It was inevitable that I would start to reclaim for myself spaces we used to share, but then I procrastinate or stop short of finishing the task. Yes, it’s true that within hours of Lee’s death, in anger I had exorcised from our home numerous items, including the bottles and boxes containing her medicines, the adhesives, and rolls of gauze, the clips and bandages that were supposed to hold her together while she healed from another surgery, as well as the lancets, test strips, glucose tablets, even the pricey blood sugar meter she faithfully and diligently employed to fend off the most deleterious effects of diabetes. To me these items had come to symbolize modern medicine’s utter failure to prolong, let alone save, my wife’s precious life. I remember that momentarily it had felt damn good to conduct my purge, which in the immediate aftermath of Lee’s death seemed like the only thing over which I retained even the slightest control.
Several months later, during the holidays, I invite Lee’s nephews, along with their wives and kids, to come by our place to claim whatever clothes or keepsakes they might want. Despite a pandemic, they arrive to select from among an array of fine Christmas ornaments, many very old, some handed down to Lee by members of her own family, fun Halloween decorations and masks we’d pull out every year as a beacon to neighborhood kids out tricking and treating, all manner of useful ladies’ items that I could not specifically identify but which I infer must be useful because they are proving to be quite popular with the ladies. Along with the ornaments, Lee’s nephews claim a few toys and plain silly stuff for themselves that seem to trigger fond memories of the past when they were still kids and “Aunt” Lee would care for them while their folks managed to get away for one of their infrequent adult weekends.
Yet, when it came to Lee’s clothing itself, some of it quite expensive, everything stylish or extremely practical, this stuff was useless to them as clothing. You see, Lee was tiny while her nephews, as well as their wives and kids, are exceptionally tall. Still, Lee’s favorite niece was thrilled that Lee wanted her to have her wedding dress as a keepsake.
On another winter day, as I am struggling to remove a sweater that is stuffed inside of a dresser drawer, I am struck by the ridiculous circumstance that while so many of my personal belongings are crammed into a couple of tiny drawers Lee’s belongings still occupy the rest of the bureau. In short order, I empty Lee’s dresser drawers of clothing to make room for the living, as it were. I remove even her everyday items with great care. If I come across a particular item of clothing that I especially used to like seeing her wear, I remove it with something approaching reverence. I am not embarrassed to say that I held certain items tight against my face, even inhaled from them hoping to catch a whiff of her, which, of course, I did not. But these acts helped me to remember how Lee felt when I held her close, or the touch of a perfect soft kiss. These are the important things we miss, aren’t they?
Most everything of hers in our dresser ended up in boxes or containers with the best intention to donate them to charity, but meanwhile, these boxes and containers sit in the basement awaiting my further action. I suppose I hesitate completing the task because I have not fully come to grips with a counterintuitive notion that if I permanently dispose of them by making a large charitable donation, this act insults her memory. Certainly, this notion is not rational. I reckon that I will proceed little by little over time until anything that I do not keep for myself is gone for good.
And then there are the things I never seemed to notice while Lee was still alive. For example, one Sunday afternoon a couple months before she died a city sewer had broken, causing substantial flooding to the basement. We had to move everything – and I mean EVERYTHING—out the basement and into the yard. Fortunately, the day had turned hot and sunny. What we managed to salvage ended up being stored temporarily in the garage. That at least was our plan. But shortly thereafter Lee reached a tipping point and was gone in such a short time. It took several months for me to get up the gumption to tackle a basement restoration.
I recall entering the garage and seeing stuff literally stacked from floor to ceiling with no organizing principle. One oversized disastrous mess. Think of the Room of Requirement, as depicted in Part 2 of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but keep in mind I had no magic to help me, neither wand nor flying broom. But there suddenly, lo and behold, as if by magic, the first item I spy is a tattered small suitcase.
I probably had seen this suitcase in the basement before the flood but never paid the slightest attention to it and certainly had never given one moment’s thought to whether there was anything in it. But when I pop its latches and open it, I find it contains dozens, if not hundreds, of documents, mostly greeting cards, but also some letters and pictures. I find that almost all are water damaged due to the flood. I eventually would spend considerable time and effort trying to salvage as many as could reasonably be salvaged.
It is immediately apparent to me that this is Lee’s collection. She seems to have kept every card that I ever gave her, cards going back many years to mark occasions large and small. Furthermore, she seems to have scooped up every card she ever gave me, knowing that I would never think to save one for posterity. This suitcase has turned out to be a wonderful surprise gift from Lee to me.
But it is not the only surprise I have encountered. Later, on another day I come across a nondescript cardboard box that turns out to be full of treasure. It holds, among other things, Lee’s grammar school report cards; her gymnastics and track awards; a religious artifact, or two; a grainy newspaper photo of a rehearsal of a high school theater production she must have been a part of; a second grainy photo of the play’s opening night; a third photo depicting cheerleaders in a pyramid formation with tiny Lee perched high atop alongside an action shot taken with a wide angle lens and bearing a caption that identifies several of the high school boys who can be seen playing Friday night football under the lights.
Although I suspect there are many more such personal items left to be discovered, I do not forage as much as I might because a part of me dreads the emotional impact of bringing her back to life for an instant or two before sadness fills me. I know she is not coming back to me again in this life.
Most recently I was rummaging through my bedroom closet, jam packed with my suits, sport coats, ties, casual and dress slacks, black jeans, blue jeans, dress shirts, casual shirts (including, as I can now observe, way too many of the Hawaiian variety), about a dozen pairs of my shoes, including sandals, everything packed together so tightly it is getting hard to slide close the two wooden closet doors. On the spot I decide the time has come for me to claim additional space by appropriating Lee’s closet. I order numerous garment bags from Target, then, over a couple of days, employing one garment bag at a time, I move Lee’s clothes from her closet down to the basement. For one creepy second, in my mind’s eye I see Norman Bates putting “mother” down in the fruit cellar. I box up Lee’s shoes along with other apparel not requiring hangers and take these items downstairs, too.
Finally, I can remove some of the hanging stuff from my closet. I replace these items of clothing on one of the hanging racks inside Lee’s closet. Next, I gather up my numerous pairs of shoes off the floor inside my closet and line them up on a long shelf that is above the hanging racks inside her closet.
This is when I spot the Mystery Box. I judge its weight, which is substantial, carefully lift it off the shelf and lower it, and carry it from the bedroom to the dining room where I gently place it on top of the dining room table before Lola the pup gets any smart ideas to turn the box into her toy.
Due to my previous experiences involving the opening of items with which I am unfamiliar, I do feel a bit wary. Indeed, I am not familiar with this box that I am about to unseal. Nonetheless, I peel off the lid and put it down on the table next to the box. I peer into the box from above, and know instantly that I have made a remarkable find.
To be continued…