It would undoubtedly take months to sink in: Denver wasn’t my home anymore.
At every dinner party, family gathering, really any even vaguely social interaction I had been to with my mother for as far back as I could remember, she’d always embarrassed me by regaling those in attendance with the story of my birth.
“All day long, I was laid up in that St. Joseph hospital bed, just waiting. Every time the nurse stopped by, she would tell me, just as sweetly as she could, ‘only a little bit longer!’ But others came and went, and I was still there! You just wouldn’t believe it! After spending more than four hours in labor, at 12:01 AM, my baby finally decides to come bursting onto the scene and finally sees fit to make her grand entrance into the world!
Melanie Grace just always knew she was a March 21st baby, I suppose.”
I can’t blame her. If I had been in labor for that long, I’d take any and every opportunity to brag about it as well. The woman’s pain tolerance was off the charts. Maybe that’s why she took this move and everything that came with it so well. I suppose that once you’ve endured pain like that, nothing feels like much of anything anymore.
But because I’ve been an unwilling audience held hostage for that story’s telling and retelling on dozens of occasions, its finer points ring like indisputable truths in my ear. Melanie Grace is synonymous with 12:01 AM, “my baby,” and “grand entrance.” Perhaps more than all of that, though, Melanie Grace is synonymous with St. Joseph Hospital.
Moving Away from St. Joseph
I was born there on March 21st, 2004 (as my mother will happily tell you), and if you hear the name of a place like that enough times, it begins to stick. I think it was my thirteenth birthday, after a lovely dinner out at which Mom had perhaps had just a smidge too much to drink and performed an especially invigorated rendition of the story of my birth to the entire table, that I finally got the idea to look into who exactly this oh-so-saintly Joseph was.
It turns out he’s not just a saintly Joseph; he’s the saintly Joseph. The one who married Mary of Nazareth and helped her raise her immaculately conceived child. If my mother can’t stop telling the story of my birth, I can only imagine how often Jesus must’ve buried his head in his hands as Mary recounted the tale once more.
St. Joseph Hospital in Denver had stood there since 1873. Over a century before I was born, someone saw fit to open a hospital in City Park West and name it after this man from centuries before they were born. There was something cyclical about that, something that felt inescapable and, dare I say, fated. But if I’m being honest, I suppose that, more than anything, it made me feel small.
Did you know that Joseph doesn’t actually speak in the Bible? The adoptive father of the would-be savior of mankind, and in this definitive documentation that dictates the faith of an entire religious subset of the world millennia later, he doesn’t even get to utter a single syllable.
What could he have said? What do you say to your immaculately impregnated lover? What do you tell your friends and family about it? What do you teach the boy who is beset upon you with divine intent? I obviously don’t know, and I don’t guess anyone does anymore. But it certainly seems more than enough to leave one speechless.
It took far less than all of that to leave me gasping for words.
The Troubles of Cross-Country Moves
I don’t know if Denver is who I am or if I just don’t know what Melanie Grace outside of Denver is. I’ve only known this place, so how am I supposed to feel when facing life without it? These streets, those mountains, these winters. I shudder at the thought of having seen my last snowfall.
Because the place we’re moving to isn’t very kind to winters. It rejects the gifts that December brings, spiteful and callous. Snow cannot fall there. It’s an inhospitable, sweltering pressure cooker of a place.
It makes me immediately think back to Dad. To those frigid Christmas mornings when he’d come and bundle me up in blankets, jackets, and robes, all in the name of whisking me away to the winter wonderland right outside my window. To snow angels and snowball fights and the way that those paper-thin icicles would cling to the roof of the house that he could never quite stop building.
Another of my mother’s favorite stories to tell in the regular rotation was the tale of Dad and his crusade to finish their house. He bought the land and began building the thing from the ground up, not too long after they married.
She always made sure to leave enough room in her retelling of the more prickly details for Dad to interject.
Her “in the seven years we’d been together up until that point, I’d never seen him hold a hammer, much less use one!” was always followed by her trademarked and rehearsed ear-to-ear grin, giving Dad just enough time to contest his experience jovially. My mother would always adapt the performances of her stories for her audience. Elder colleagues of hers got markedly different versions of the stories than my friends did: the matinee and the evening, I suppose.
But Dad was always Dad. His words, his intonations, and his delivery never faltered. I can still hear his warm leathery voice or his booming laugh, the way they would fill up the home. He was always talking about the acoustics of the place, getting them just right, like he was calibrating a well-oiled machine. They were a Vaudeville act, my parents, and nothing lit the two of them up quite like an audience. And I guess that was part of what made it all so hard. Suddenly, Dad wasn’t laughing quite so much. Then his words grew fewer.
In his final days, I found it harder and harder to visit him in the hospital. Removed from the home he had built, his eyes were blank, and his face was empty like a canvas wiped anew. Mom came home from the hospital one night with a crumpled-up piece of paper: something he had written for me. I couldn’t bring myself to read it. He was gone the next day.
What Makes Your Home a Home
One thing that no one ever told me about losing a parent was the way it changes your relationship with the other parent. My mother and I knew each other in the context of and through the lens of Dad. But you can’t take the wheel off a tricycle and expect it to still work. You have to deconstruct it, take it apart, and reassemble it into something new. It is not unrecognizable; it still bears many of the same key components and markings. But it’s not a tricycle.
We weren’t a tricycle anymore.
I don’t quite know how to convey concisely what it’s like living inside the house he left behind. It was his, through and through, a work of art encompassing his whole heart that you could feel him in every nook and cranny. It was sometimes beautiful to feel him still within it. It was sometimes unbearably sorrowful. It was often both.
I say this to say: it’s not that I don’t understand why my mother would want to move. It’s been years since his passing, but I would be lying if I said it doesn’t still loom large over our lives. How can it not when you wake up every morning living within the unfinished masterpiece that he left behind? But even with all of that understanding, for all that I know, I’m afraid that when it mattered most, I knew nothing at all.
Mom told me we were leaving. Told me. Over the past few years, I thought we had become something of co-captains, her and I. Not quite equals, but certainly something closer to it than her “we are moving” implied. Thrusting a cross-country move on to me in my final year of high school was not something I had anticipated or been able even vaguely to prepare for. It was a dinner like any other, she had picked up a pizza for the two of us on the way home from work, and suddenly it was ending like this.
She had been fired. Times were tough, and she had fallen behind on the mortgage, etc. And so, we were “moving back home,” as she put it.
Maybe if I had had a better day at school, I wouldn’t have reacted the way I did. Maybe if that day hadn’t seen the first snowfall of the year, maybe if I hadn’t stopped to look up at those paper-thing icicles just beginning to form outside the house, maybe if she hadn’t called it “home.” If all those things happened just so, perhaps I could have been what she so clearly needed to be at that moment. Instead, I was furious with her.
The halls of Dad’s home filled with rage and screaming, the house coming alive in a distorted and entirely rotten fashion. Cavernous and gnawing, I could hear myself berating my mother, casting aside her every logical defense in favor of my selfishly pure, unfettered emotion, all with those impeccable acoustics Dad had worked so hard to perfect.
Hearing the anger in my voice made me sick to my stomach.
Tampa was home to her. She was raised there, and her family still lives there. It’s even where she met Dad. But Dad had bigger dreams than Tampa could hold. He got out as soon as he could, and he took her with her. We all still visited family there for holidays and big annual events. Tampa was home to her but an obligation to me. The idea of moving there, selling the house Dad had built for us, and leaving behind every sense of memory I’d ever formed made my skin crawl. I had lived in this house, on this street, since my mother and Dad brought me home from St. Joseph Hospital. How could I reconcile this irreplaceable, fundamental factor of who I am suddenly being stripped away from me?
The Impending Arrival of Long-Distance Movers
Days passed, and the raging fire of fear, rage, and uncertainty burning within me calmed to a quiet, unquenchable simmer. The big move was practically moments away, with long-distance movers hired and family eagerly awaiting us in Tampa. My anger and resistance to it all had done nothing but consumed so much of the precious little time I had left in Denver.
I had steadfastly refused to pack, even as Mom adhered to her rigorously planned schedule. But in my refusal, I had found time to watch her, really watch her. And in her, I saw reflections of my fears. She packed at a breakneck pace, but each object was put away carefully and tenderly. More than once, I saw tears pooling at the edges of her eyes as she reflected upon the increasingly vacant house.
She too was scared of leaving. Afraid of who she might be outside of this house, outside of the context of the loving creation of her husband.
I helped as much as possible in the final days before the move. I packed every single box I could put my hand on. I insisted that Mom take breaks more often, and I signed all the paperwork for the long-distance movers the day before their truck pulled into our driveway.
In the final moments, after the Denver movers and we had packed everything up and loaded the truck, I stood alone with Mom inside the empty house. We took it in together, breathing heavily.
“It’s a beautiful house”, she said.
“It is. Well, mostly. I mean, the guy who built it must’ve had a few loose screws himself, but other than that…”
It wasn’t a joke I was particularly proud of. But Mom laughed harder than I had heard her laugh in months. A boisterous, loud, whole-head-thrown-back, holding-her-ribs kind of laugh. It wasn’t the joke this old, carefully calibrated Vaudeville stage deserved, but it was something. And for Mom, that was all she needed.
The drive from Denver to Tampa was long and arduous, but it felt strangely hopeful. Everything felt different as we crossed state lines, yet nothing did. Beautiful and unbearably sorrowful. Our home was gone, but Mom was still Mom, and I was still me. Maybe that was enough?
Home Lost and Home Found
As we traversed the final stretch of the drive, a mere mile from our new home, we passed a hospital. Mom looked up at it in disbelief before slowly saying the words, as if she was savoring each syllable on her tongue: “St. Joseph Hospital.” It was just a silly coincidence, I know. But at that moment, to two people searching for something to let them know it would all be alright, it was miraculous.
There, before St. Joseph once more, I just knew it was time. I reached into my purse and pulled out something that had been there for years: that old crumpled-up piece of paper. I unfurled it there and saw the words he had left for me on his final night.
“I love you.” And suddenly, I was home.