“I’m going to be five soon!” I wailed to him when their starched figures retreated.
“I know honey. I know you’re a big girl.” He held an ice pack gently against the bump of broken bone that showed beneath my skin.
“I’m starting kindergarten! I’m going to school! Mom says!” I hiccupped and couldn’t catch my breath.
“Don’t worry. I’ll tell them.”
Recently, I cleaned out the linen cupboard at my dad’s house. I found the sling that trapped my arm for eight weeks when I was almost-five—it is blue, printed with clowns, and so tiny. I looked down at my gangly adult arm and couldn’t imagine ever being so small. I laughed and held it up to show my dad, who sat in a kitchen chair drinking coffee. He laughed and then told me to put it back.
Ripped pillowcases were not the only items in Dad’s makeshift first-aid kit. A newspaper and some masking tape could brace a sprained ankle. Plastic wrap could hold the gauze on a cut foot and keep blood from getting on the car seat on the way to the Emergency Room. Popsicle sticks made cheap and disposable tongue depressors. Along with a flashlight, my father used them to diagnose strep throat and tonsillitis. When we were small, when we weren’t “Those Schwabs” yet, when my mom was still alive, we could always open the silverware drawer and find a few clean popsicle sticks.
Long after she died though, after my older brothers moved out and us little ones became teenagers, my father still kept popsicle sticks. He carefully washed them and put them in empty soup cans, saved for the sole purpose of holding clean popsicle sticks. Once a can was full, he moved it to the cupboard with the dishes. Hundreds of the small red- and orange-stained sticks accumulated. But we weren’t sick that often. We didn’t have that many throats. When I pointed this out, my dad said they were also “good for kindling.” He burned yard waste about once a month in a barrel outside, but always used junk mail to start the fires. The popsicle sticks stayed in their soup cans.
Plastic bottle tops collected in a bucket next to the sink. These he used to help us keep track of our milk money. He’d put a quarter and a nickel in each bottle cap, tape the open face shut, and put them in our lunch boxes. It worked, but I stopped taking lunch to school after the fifth grade. He kept saving bottle caps.
We didn’t get rid of glass jars. They were washed and set aside, ready to hold screws, nuts, bolts, drill bits, and other small machine parts and tools. He never seemed to remember there were two boxes of empty baby food jars in the basement, left from when “Those Schwabs” were infants. There will always be more screws, he argued—still argues—different sized nails, new parts for one of his sewing machines, small light bulbs, things. Things that will need keeping track of.
He never uses the “good” coffee cups from the china cabinet. Instead, even when he is at home, even when he sits at the kitchen table watching the news, he drinks coffee and tea out of Styrofoam coffee cups. These are the to-go cups he gets at gas stations and drive-thrus, cups that he washes in the sink. He stacks them on top of the dishwasher next to the bottle cap bucket, never minding that there are already dozens of cups there or that he’ll go back to the gas station the next day and get another one.
Since my early twenties, I’ve worried about my father and his finances. He’s in his late sixties and still works two jobs. Aside from his utility bills, property taxes, and everyday expenses, he rents several storage units at the local storage facility, which isn’t cheap. He also continues to buy things, vehicles and heavy equipment, taking out loans to do so. I oscillate between being frustrated and scared, worried that my father will go broke, or barricade himself in his lonely house and not come out. That he’ll be beyond my help, or that he won’t want it.
It’s not all selfless worry. My dad has always been my number one supporter, the person who can make anything better, either with screws or duct tape or a proverb that is almost relevant. He used to be over six feet tall. He is my hero, my strongman, my Daddy. So if there is something wrong with him, something not fixable, something that my mother’s death has left broken, where does that leave me?
Sometimes when I visit Dad’s house, and he’s in the bathroom or downstairs switching laundry, I throw a few things away. But I have to be sneaky. I put one stack of to-go coffee cups in my purse. I slip some junk mail into the bucket of things he’ll burn. I put a handful of bottle caps in my jacket pocket, or move a couple small glass jars to the recycle bin. I never take all of anything, or even a lot. He would notice and get angry, tell me to “tend to [my] own business.”