Growing up, until I was five anyway, my family and I lived in a small two-story unit in Colorado. My mum stayed home with me, and my dad was a police officer who worked crazy hours. Picture this – dark black hair, handlebar moustache, aviator glasses, gun on the hip. That was my dad – the deputy sheriff, and he looked the part.
My dad’s shift work meant that he was often sleeping during the day – so having friends over wasn’t really an option, and I had to learn to play quietly by myself. Looking back, I remember being desperate for a connection with my dad, and would do anything to be around him. When he was working a night shift, I would often get up early in the morning and drag my bedding downstairs to sleep on the bottom step, waiting for him to get home just so I could see him for a little while.
I understood that his job had a lot of pressures, but at times I longed to be able to talk to him and share my day with him. Luckily, I had one friend who understood how hard this was – someone who was there for me when I needed him. He was my invisible friend, Pickabob. And he lived in the heating vents in our house.
In Colorado, the winter temperatures can drop down to negative 20, so having an internal heating system is essential. Our vents were in the floor of each room, and Pickabob particularly liked to hang out in the vent that was located in the bathroom. I would talk to him quite regularly, telling him how my day was going, about new friends I had made, and what Mum had made me for lunch. I would also go to him if my parents had yelled at me and I had gotten into trouble or was feeling upset.
Sometimes Pickabob was there when I called out for him, and sometimes he wasn’t. There were times when his voice sounded distant, and every now and then he would be eating while we were chatting. I remember one time he said he was eating a packet of chips – I could hear that distinctive crunch and crinkle of the chip bag and it made me giggle. He listened when I talked to him, and he always cared about how I was. Pickabob was my best friend.
When I was five, my parents made the decision to move house. I will always remember the piles of boxes spilling out the front door, and the rooms becoming emptier and emptier. As all our belongings were shoved into the moving van, I became increasingly anxious, wondering if my parents were going to forget my dear friend. When it came time to leave, I raced up the stairs, dove into the corner of the bathroom, and called out, “Pickabob! Pickabob! Where are you?” There was no answer. I called out again and again, desperate for a response. I couldn’t leave my best friend behind.
Finally, I heard his voice. I remember yelling into the vent, “Pickabob, are you coming? We’re leaving!” His answer was crushing – “No, Sarah. I can’t come with you. This is my home, and I need to stay here.” I was devastated. Not only did I walk away from our home that day, but I walked away from a very special friend.
10 years passed, our family expanded, and I completely forgot about my quirky invisible friend. No one had mentioned Pickabob in ages, until one day, I was hanging out with my dad on a family holiday, and he turned to me and said, “Hey, do you remember Pickabob?” I replied, “Ah yeah! Pickabob. Of course I remember! Wow, that was a long time ago.” My dad smiled, looked at me, and said, “Did you know that was me?”
All those times I told Pickabob about my day, all those moments when I really needed a friend, and every time I was upset with my parents – I talked to Pickabob, and my dad listened. (And sometimes he ate packets of chips). 15-year-old me couldn’t articulate it at the time, but the moment my dad confessed to being the voice in the vent, everything changed. The relationship with my dad that I had longed for as a little girl, I had had all along.
I have found myself telling this story over and over again, but only recently realised that the last time I spoke to my dad about Pickabob was on that family holiday, more than 15 years ago! I also realised that I hadn’t told him just how much his confession meant to me. So I decided to let him know, and asked him to share his memories about Pickabob too. This was his response.
It has been an amazing walk down memory lane thinking about Pickabob! Near as we can remember, you were about three years old at the time. I had been with the Sheriff’s Department for three years and was on a rotating shift schedule. I don’t remember what shift I was working at the time, but it was in the evening and Mom was trying to get you ready for bed. You were fussing about something important for a three year old, and both you and Mom were in the bathroom. The bathroom was right next to our bedroom and I could clearly hear you through the heating duct. I figured that if I could hear you clearly, then you would be able to clearly hear me!
I spoke your name into the vent and you immediately stopped your fussing and asked, “Who’s there?” Now I was surprised! I had assumed that you would recognise my voice, but the ductwork apparently changed it enough that you didn’t know it was me. I suddenly had to come up with a name, and for whatever reason, ‘Ichabod’ was the first word that came to mind. (From Ichabod Crane, the headless horseman.) You heard it as ‘Pickabob’. You would often ‘reach out’ to Pickabob, going to the heat vent in the bathroom to chat, and sometimes air your current grievance.
If I was available, I would happily listen to you and sometimes offer suggestions. I don’t believe that you ever questioned why I was never with you when you were talking to Pickabob. When we moved to the new house, you asked if Pickabob was coming too, but he told you that he lived in the condo and couldn’t leave. I think you mentioned him a few times after we moved, but then you kind of forgot about him and seemed to move on. Too much time has passed for me to remember specifics, but I am so touched that he has had such a significant impact on you.
Dad (A.K.A. Pickabob)
Looking back on my childhood, it would be easy to wish I had a closer relationship with my dad. But as I’ve grown older, I can see that my dad was reaching out, in his own way, trying to connect with his daughter. And he did. When I think about him now, I think about a dad who loved me so much that he did whatever it took to connect with me on my level.