Recently, I noticed my husband’s wallet on the cutting board in the kitchen. This was clearly a one-off for someone who pretty much never loses, misplaces or forgets anything. How very odd.
But that event reminded me of another lost wallet experience, more traumatic. It was a Saturday morning when I was 11 and saw my father’s wallet in the kids’ bathroom toilet. I know what you’re thinking, but no. The toilet bowl was otherwise clean. I stared at it in horror, immediately divining the meaning. My father was leaving us, and leaving all signs of his identity behind. He’d used our bathroom to make his inescapable.
What had I done? I couldn’t think of anything terrible enough, but something must have driven an otherwise loving father to this desperate move. Thinking his departure was imminent, I started following him around the house to catch the last minutes of his presence. I assumed the wallet-sign was meant to be secret, and it seemed a betrayal to mention it.
Naturally, a trailing, anxious, silent 11-year old kid gets to be annoying. “Don’t you have any homework?” he finally asked. “It’s a nice day. Why don’t you go outside?” So it was true. He couldn’t stand the sight of me. Or he didn’t want to lose his nerve. Obviously, if somebody wants to leave you, there’s no point arguing. I retreated to my room, plunged in misery.
Hearing heavy footsteps back and forth in the house, I first assumed that (of course) my father was packing. I peeked my head out my bedroom door and saw both parents moving around, calling out, “Not here . . . not here either.” I asked what was going on. “We’re looking for your father’s wallet,” my mother told me.
“It’s in the toilet,” I said, pointing. “It’s been there all morning.”
“Why didn’t you tell us?” they demanded in unison. “We’ve been looking all over.” Later I saw the contents of the wallet laid out on a towel to dry. So he wasn’t leaving.
The whole experience to me is an example of how the mind is like a moonshot. Make a small, initial error, and the mind keeps going in that direction. Logic fails. Reasonable responses never surface or get shot down. I could have, while trailing my father, asked why he was leaving us, or why he put the wallet in the toilet. I didn’t. The further obvious truth, that a leather wallet probably couldn’t be flushed away, if I’d thought of that, would be answered that “of course” he wanted the wallet to be a permanent sign of his dissatisfaction with us.
In full disclosure, unbeknownst to me, the marriage was in crisis, but in typical buttoned-up fashion, my parents had kept this fact between themselves and roughly patched up the problem. I may have sensed the strain. But the point remains. With so many missed moonshots, it’s almost pointless to ask ourselves: “Why didn’t I . . . ?” We just didn’t. Couldn’t. Except when we do.