Mortal objects — Julian Hanna

My dad was a psychologist. He taught online courses long before MOOCs, ran a small private practice out of his home, and published a few articles here and there. He died of brain cancer a few months after I finished university, six months short of his fiftieth birthday. He was smart – he joined Mensa once for a laugh. (He was also a minister of the Universal Life Church.) When he died, one of his friends actually told me it was ironic that he died of brain cancer because he was so smart.

When he died, the house – the modest postwar bungalow that followed his second divorce – was nearly empty. While it’s true that he made a conscientious effort to square things away in the weeks between his diagnosis that summer and his death in the autumn, the house was already pretty sparse: my father was a minimalist. There were no carpets or rugs of any size, just plain hardwood floors. The basement was smooth concrete, swept clean and free of clutter. The bedrooms my sisters and I used when we visited on weekends looked like bedrooms in an impoverished Ikea showroom: like an Ikea showroom in a neglected Ikea store in a corner of Eastern Ukraine, for example, where people have more pressing decisions than Hemnes vs. Malm.

One day about a year before his death he had thrown out the modular stereo system and all of his music, mostly old cassettes. No more than four of each dish and utensil sat in the kitchen cupboards and drawers. He was unsentimental: a proudly rational and secular man. He laughed at the romantic mindset that overestimated our importance in “the grand scheme of things”; he spoke disparagingly of many aspects of life in relation to the grand scheme of things. He reminded me frequently, as if by way of explanation, that we were the descendants of potato farmers. It was a hard life with no time for trinkets.

Chores were a big part of my youth, and as a last chore my dad named me executor of his will. A lawyer named Dave – an old family friend – took care of most of it. I had to meet with him every few weeks, or sometimes Dave would just mail me papers with sticky cellophane arrows pointing out where to sign. There was also a realtor named Jody, a raspy-voiced woman in her forties whom I suspected might have slept with my dad when he was living, to handle the sale of the house. My only real job, therefore, aside from making sure my two teenage sisters didn’t tear the place apart on weekends when they still came to visit, was to dispose of my dad’s personal effects.

It took about an hour. As I said, my dad ran a tight ship. I sold the nondescript Ikea furniture and other basic furnishings in one lot, which left only a small, motley collection of odds and ends. But maybe because he left so little of anything, what he did leave behind seemed imbued with meaning, at first glance anyway.

I carefully inventoried them in my diary as follows:

  1. A single unopened pair of Hanes Y-front briefs.

My dad grew up in the sixties listening to the Stones and Captain Beefheart. He was a lifelong nudist; when he was a student he earned a name as the Big Nudist on Campus and was hired by his professor to streak ‘Introduction to Abnormal Psychology’. He never, so far as I know, wore a pair of underpants. These were a gift from a girlfriend who hoped to change him. She was long gone; the underpants remained.

  1. A set of floppy disks in a brown tinted plastic box.

He worked as a psychology instructor for the Open Learning Agency, which sent him an Apple computer to use for emailing his students. Mostly he ignored his teaching duties; when I was a kid he paid me to answer the phone during office hours and tell students he was in a meeting. Instead he devoted himself to more meaningful tasks, like creating an endless number of surprisingly detailed miniature pixel-based figures. These early avatars (this was the mid-nineties) represented nearly every person he had ever met, including his extended family. When I got my kids a Wii for Christmas a few years ago, my son spent weeks creating avatars just like his grandfather had done, which is a good argument for heredity as far as I can tell.

  1. Twelve issues of Oui magazine, c. 1978-1992.

Death is not always as noble in real life as it is in Shakespeare. When a person dies he may leave behind embarrassing evidence of entirely natural but nonetheless wincing habits. I found my father’s stash of vintage ‘material’. Worse still, I retrieved them from the garbage. Yes I did. To be sure, like George Costanza’s chocolate éclair in the Seinfeld episode, they hovered above the rest of the soggy mess, sealed in a plastic bag and untouched by banana peels or coffee grounds. But the fact remains that he had thrown them out, preparing for his own death, and I had retrieved them. I was young, and they were naked pictures. Why he only bought Oui, a more explicit Playboy offshoot marketed to fans of Penthouse, remains a mystery. Nonetheless, I became a fan. The porn stash of the father becomes the porn stash of the son.

  1. Miscellaneous hot tub cleaning supplies.

When he was sick, my dad admitted to me from his hospice bed that he had considered ending it all in his favorite place, the hot tub. He said he planned to do it with pills and vodka but chickened out at the last minute and merely drank the vodka. He told me he regretted his cowardice, and made me promise never to go through what he went through. This was all very sobering news for a twenty-four year old. I prefer to think of him in happier times, enjoying a soak with a trashy novel, surrounded by a bamboo grove, his loyal beagle Darwin by his side. He was serious about keeping the tub clean. I remember him waking me up early one morning, after I’d had a girlfriend over, to shout: “I found a blueberry in the hot tub last night! Please be more careful!”

  1. Thirty-five psychedelic paintings of various sizes.

I said the basement was empty, but that wasn’t quite true: against one wall there were a bunch of oil paintings of mandalas. These canvases were the oeuvre of an American artist named Jack Wise. Wise – who was originally from Iowa – moved up to British Columbia in the sixties after hearing about it from another artist, Toni Onley, whom he had met while living in Mexico. As a kid the Wises lived across the back alley from my dad’s house; I was friends with the oldest son, John. They later got divorced and my dad went out with his ex-wife, Mary, who looked a bit like Susan Sontag – tough and handsome, with grey streaks in her jet-black hair and an always smoking cigarette. I don’t know why the paintings were in our basement, but I called Mary and she took them away.

  1. A mass paperback edition of Red Dragon by Thomas Harris.

Since my dad habitually gave novels away, or else left them on restaurant tables, this was the only piece of fiction in the house when he died. I remember him telling me about Jack Kerouac, and he gave me a copy of Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers when I moved to Montreal for university, but all I ever remember him reading is thrillers and true crime books. I decided to keep Red Dragon but in twenty years I’ve never actually opened it.

  1. A cassette tape of Year of the Cat by Al Stewart.

This was the most surprising find of all because there was absolutely no reason for it to be there, my dad having thrown out his stereo. When we found out he had a brain tumour I speculated that the noise might have irritated him, an early sign of his sickness. Who knows. But why had he kept this one tape? I can only guess that the title track, maybe even the album sleeve itself, reminded him of a carefree time between his first and second marriages, when he was busy renovating his first house and working as a psychologist at the local mental hospital. I remember him as happy then.

  1. A wood-handled boning knife.

At one time my dad had a lot of fancy kitchen knives. He didn’t own much, but he liked nice things. By the time he died he had already given most of the knives to me as secondhand birthday and Christmas presents. It was part of his downsizing project. At one time he cared a lot about cooking: he took night courses and went through phases, specializing in Chinese, Italian, French, Mexican, and other national cuisines. For a whole year he cut everything with a cleaver. The oranges he cut for my weekend soccer games tasted like garlic; none of the kids on my team would eat them. He kept this particular knife for gardening. In February of the year he died he somehow broke the tip of the blade, so he sent it back to the company, which offers a lifetime warranty. A few weeks later this brand new boning knife arrived in the mail – just in time for spring.

  1. A big brass bed with a Hudson’s Bay wool blanket on it.

I’ve made a bit of an omission here, it’s true: a whole bed, a big antique brass bed, and with a nice thick wool blanket. But he couldn’t very well get rid of the bed he was dying in, could he? So there it sat. You won’t want to know, but the blanket was stained when I got it. A sick person’s last days aren’t pretty. I had it dry-cleaned at the local plaza but even the tetrachloroethylene couldn’t make it new.

I slept in the bed only once, blanket and all. There was this girl I met at the record store where I worked. She showed some interest and we went out for a drink, and when the bar closed she followed me home. It was the biggest bed in the best room of the house: far more glamorous than the single mattress I kept in my own room. Going upstairs to the master bedroom with its bare wood floors and big brass bed and vaulted ceiling seemed like the natural thing to do. We had all our clothes off before we even got there.

But in the middle of the night we both woke up freezing cold. I mean deathly cold: the blanket was on the floor, we were still naked, and the wind was howling in through the open skylight like a banshee’s scream. It was terrifying. She put my shirt on and ran downstairs. I wrapped myself in the blanket and followed. We turned on the lights and stood in the kitchen, not speaking.

Eventually we started to laugh a bit, but we couldn’t quite laugh it away. Something that night felt completely wrong and totally alien. So we got dressed (I bravely went upstairs and threw down her clothes) and walked over to her parents’ place at four in the morning. A week later the house sold and I moved into an apartment and we started going out and I applied to graduate schools and normal life resumed, minus one parent.

As a teenager I thought very consciously about the kind of mark I wanted to leave on this world. I wanted to write books and make albums and paintings. Then halfway through my twenties my dad died and I had a chance to see what a legacy in objects looks like.


Julian Hanna was born in Vancouver, Canada. Having spent time in London, Dublin, Montreal, Iowa City, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Madrid, and Lisbon, he is now self-exiled on the island of Madeira. His research on modernism and digital storytelling appears regularly in academic journals, while his creative writing has appeared in The Atlantic, 3:AM Magazine, Flash, Numéro Cinq (forthcoming), Cine Qua Non, and elsewhere. @julianisland