Finders, Keepers; Losers, Weepers

We had no idea that, over the course of a lifetime, we would each find and cling and lose and weep

My first remembered sorrow was a Pebbles Flintstone doll, left by mistake in Jackie Kolton's yard. Jackie's mother discovered it days later, under the crabapple tree—all matted polyester hair and grubby plastic limbs—and tossed it in the trash. My mother promised to buy another. She must have called every toy store in the tri-state area. No luck. I remember sitting in a tub of tepid water, hiccupping with tears, when she told me the doll was gone for good.

The stakes climbed, the missing items mounted: the cameo from my grandmother's ring vanished somewhere on the streets of Portland, Oregon; a black cashmere cardigan, forgotten in a taxi during a spring break trip to Florida.

And there were intangible losses: My sense of smell—for six odorless years, no waking up to sniff the coffee or the cat box; my temper and my sense of humor, from time to time; my virginity, in a sweet, clumsy, not-painful interlude in college.

It hurt much more to lose a friend for reasons she couldn't articulate and I couldn't guess. It's been years, and still I miss her arrowed gaze, her probing questions ("So, what do you think God wants of you?") and the way she grew teary at the Shabbat table when we said what we wanted to remember from the week.

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Do little losses—mugs and socks and that creased copy of "Franny and Zooey"—temper us for the big ones? Or do small bereavements unhinge us so thoroughly because they semaphore a larger, later loss—including the one hardest to imagine and impossible to rehearse: our own ultimate vanishing, never to be found.

This year, I lost my father. Such a strange term to apply to the death of a parent—the same word we use for the earring that fell to the library floor or the houndstooth overcoat, a beloved thrift-store find, slung over a chair at a party and stolen by night's end.

When my daughter was three, she and my mother walked down the street—my childhood street, brilliant corridor of oaks and maples—to the shoe store and came home minus Mayana, the battered doll Sasha had inherited from a cousin. There was wailing, there were phone calls, and then I trotted down the block, following their footsteps back to the store, where I fished the missing doll from a barrel of athletic socks. I clutched her to my chest, as if she were my own breathing, living daughter, all the way home.

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If loss disrupts, then finding the thing again is a kind of repair. It heals my faith in memory (retracing my steps), in humanity (the good Samaritan who pegged my daughter's missing bike helmet to a utility pole) and in a universe where, as my physics teacher explained, nothing is ever really gone.

Solid to liquid to vapor; mountain to boulder to pebble to sand. What goes away actually just goes around. It's an idea that soothes on the macro level but doesn't offer much consolation in the moment. I don't want a father made of memory or cosmic dust. I want the real thing, flesh and fingernails, the funny, wise, sensitive sports writer/gourmet cook who would show up at my door 15 minutes early for dinner, smile on his face and Sauvignon Blanc in hand.

A few Sundays ago, I raked the entire back yard—around the fern garden, under the trampoline—and tamped the leaves into seven of those giant brown paper sacks, each one big enough to carry lunch for Sasquatch.

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I filled the last three bags in a frenzy, because a bunch of people were coming to our house to swap soup, and I didn't want to miss the gathering. But as I chatted with the first arrival, I realized that my right pinky was naked. My ring was missing. A circlet with a small, square diamond, a recent gift from my mother, who had received it from her aunt at the age of 16.

I pictured my hands, shoving and scooping and crimping the tops of those bags. I imagined the ring slipping off into the crumble.

What else to do? I dumped the first bag on the patio, raked the leaves into a single layer, squinted at the mess of golds and browns. A sterling ring was heavier than a leaf, so it would likely have sunk to the bottom of the bag. But what about the leaves I'd raked toward the roots of the lilac tree, for mulch? What about the ones I'd impatiently kicked back under the trampoline?

I spilled a second sack: leaves, twigs, some half-dead tomato vines. Was this an exercise in futility, a needle-in-a-haystack kind of quest? But I couldn't stop. The ring wasn't gone. It was somewhere. A million years ago, my diamond was rock; in another few hundred eons, it might be sand. But I wanted it now, its delicate weight consoling my finger.

I dumped the third bag of leaves and poked them with the rake. Nothing. I scrabbled half of them back into the bag. And then, as I reached for another small pile, something silver winked at me. I pushed the ring onto my pinky, sank to my knees and sobbed. For every small, found thing. For every huge, irreplaceable one.

Where is he, my lost father? He is nowhere and everywhere. He is in the recipe for warm bittersweet chocolate puddings, penned in his blocky print, and in the silver bracelet he gave me over lunch at El Vez. I sat there on the patio, crying into the crunchy detritus of fall, the leaves that had swallowed my ring and then yielded it back up, a temporary reprieve from the temporariness of everything.

Finders, keepers; losers, weepers. That's what we chanted on the playground when someone recovered a tennis ball from the diamond-shaped holes in the fence or found a limp dollar bill beneath the slide.

It was a cold and naïve taunt. We had no idea that, over the course of a lifetime, we would each be all of the above. We find and cling and lose and weep. And when I walk past Jackie Kolton's house, even after all these years, I am tempted, still, to slip into the yard and tear, rat-like, at the roots of the crabapple tree, despite knowing I will come away with nothing but memory and mud.