through ornate display. Family photos stare back at me. They are the eyes of a home, even when it is empty. These photos remain witnesses to a life of love lived well. To strangers they show synopses of our family history beaded over the decades. For my sister and I, they are windows flung open into our past. 

I cry. The past swallows me as I walk through empty rooms. The photos spill their stories, chapters of them, in my lap. The brimming minutiae of the room, neatly lined TV remotes, meticulous grocery lists, instructions to servants, fill my head with memories of gestures and micro patterns of life that I haven’t noticed. Until now.

Closets of neatly folded shirts, pyjamas and hanging belts: I can’t bear to look at them. Why haven't you cleaned these out? I am angry at my sister. These are lies. All these make it seem he is here. But he is not. 

I know this because he died in this very room, on this bed next to this closet. I was there. And I had held his hand as he did. 

Clean this place up, I tell her.  

But the photos won't let us go. So we take them off the walls, remove them from the bed stand, lower them from shelves from where they stare at us. Smiling, laughing, moments of lifetime compressed into a few sheets. Once we take them down and distribute them between us, the apartment becomes bearable. Less personal. Silent. 

On my way out, on an impulse, I run my hands over the of the hallway wall. Suddenly, the whole apartment shimmers, all the walls come forward and embrace me- one last time. Something has seeped into them.