Photo: Steve Brennan
Wearing: Prada Top

A few months before moving to New York, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

But this story isn’t about my mother (now cancer-free); it’s about my father. A month into living in New York, I got a call.

I’d been couchsurfing my entire time in New York, just me and my oversized suitcase. My mom and I talked earlier that day, and she told me that she and my stepfather looked into silk headscarves, if it came to that. I didn’t have the money to go out and meet people, spending every day applying to jobs and every night alone, so I spent most of my time worrying about her.

But the call in question came later in the day, from my dad. He talked about my stepmother, asked how I was doing and wondered if I’d found an apartment. (“Not yet,” I told him, thinking about the $300 in my checking account.) Then he started telling me about work.

“They did a fundraiser at work last week,” he told me. “I don’t always have the time, but this one supported cancer research, so I went to the meeting.”

Because of mom, I thought.

“They had swatches of color, and they wanted us to make a piece of art around the swatch to auction off. I saw a bright orange swatch, and I grabbed it first.”

I already knew why he took the swatch, but I let him continue. “It was the exact shade of orange I painted your room in Knoxville when you moved in with your mom. My sculpture was the front of a house, dark and gray, with a bright orange room on the top floor. Then I put in a light fixture, so that orange room glowed.”

Tears started to stream down my face: I put myself on mute in case they became audible. “I put in the light fixture because every Friday, I remember coming to pick you up for the weekend after work. I got there when the sun was nearly set, the sky was dark, the house was dark—except for this glowing orange light coming from your room… It’s a really good memory. It has to be auctioned off next week. I’ll send you a picture as soon as it’s done.”

He did: I kept that picture on my phone and looked at it often. It reminded me that, no matter how hard New York got, there was always a place that I could go home to, something many young gay men don’t have.

My own glowing orange light.

For my last birthday, I asked my dad to recreate the piece, seven years later. I was shocked when a package as big as me appeared on my doorstep: I’d always imaged it as small as a hardcover novel.

It hangs on my wall, the light on a self-timer. The light turns on just as the sun sets, when my dad pulls into my mom’s driveway to pick me up for the weekend.