“So the job falls to me,” I say into my Jeep’s integrated phone system as I look for the exit towards my family’s old cabin. “Really though, Chris, I’m sorry this is so last-minute. Shit, you’re cutting out. The signal out here is real patchy. Look, I’ll be in early tomorrow–” The dreaded call dropped sound comes through the car’s stereo. Dammit.
In 500 feet, take the exit right.
I take the exit, feeling a little stupid that I have to rely on GPS to get to a place I’ve been to dozens of times for spring and fall breaks, birthdays and summers.
In a quarter of a mile, turn left on Jackrabbit Road
Jackrabbit Road. Wow. I’d forgotten that. We used to sing it in unison every time we rounded this corner. This was such a happy, carefree place. Now with dad gone and mom living in Florida with Chad, I guess I have to face facts. We’re never going to use it. Time to cut our losses and sell it.
Maybe it’ll make some happy memories for someone else’s family. But not mine. Not with how rough things are with Jess right now. We can barely tolerate each other the rare times I’m actually at home. No way she’d want to spend any time with me in this tiny cabin. But God I’d love to get Jack out here. Fourth grade. Man. What an age. What a time to be alive. And there’s so much to explore and discover out here. He’d love it … Like I did.
So it goes. I just need to focus on cleaning it up, taking some good photos and getting this sucker listed and sold. God knows I’m going to need the money for the divorce lawyer. And that whole mess is sure to get ugly.
You have arrived at your destination
So here it is. It’s smaller than I remember. Just a simple little two-bedroom cabin tucked away off the road, surrounded by oaks and invasive cedar. My heart swells with excitement and nostalgia – even though I’m here to get rid of this place. I grab the camera, tripod and bag of cleaning supplies, then make my way under the bare blackjack oaks, crunching leaves and acorns all the way to the door.
The key is under the porcelain frog – just like it always was. I open the door into our musty old memories. Bittersweet doesn’t begin to describe it. In some ways, it’s exactly how it used to be. In other ways it’s dingier, dustier, dated ... A little broken, a little neglected.
I used to feel so safe here – so loved. And now it’s just another piece of my life I have to say goodbye to. Might as well make it quick. I check my phone, hoping for a welcome distraction from these uncomfortable feelings. Nothing. Oh. No bars. That explains it. Wait, one bar … two bars, no bars. Oh well.
I spend a little time cleaning up the little living area – dusting off the pull-out couch, wiping down the old tube TV and collection of ‘90s VHS tapes, straightening the board games. Just to make the place presentable. I get the camera set up on the tripod, adjust aperture, ISO and shutter for the light and frame up the room just so. The bright sun is flowing in through the old wrap-around plate-glass windows, warming the entire room. It’s poignantly beautiful in a heartbreakingly modest way. Or maybe it’s just that way to me.
I’ve always felt like lens glass has its own special magic – that’s why I went into photo and video in the first place – but as I frame up the room just right, I can almost hear my mother’s voice … It’s distant at first, coming closer and closer.
“Justin! Justin, can you come inside for a minute?”
My mother enters the frame. Slight, gentle, more beautiful than I remember. Six-year-old me appears at the door with a coonskin hat and a 3-foot stick I must have been using as a rifle.
“Sit down, honey,” says my mother. I hop on the couch, full of young boy energy. “Now, you’ve got a big birthday coming up, and your father and I are so proud of you and how responsible you’ve become, so we have a little early birthday surprise for you.” She raises her voice towards the back porch, “Jack! You can come in now!”
My dad enters the frame with a golden retriever puppy that bounds up onto my lap and happily licks my face. The whole image is pure joy.
I haven’t thought about Scout in years. He was my best friend. We explored every creek, every smell, every footprint. We hunted for arrowheads––
DING DING DING BZZZZ
Shit. I guess the service is back. I fish my phone out of jacket as the texts pour in:
Did you get the cabin listed yet?
Did you see the email I sent you?
The meeting with the divorce attorney is tomorrow at 10 AM. Don’t be late.
I’ll have to deal with that later. I frame the shot again and notice the curtain rod is uneven. Looks like the hole the bracket was screwed into is stripped out. Crap. I swear I used to know a trick for this sort of thing … I do a quick search for “how to fix stripped screw hole.” All I get is the spinning “loading” wheel. 3G. This is going to take forever. I’ll let it load while I go down into the cellar and look for a screwdriver but I’ll need a flashlight if I leave my phone up here where there’s at least a little service.
That’s when I spot the classic Burgess Radar-Lite my dad and I restored. Surely that doesn’t still – holy crap. It does still work. I descend the steep, old, creaky steps into the cellar with my cool retro flashlight and find the old toolbox and screwdriver. And in the toolbox? The original Foxfire 1 Book. I had forgotten about this, too. Foxfire was my handbook for everything out here – building shelters, tracking animals, making lye, building fires. This was the Google of my youth. Sure enough, it has an easy fix: I shoved some toothpicks in the hole alongside the screw and we’re (nearly) as good as new.
As I reframe the living room shot that’s now taken about two hours to compose, clouds roll in. Suddenly the room has lost its warmth and charm. It’s bleak, gray, foreboding. I look through the lens, pondering how to brighten the scene, when my dad’s voice fades in.
“Have a seat, pal. You and I need to have a talk.”
There I am. 9-year-old Justin. I’ve tried so hard to forget this.
“Look, son … Shit.” My dad never swore. Never. I remember my heart pounding with that word, my palms wet and cold with nervous sweat. But I was trying so hard to prove to my dad that I was big, strong … grown up. It was the first time he’d ever brought me here alone.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. Then the tears. Tears – from dad!? “Your mother and I tried to make it work, but … I don’t think we’re going to make it. I’m just so sorry, son.”
His head is in his hands, trying to hide the silent tears streaming down his weathered cheeks. In that moment, my world was permanently fractured. My family split in two. It was never whole again. From that day on, there were always separate Christmases. Separate birthdays. Separate homes.
Halves that never added up to whole.
Then new parents, new siblings. New homes – none of which ever felt like home again. But in that moment, I knew dad needed me. I hugged him, trying to hide the tears beading up in my own eyes, thinking I could fix it. Me … a nine-year-old kid, thinking I could save my parents’ marriage. A kid the same age as my own Jack now.
I watch as my dad grabs young me by the shoulders and looks me in the eye.
“Listen, Justin. The one thing I want you to never forget is that I’ll always–”
DING DING DING BZZZ BZZZ. In that instant the scene vanishes as my phone vibrates on the table. I forgot I had left it there. I look around the empty, musty forgotten cabin and realize my cheeks are moist. That conversation with my dad … That was the last time I ever came here. That was the last of so many things. I don’t want that for my son. I don’t want that for my family.
I grab my camera, lock the door behind me and jump in the Jeep headed for the main road much faster than I should. I check my phone. Three bars. Good enough. I pull to the side of the road and dial Jess.
“What?” she says impatiently.
“Hey. Uh, look, I’m not good at this … But, well, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I messed up. I’ve been obsessed with myself and focused on my career, but the truth is nothing in the world matters more to me than you and Jack. Our family is everything.” I can hear the unsteady emotion in my voice now, but I go on anyways, “I was wrong and I’m sorry and I will do ANYTHING to fix this – to make it right.”
There’s sniffling on the other end.
"What do you think? Can we at least try?”
I hear a deep breath, then a tender, delicate, “Okay.”