Her father sat enveloped in the La-Z-Boy recliner, staring sadly at the blank TV. Sometimes Sarah could forget how old he was, but it struck her all at once now. She saw him clearly for a moment–sunken cheeks, wisping hair, worn, perpetually smudge clothes, an old man who could hardly remember how to live–and not through the veil of her memories and love.
“Dad, it’s about time to go.”
He roused himself from his thoughts and looked at her. “I’m not leaving.”
“Dad, we’ve been over this. You can’t stay here any–”
“Yes, yes,” he said sharply. “Fine. But the rocks come.”
“We can take some of–”
“All of them.”
The house was filled with jars of rocks. For as long as she could remember, her dad collected rocks. She used to play with them as a child, and he would hand her one then another so she could feel them, squeeze them in her little fists, and line them up for her dolls to inspect. But as she grew older, she realized that the rocks were unimpressive. Most were just pebbles, gravel, or even shards of blacktop or cement. But he kept picking them up, not only on vacations and outings, but in the strangest places, like in the school parking lot and the landscaping outside the dentist office. As a teenager, her friends had asked about the jars when they came over. Embarrassed, she asked her dad why he kept all those stupid rocks.
“They’re important to me,” he said. “Like your stuffed animals.”
“I’m not a kid, Dad.”
“Your clothes then. Everyone collects something.”
“But they’re not even cool. Collect geodes or gems, something colorful.”
He smiled at her. “I’ll explain it later.”
He never really had. She hadn’t really asked, either. She’d learned that people had all sorts of idiosyncrasies. Her dad’s was a sort of obsession with picking up bits of rock, like other people kept giant containers of pennies or spent hours gathering coupons for grocery shopping.
But it was more than an affable personality tic now. There were probably a literal ton of rock secreted here and there in the house that had once sheltered a family of six and which he now dwelt in alone. It could not all go to the assisted living apartment. And she told him so.
“I’m not leaving them,” he said.
“Dad, be reasonable.”
“I’m old enough I don’t have to be reasonable.”
“This is ridiculous. Even if I could take them, there would be no room.”
Her dad stared at her with those eyes that had so frightened her when she had done something wrong. “Hand me that jar, the one on the TV.”
It was a canning jar, and he twisted off the lid as he took it. He picked out a small, jagged pebble, feeling it. “I picked this one up while walking in the park. I saw a cardinal, and I remembered how I dreamed of flying when I was young.” He set it on the table and retrieved another, a round brown stone. “This one came from the porch. I was sitting there and suddenly realized I was no longer afraid of death.” He set that one down too and chose another. “This one came on a winter thaw when I first sensed the coming spring.” He held the jar in his lap. “I have ones for when each of you first learned to ride a bike and when you got married and when your Mom died. They’re mixed in with the rest. But there are so many other moments, times of insight and clarity and the gentle turning of real life. And so I marked them. Thousands of moments anchored forever in a little chunk of earth. I know it’s ridiculous, but I look at them, and without even thinking of each, I am surrounded by a mountain of experiences. I will not leave them.”
She looked around, understanding what he said and a little overwhelmed. “But, Dad, they’re still rocks.”
“Nothing’s just what it is, Sarah, not once someone’s touched it. Go to a garage sale. Aren’t there memories there? It’s a veritable family history. Walk in an old house, in an abandoned building, in a ruins. We pick up stones shaped by cavemen and put them in museums. What we touch remains alive forever.”
She realized her father was near tears. She was not sure she had seen him cry before. “Dad, it isn’t possible.”
“It’s everything I have,” he said. “I’m afraid of losing it.”
She knelt beside his chair and put her hands around the jar he held. “Take this one. I’ll put the others in storage, and I’ll exchange them whenever I visit.”
“You better,” he said gruffly.
“I will, Dad.” She closed her eyes, pierced by an emotion, and opened them again. “And I want you to tell me what they are. Okay?”
He eyed her warily. “It’s hard. They’ve been mine for so long.”
He nodded. “Of course.”
As she left the house she stopped. She bent down and picked up a small rock. It was to remind her of the moment when she realized that someday she would no longer have a father.