My father passed when I was 29 years old in a manner that is probably a bit too familiar for some readers. He was diagnosed with his first bout of lung cancer a few years prior, only to beat it with chemotherapy and radiation. But like the career of Nick Cannon, as bad as we wanted it to disappear, it didn’t. I watched as he tirelessly attempted to fight a second diagnosis, but when the tumors multiplied, he became a shell of his former self. Once a fast-talking car salesman who never took “no” for an answer, my father knew defeat when he saw it. You only know the feeling if you’ve experienced it firsthand, and I hope most of you don’t, but it’s extremely painful to witness your parent just disintegrate.
In between some moments of incoherency, we still cleared the air on many subjects, including our past squabbles and what to do moving forward. We talked about his funeral, but he didn’t want anything planned in advance. He joked about hiring a magician for the service who’d keep promising to raise him from the dead, only to admit magic isn’t real and leave crying. And as we planned the funeral, we meticulously went through every bank account, every credit card, every outstanding debt, every dollar and every loose end he may have left behind. When he passed, I knew he did everything he could to make it easy for me, and for that, and our conversations, I will always be grateful. We had taken care of absolutely everything in advance, or so we thought.
Two years later, I received a call from a bank in Las Vegas alerting me of my “expiring safe deposit box.” They explained that I was a few months behind in payments, and that if I didn’t catch up in the next few weeks, they would have to break open the box and I’d lose whatever was inside. I understood the dilemma, but had only one problem—I’ve never opened a safe deposit box, let alone one in Las Vegas. I told them there must be some sort of mistake, and he assured me he was speaking to the real owner—Jensen Karp. He said the rent was pre-paid for about four years, and it just expired. He also revealed that my father’s name was listed as a secondary contact. I quickly jarred my brain for memories of a drunken night gambling, one where I ran off to a nearby bank and hid the winnings from the government, but could only muster memories of sadly eating a Nathan’s hot dog alone after losing money at the New York, New York hotel. Right before my father’s first run-in with cancer, he lived for a short time in Las Vegas, a period of his life I usually liked to forget, but now couldn’t stop thinking about.
Did he buy a safe deposit box in my name, understanding that one day, if he were to die, the bank would alert me of these hidden assets? Why didn’t he tell me about this? Am I in a Nic Cage movie? I thanked the bank associate and started planning my pilgrimage to Vegas to learn what this was all about.
My mom was most excited about the prospects. She explained that my dad frequently would hide cash outside of the house, knowing that it wasn’t safe to leave just lying around inside. She theorized that during his Las Vegas period, many things happened that he didn’t remember and this must have just slipped his mind. She basically told me to rent an armored truck just in case I couldn’t fit all the jewels in my suitcase. But I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I obviously wouldn’t reject money, but I also kind of hoped for meaningful results. Not to sound like a Nicholas Sparks’ movie, but I still struggle with losing my father every day. A hand-written letter from him—words from beyond the grave detailing his love and support for me years later—would be more helpful than any money. Also, it sounded like something JJ Abrams would do to promote LOST, and I can back that. I decided to face this alone, so I bought a solo plane ticket and coordinated my arrival with the bank. Since I wasn’t left a key to the box, I had to hire a local locksmith to crack it. At the end of the day, with airfare, hotel, car rental and bank fees, I was in for around $650. Las Vegas, here I come.
I arrived with very little time to kill. I hopped in my rental car and sped to the bank, knowing they closed soon. Most of my friends were near their phones in anticipation, almost as if we were all waiting to hear the 6th and final Lotto number, as I held a ticket that had 5 matching. When I reached the bank, I didn’t expect a red carpet and horn section, but the bank lady I’d been talking to for weeks could not care less about my story. She just wanted to get home. My locksmith was ready to go, so we journeyed into a ridiculously protected section of the bank and got to work. As we walked through the thousands of locked boxes, I imagined my father walking this same hallway, years earlier, being led to the same section. He had a plan then and now that plan was coming to fruition, no matter how annoyed my bank lady was. When we did get to box 11-343, I watched as the man feverishly pushed and pulled on the wall with various weird looking instruments. Weeks of anticipation were now coming to an end. He slowly slid the box out of the cabinet and placed it on the table in front of me. I asked if it was heavy, and the locksmith quickly responded, “I don’t know,” obviously more concerned with my method of payment than my emotional journey.
Realizing this would be a difficult moment; they left me alone to exhume the box’s contents. I sat, one last time, staring at the box, knowing that my life could drastically change from this point on. Not just because he left me some money or a watch, but because it may be a note or a single photo that would change my entire perspective forever. I was working so hard to become the man my father would want me to be, and now without the guidance or presence of him in my life, it wasn’t easy. This could be that final push. No one knew what was in there. But I was about to.
I opened the box and immediately noticed a lot of empty space. If I had hoped for a crowded supply of rubies, I was shit out of luck. My eyes quickly searched its contents, not noticing anything at first. Is it empty? I panicked. Did I just do this? Did I just spend hundreds of dollars and endure an incredible amount of stress and hope on an empty box? Did I just put up with these weird Vegas locals to be let down and sent home even sadder about my father’s brutal death? And that’s when I noticed something shiny was sitting directly in the middle of the box. It took a second to figure out, but I instantly recognized what I was looking at: a single silver paperclip. Every dream was shattered within seconds, realizing there was no money, no heirloom, no love letter, no admittance of a secret daughter. There was just an office supply. I stood there, hovered over the box, defeated beyond belief. How would I tell my mom? I knew I wanted to leave as quick as possible. I hurried out of the bank, and the once apathetic bank teller asked, “So what was inside the box?” I yelled, “$12,000,” and ran out the door without looking back.
I sat in my car, unable to move or catch my breath as I started to uncontrollably cry. Why would my father do this? What type of sick message was he giving me? I quickly concluded that this large paper clip at one time most likely held together a wad of cash. When he moved from Las Vegas, I assume he cleared the box of its contents, but felt no need to close the rental, or throw away the paper clip, but rather place it back into a box he would continually be charged for. I realized how crazy this was, but remembered his final joke about the funeral magician admitting magic isn’t real, and couldn’t help but start to laugh. The tears began dry and I just couldn’t control myself from giggling. I expected to pull a rabbit out of this hat but, in reality, that would just be an illusion. He’d still be gone and I’d still be hurting. Starting at that exact moment I made up my own definition for that paperclip. It became a sign to keep it together. You can think that’s corny, I don’t give a shit. It’s my dad and paperclip, not yours.
I used to carry around the paperclip in my pocket for important meetings and times when I had high expectations. It was a constant reminder that he wants me to accept defeat in the same manner I celebrate wins. I couldn’t rely on magic, I needed to find the inner strength to move on myself. I’m willing to admit that wasn’t his intention, but that doesn’t make it any less helpful. I’ve since been able to find my inner strength and not depend on anything, even the paperclip, to stay strong. I’m tested frequently, more recently than ever, but now the paperclip is just a paperclip and I work to help myself.
A little over a year ago I got another call from a bank, this time in my hometown of Woodland Hills, CA, explaining that during a routine check of their safe deposit boxes they realized I was a few years behind on monthly payments for a box in my name, co-signed by my father. I listened as the bank representative gave me the details I already knew and I just shook my head. I explained to him I wasn’t interested and to keep whatever he found. He seemed shocked. I’ll never know what was in that box, but it’s fine, I’ll keep it together.