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A small girl in a dress with a perplexed look on her face stands in front of three wooden walls under construction. There’s a hammer lying on the ground near her feet. Illustration.

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Leaving the houses my father built

After his brain injury, my dad could still build a house—so he began a lifelong pattern of selling a house, building another, and doing it all again

My earliest sense memories are of construction: the smell of freshly sawed wood, the sound of hammering. I remember being in an airy, half-built room, picking up bent nails and putting them in a bucket. A photograph shows me, a toddler in pigtails, by the cement foundation of our house. My dad is beside me, in a white T-shirt and jeans. He looks young and healthy—there’s no outward sign that he’s disabled. It wasn’t the first house he would build for his family, nor the last. My childhood is shaped by a pattern of my father building us a home, selling it, and building another.

The first, before I was born, was on Joy Road, an hour’s drive north of San Francisco. The story goes that my dad harvested the trees growing on the land and split them into fence posts to earn money for the down payment on the property. I’ve recently learned that isn’t what happened because my dad, who has brain damage, mixed up the chronology. The house was 1,600 square feet on three acres, with Mexican tiles, a sunken shower, and redwood trim throughout. My parents sped along country roads in an orange Karmann Ghia convertible. The beach was a 20-minute drive away.

Then, in 1970, my dad had the accident. He was roofing a barn on a construction job. Someone handed materials to him and he stepped back onto empty air. He fell on his head.

The resulting brain injury was acute subdural hematoma, a blood clot in the brain. Even now, 50 to 90 percent of patients with this condition die. The surgeon drilled into the skull to find the blood clot, and today my dad has seven round dents in his head, like dimples on a golf ball.

Brain damage is strange. Depending on what’s affected, a person’s disabilities may not be obvious. My dad looks and talks like a non-disabled person, but his symptoms are fairly severe. They include grand mal seizures, blindness on his right side, forgetfulness, fatigue, and occasional confusion. He gets lost. He can’t drive a car. He takes a lot of naps. Most of all, he can’t hold a job. My mom stayed home to take care of him, leaving my parents without a reliable income.

But my dad could build a house. If he went slowly, if he took breaks, if he subcontracted the initial raising of walls and roof, he still had the skills and knowledge. So they sold the house on Joy Road and built a smaller home next door on a plot my grandmother owned. Thus began a lifelong pattern of selling a house, building another, living in it until financial problems become insurmountable, and doing it all again. This wasn’t house flipping. It was struggling until things got desperate, then selling the one valuable asset for temporary relief from a situation with no permanent solution: how to support your family when you’re too sick to work.

When I was 2, we moved to Humboldt County, on the California coast, where clear-cut logging had rendered the land cheap. The first house my dad built, on the side of a mountain, was huge—3,600 square feet—with a formal parlor and dining room. Foxes left purple poop from their diet of wild berries on our deck. Yellow banana slugs slithered through the forest ferns. With alarming frequency, birds slammed into the bay window, unable to see the glass because it reflected the trees.

I was lonely in the house. There were no kids nearby, and the gravel driveway meant I never got good at riding a bike. Instead, I climbed old-growth redwood stumps the size of refrigerators and talked to imaginary friends. I learned my parents worried about money. We brushed our teeth with baking soda instead of toothpaste. Our cars were always broken. My mom, an artist, supported us, first by making stained glass, then teddy bears and other stuffed animals that she sold at craft fairs.

When I was 7, my dad began building the final house, which took a decade to finish. There were no walls when we moved in, just two-by-fours where walls would go. At one point, a bat lived in the rafters. I remember my mom’s muffled crying, my dad’s many naps on the sofa. Around me grew a beautiful home, with abundant light, thick carpets, and a secret passageway in my closet. The pastures were dotted with more giant stumps that were my jungle gyms and best friends.

When I was 10, my dad had a seizure in front of me. One minute, he was talking in the kitchen. The next, he let out a strange wail and crashed to the floor, convulsing. I ran from the room and hid behind my dollhouse, listening as my mom frantically called his name. The dollhouse was a Christmas present, a miniature version of our home, big and blue, with lots of rooms. My mom made it, gluing on every piece of tiny siding, every toothpick of trim, every sheet of wallpaper.

When I finally came out of hiding, my dad was outside, stacking firewood. I was confused, because he looked fine. Instead of heading to a hospital, he was gathering wood to heat the house.

I tested the theory that he was fine by asking if he wanted to go for a walk.

“No, Joy,” he said, in a tone that suggested this was a dumb question.

“Why not?” I said.

He sighed. “Because I just had a seizure.”

Other people were also confused by my family’s situation. One day, Emily, a classmate, saw our house and announced that I was rich. I was shocked and tried to explain that we were poor because of my dad’s accident. In a child’s vocabulary, I told her that my parents built the house by hand, that it took years of struggle, and that it was all we had. The next day Emily told everyone at school that I lived in a mansion. In Humboldt, a rural area filled with progressive liberals, it wasn’t cool to be rich. This story—which was repeated as I got older—separated me even more from other kids.

Emily showed me that some people wouldn’t understand my dad’s disability no matter what I said. And there were so many things to explain: why my parents didn’t work, why we had a nice house but still had financial problems, what brain damage is, why we seemed “normal” but “weren’t.” When people hear “disabled,” they often imagine someone in a wheelchair, but disabilities take many forms. My dad’s problems were less visible, and it could be hard to make our situation real to others.

When I was in college, my parents sold their last home, but this time they couldn’t start over. California real estate had changed. Land prices had gone up and permits made it impossible for all but the wealthiest to build. The Bay Area became the most expensive place to live in the country. Ironically, if my parents had kept any of their houses, they would have been better off. The homes on Joy Road are both worth over $1 million. The houses in Humboldt have also doubled in value.

I often dream about the house I grew up in. I miss the high ceilings and big windows, the sense of all that space around me. Sometimes, I fantasize about buying the house, not to live in so much as to possess something my parents made. I remember each phase of construction as it came together, like the stair rails my dad carved, stained, and installed himself.

Not long ago, I visited the house, driving partway up the long driveway. It had been painted beige, but otherwise looked the same. There were treehouses on the stumps where I used to play, and a zipline connected them. I was flooded with the idea of another life, one where my parents still lived there and my son was the child playing on those stumps. I was looking at an inheritance I’ll never receive and a family legacy I’ll never pass on. The house in this unattainable state reminded me of the health and stability that was snatched away when my dad stepped off a roof and plunged into the air. To see it again was like looking at the better life I wish my parents could have had.

Joy Lanzendorfer’s work has been in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Washington Post, Smithsonian, Poetry Foundation, and many others. Follow her on Twitter.