I’d been avoiding saying goodbye.
In December, we moved to a lovely house that has space for all of us and then some. A house with deer in the backyard and a winding creek. With a cul-de-sac piled high with snow. The kids call it the “monkey pile,” and it’s perfect for sledding. We have nice neighbors with kids the same age as ours: In the fall, we will all stand out in the cul-de-sac together to wait for the big, yellow bus to pick our kids up for school.
The house is perfect for our family. We’d been looking on and off for two years, and when we found it, it was, without a doubt, “the one.” But as with all moving forward, we had to leave something behind, and that something was our old house.
Our old house is a romantic, three-level townhouse with slanted walls and antique glass doorknobs and a dark, dusty basement that housed the laundry machine. We shared a wall with our neighbors, along with a small yard. The townhouse fronts a busy, busy street that shrinks down to almost nothing in the densest part of the winter.
We’d bought it six years ago, just before we had children. It was just my husband, Scott, and I, and we didn’t yet need to worry about baby proofing, backyards or busy streets. Right after we moved in, I would wander the rooms, saying, “I love our house.” I remember how it took months for it to feel like it was really ours, and how spacious and charming it felt. But after our second child was born, it felt smaller and smaller. Navigating all the stairs with two small children was tedious and tiring.
On that first December night when we were getting ready to drive the kids from our old house to our new house, my son cried in the backseat. He cried those big, wracking sobs that pour out of a little body, or a big body, leaving you wrung out at the end. We stayed in the driveway for several minutes, asking Max if he was okay.
“I’m really sad about leaving our old house,” he managed between sobs.
“I know, baby. I am too,” I said. “But I’m also really excited for our new house. I’m happy and sad.”
In fact, I was happy and sad watching him. It hurt to see his grief over leaving the old house, his uncertainty about sleeping and playing and eating in an unfamiliar house. At the same time, I was so proud that he could verbalize just what he was feeling.
For the first few weeks in our new house, in between exploring the finished basement and the screened porch and setting up our first big Christmas tree, grief washed over Max. We’d be lying in his bed at bedtime after a great day in our new house, and then the loss would pass over him. His face would crumple and he’d cry.
Eventually, the tears tapered off. We promised him that he would have a chance to say goodbye to the old house before we sold it. But then came the holidays and illnesses whirling through our house and days when it snowed so much that we didn’t leave our new home. In the meantime, we had a few projects finished up at the old house before finally putting it on the market. I’d been in and out a half dozen times, carting small loads of things we didn’t really need but couldn’t quite throw away—suitcases, the ice skates that haven’t been used in years, old economics textbooks. I found myself dreading each trip over there, and putting off bringing the kids over to say goodbye.
Fortunately, we are finally in negotiations to sell it. Sunday was the day to say goodbye.
I had a dull ache in my chest that told me don’t go, but we’d promised Max. I felt myself not wanting to feel whatever was coming—I was avoiding the grief that had so organically washed over my son. My husband, Scott, jiggled his key around to open the front door. We all took off our boots and coats, leaving them strewn by the front door. This was about to be someone else’s home, and we didn’t want to track our caked dirt and grey snow in.
“We been here, right?” Violet, our two-year-old asked. She turned her little face towards us, her expression open and curious.
“Yes, we used to live here!” I said. “Do you remember?” I pointed out the new sun-hued paint in the living room and the rich refinished floors.
We walked through the empty rooms. Max and Violet ran around, partially delighted by all the space to run around in, and partially remembering what wasn’t there anymore. “Mama! Your office! It’s all cleaned out!” Max announced. I smiled—my office, now a small white box, had always been one of the messier rooms in the house, scattered with papers, books and bills.
We all climbed the stairs to the second floor, where the kids’ bedrooms had been. Max ran into his room first. He did a little dance, then said, “Goodbye, Max’s bedroom.”
It was the room where we’d all slept—or tried to sleep—in those first days and weeks after Max had been born. I could still see his tiny body swaddled in the bassinet next to our bed, where he used to startle awake as soon as I put him in it.
Scott and Violet roamed the second floor, exploring her room, which was really a glorified closet. “We been here!” I could hear her saying again to Scott. Max and I climbed the stairs to the third floor, which had been Scott and my bedroom. I pointed out the floors, which had been a dingy, dark wood before. We’d had them redone after we’d moved out, and they were now a warm, orangey hue.
Max opened all the closets, making sure we hadn’t left anything behind.
A few minutes later, the four of us convened in the now-golden living room. The air in the house felt different—it wasn’t quite stale, but it didn’t feel like ours anymore. Max looked like he might start crying, and I put my arms around him.
“What are you feeling?” I asked him.
He didn’t say anything. It struck me that he might be feeling something he didn’t even entirely understand, or at least didn’t have the words for. He was, after three months, happily ensconced in our new home. Perhaps some blend of nostalgia and letting go were passing through him.
“The couch used to be right here, and when you were a baby, we spent so much time sitting on the couch while you drank mama milk,” I said.
“And right over there is where you took your first steps. You walked back and forth between Daddy and I, over and over again,” I said, my eyes welling up.
This house that I’d been avoiding held the memories of my children’s infancy. It was where they were conceived, and it was where they had slept nearly every night of their lives until a few months ago. This living room was the room where the February light had felt so awful right after Max was born, when post-partum depression and sleep deprivation were crushing me. Of the six years that we’d owned the house, I’d spent five of them pregnant or breastfeeding.
“Yeah, right here.” Scott said, sitting down on the floor next to the empty fireplace. He spread his legs in a V, like he’d done that day in May, nearly four years ago, when Max had taken his first tentative, stilted steps.
“Like this?” Max ran back and forth between us, looking so giant beside the ghost of his toddler self, who’d been even smaller than little Violet was right now.
I took a picture of us all sitting on the floor of the empty living room. Sunlight flooded us in the photo, smudging the edges of our faces. After a few moments, we all stood up, walking towards our pile of coats and boots by the front door.
“When we first got this place, it was the nicest place we could’ve imagined living,” Scott reminisced.
I smiled. So much had changed since we had moved in. We’d become parents in this house; our dyad had doubled. Our desires in a home had morphed from charm and beauty to functionality. And we’d struggled here, as a couple, to not sink beneath the rising waters of family life, of bills and bedtime.
“Goodbye, house,” Max said as we left. I wondered if this, his first home, would seep into his dreams, the way my first home still sometimes does—the rooms rearranged, but immediately recognizable as my first home.
“Goodbye, garage,” he said. I thought of all the ways we say goodbye—to the stages and phases, the loop of seasons, to people and places. We say it in whispers and with tears, in words and in avoidance. Sometimes, when we can’t quite say it out loud, we might say it in our dreams. I wondered if Max’s dreams would ever be populated by the nooks and crannies of this house, the crystal doorknobs, the startling way the sun rushed through the windows.
“Goodbye, house,” Max said again. I watched his face for emotions, but it was calm and neutral. We backed out of the driveway slowly, edging past snow banks and onto the gravel-ridden street.
Then, we drove forward.
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