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First Person I felt like a guest in my dad’s new life until a fort made me feel at home

Andrew Watch/The Globe and Mail

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Today’s First Person is part of a week-long series on fatherhood.

At the tender age of 12, I lived in a cardboard box. I wasn’t homeless, I simply preferred to stay in my cardboard fort on the second floor of my dad’s cozy log cabin. I slept in it, ate in it, read books and watched movies in it. Dad would bring me breakfast in the morning and dinner at night, with a few snacks in-between.

My dad helped me build it; he was there every step of the way. I can quite confidently say that it was the best fort out there. It had windows, wooden support beams, electric lights strung across the ceiling and even a holster for my Nerf guns, because what are brothers for if you can’t launch Nerf attacks at 3 a.m. when they’re trying to get to the bathroom?

Granted, being made entirely of wood and cardboard, it was probably one big fire hazard, and I had an ongoing war with the spiders that took up residence in my absence, but I can honestly say it was my favourite place in the world. My dad and I were a team, and I think that’s what made the fort so special: We built it together. That was important as we hadn’t always been so close.

The first sign of trouble was the morning I walked into my dad’s room, excited for another day of Grade 1, so I could sit on him until he woke up (my usual morning ritual). But he wasn’t there. He was never there again.

Since that day it has been a slippery slope of estrangement between the two of us. As I grew, so did the distance. I went to a new school, made new friends and got invited to parties. He moved out, got an apartment, moved in with a new partner, and only saw me every third weekend. I always wondered why my parents didn’t split custody, and I always wondered why my dad didn’t try to get it.

Burdened with this uncertainty and our growing estrangement, I felt increasingly uncomfortable and ill at ease with Dad. I visited less and less often.

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By the time I was 12, I was convinced that I was losing my dad, but something interesting happened the day he bought a new couch for the cabin he had just purchased in Apsley, Ont, a three-hour drive from where I lived with my Mom in Toronto. It wasn’t so much the couch that was important but the box it came in: it was 6-feet-by-2-feet and just the right size to become a makeshift bed. I started building my fort that day, and I haven’t stopped since. The fort helped to shelter our relationship but it didn’t always work.

Around the age of 14, my dad received a coat for Christmas. Big, warm and plaid, I thought that it embodied the feel of the cabin perfectly. At the end of my visit, I wore his coat home. I wore it for seven months, even when the harsh winter demanded something warmer. I enjoyed having something of his, and was small comfort when I didn’t see him for a while. Eventually we had a fight, and I gave it back in a show of indignant finality, but I had to admit I missed it.

On my 17th birthday, my dad called me from outside of my mom’s house – he never came inside – to let me know that he’d bought me my favourite cake. We were supposed to have my party in his small apartment in the city. I knew without asking that he’d already hung streamers and taped balloons to the walls. I told him over the phone that I was too busy and couldn’t make it. I can’t really explain why I turned him down. All I can say is that I regretted it the second I watched him pull out of the driveway. I guess I felt that his new apartment wasn’t my home; it was a part of his new life, with his new partner. I was just a guest.

Since I built my fort, I still have months when I don’t see my dad and days that I miss him more than others, and there are other days like my 17th birthday, when I feel the gap between us gnawing at me and causing me to pull away. But six years later, that fort at his cabin is still my own place at my dad’s house.

My fort grows and improves with every visit, and so does our relationship. Every time I use a wooden plank to add structural support, I feel closer to him. Every time I make an improvement to the interior design, I feel more comfortable at his house. And every time I gleefully shoot my brother in the head with a foam bullet, my smile grows even bigger when I hear my dad chuckle quietly, as if laughing loudly would encourage me more than the shocked look on my brother’s face every single time.

Recently, I turned 18. I’m finishing my last year of high school and I’ll be away at university soon, and the little time I spend at that log cabin will diminish even more. I’m already living on my own in boarding school making big decisions about university and being responsible for myself. I’ll have studying to do, bills to pay and maybe even a boyfriend. I’m becoming an adult and it’s scary but no matter what happens and how much time I spend away from home, I know that I can always go back to my dad’s house, climb into my fort, and launch a full scale Nerf battle.

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Evanne Bell lives in Toronto.

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