My next letter will arrive Sunday, March 14, 2021.
I am undergoing surgery on Friday, February 26, 2021 and will be taking a few weeks off from writing the letters while I am in the acute phase of recovery. I am feeling very apprehensive about the procedure, to put it mildly, so I appreciate your love.
Thank you for reading, as always, as always, as always.
A few weeks ago, I asked two of my people for help.
My therapist insisted. I don’t ask for help, typically, but, as my therapist rightfully pointed out, what I was going to do was not something I could do alone.
It was a really big request. I needed my people to spend most of their Sunday helping me pack up some of my beloved’s personal effects, many of which were stored in his personal study.
Much like anything in grief, one person’s grief is simply one person’s grief, but for me, I continue to find my sweet man’s personal items—things that were entirely his—extremely painful. Obviously, I find things that were ours painful as well, but there is something particularly acute about anything that was just his. This could be as small as the yellow and green gnat traps he would assemble and place around the apartment, or as intense as the bicycle jersey he designed for our wedding. All of it, painful.
I wanted his things to be gathered and packed up so that they could be put into safe storage with my family because, at some point, I know that I will have to go through each thing and consider what is to be done with it. That time is not now, but to even think of that time, somewhere on the horizon, I cannot believe it.
How can these things be left, here, still in their given forms, when he is not?
Until Sunday, a few weeks ago, when I entered his study, my people not far behind me, I hadn’t looked at his things directly since the Before.
The study was a mess. It was always a mess. On top of the standing desk was a thin, heavy wire in a coil, his laptop and charger, not one, but two Slate laptop stands, a few spare gnat traps. His ironing board and iron were stacked near our printer, which was tucked against his coat rack, which was beside his keyboard piano.
I opened the closet doors and saw all of the things I knew were there and many things I had forgotten were there. His brown cowboy hat, the one he wore on our third date was on top of the shelf; his red, hiking backpack that my family bought him for Christmas was leaning stacked on top of a shoebox; his red and black cycling helmet that he wore to and from work every day was settled gently beside his bag of art supplies. He was such a talented painter, I thought. I pulled the cowboy hat and the cycling helmet out of the closet, held them close to my body.
Then, my people came into the room and asked me how they could help. I set the helmet and the hat down softly, placed them back inside the closet and closed the doors.
“Let’s start with the bookshelves,” I said.
We pulled his books off the shelves and I looked at each one and sorted it into categorized piles: art, textbooks, business, fiction, and culinary were the primary stacks. From there, we took the books and piled them into boxes—prepared them for storage.
His textbooks, in particular, were flagged with Post-Its, jotted with his distinct handwriting. I flipped through his cookbooks and remembered recipes we had made, or he had made, or he wanted to make. There was the slim copy of The Old Man and The Sea, which I gave to him in the second month of dating. There was a copy of my Masters’ thesis, my name written on it neatly, and several magazine issues that had articles written by me in them. I had no idea he kept all these things. Even though I knew he was sentimental and sweet in this way, seeing the proof, again, turned the key of loss sharply inside of me.
Outwardly, I gave no indication of this key turning. I just set the Hemingway into the fiction pile. I stacked my thesis and the magazines into the miscellaneous pile. I reached for the next book that was handed to me and considered its cover. It was like this for awhile.
After the books were sorted, I turned my attention to his musical instruments. We hunted around for the cases for his guitars, wrapped up cords, packed the keyboard into its heavy, insulated bag. I set his headphones gently on top of the piano seat.
I said nothing of the life that was welling up in my mind.
He would sit for hours in his study playing music, headphones on, instruments plugged in, sheet music displayed on his iPad. I would come home, sometimes, and if his shoes were in the entryway but the apartment was silent, I knew he was playing. I would pad down the hallway and lean against the doorframe, watch him press the keys of the piano, or strum the strings of the guitar, his thin, fine hands moving nimbly.
Eventually, when he would turn and see me, he would pull his headphones off and ask me if I could listen to what he’d been “working on.” He always had one song or another that he was learning that he picked, loosely for me. Sometimes it was a John Mayer song, other times, it was tracks from the La La Land soundtrack, which he loved. I’d listen to him play and feel the knots I hadn't known I was holding in my body unfurl.
Sometimes, he would play the guitar on the side of bed and I would fall asleep listening to him work out a difficult chord progression, or riff on a well-known chorus. Once, he gave me a one-man-show where he played the banjo I bought him, along with his harmonica and tambourine. He sang Heart of Gold and Wagon Wheel. During the latter, I joined in with him and sang the chorus. His eyes flared with light.
“Babe,” he said. “You have such a nice singing voice!”
I laughed. I rarely sing and never in public (with a special never-ever reserved for karaoke, which he absolutely adored and I absolutely abhorred), but that moment between us was always a beautiful one to me.
He often stayed up late working on creating “beats” on his iPad, electronic tracks that he would play for me at different points. There is a song, still, unfinished in the recording software of his iPad, and I do not know when I will be able to bear listening to it. How is it that I won’t hear another iteration? How is it that I won’t be able to suggest different sounds, or bass lines? Won’t be able to watch him, eyes focused, skin tinged blue from the glare of his iPad or his laptop, create more music?
He said often, and I agreed, that if he hadn’t been an architect, in his dream-world, he would have liked to have been a musician.
“You are a musician,” I would say to him. “You already are.”
“Oh,” he would say. “That’s so nice of you, baber.”
He had so much joy, especially when he made music.
The act of softly packing up his instruments, which were quiet and somehow enduring without him, felt catastrophic to me. I pictured myself picking up his matte black electric guitar and holding it. Sobbing over it.
I didn’t do that, though.
Instead, I helped shift the keyboard in its case down the hallway. Its weight left a trail along the carpet. I locked the brassy snaps on his guitar case. I moved the padded instrument rack into the entryway and set it alongside the other things destined for storage.
My eyes did not tear up. The memories never made it out of my chest, but they lumped there, painful and raw, behind my sternum. I returned to the study.
I began to pull his coats off the hangers which were suspended from his white clothing rack’s metal bar. These were the coats he wore all the time. The ones he wore to work, standing in the bedroom, asking me if the blazer worked with his pants; to ride, his crinkly, rain pants swishing down the hallway; to lounge, his grey zip-up loose around his shoulders; to stay warm, his black puffer carefully cleaned of any residual dust or splatter. These were the coats that hung on his body most often—his body, which fell while he was running, which left skin on the grate of the bridge, which lay still in the hospital room, in the casket, in the cremation chamber, which is now ashes in his urn.
My hands were shaking, I realized.
I folded one of his fleece zip-ups into a bag and caught the tremble in my fingers, the way I couldn’t hold my hand steady in the air.
My people returned to me at that moment. I tucked my hands out of sight. I asked them to help me fold the clothes from the closet. I pulled clothing off of hangers, and they folded the things away. Sometimes, the hangers’ hooks were too thick to easily pull off the closet clothing bar and my shaking hands couldn’t get a firm enough purchase.
The pants were easier to fold because I just peeled his pants away from the hangers. Each one, a small door opening: the jeans we bought together in Venice, in Los Angeles, when we were there for our engagement shoot; the Wrangler denim we bought together when he wanted new jeans for Stampede; the DU/ER jeans I bought for him one Christmas that he declared the most comfortable pair of jeans, ever.
The remembrances buried in each article of clothing came up so quickly and so fast that I began to feel dizzy. The shaking in my hands continued. A dull, throbbing pulse began to beat at the base of my neck. When I looked at my phone, I realized we had been in the study for hours.
“Let’s take a break,” my people said and I agreed.
We settled on the couch while I poured water into glasses. We talked about something that was not the task at hand. Or, they talked and I listened. I felt the throbbing in my head start to creep up from the base of my neck to the back of my brain. I realized I hadn’t eaten anything all day.
I knew, in the earth of my body, that I should say to my people that we should call it. I knew that, really, the task of gathering his things and putting them into storage had ripped something ragged through me and I knew I was in pain. I knew we should all leave, go back home, and then return another day to finish packing up the rest.
I also knew that my people had arranged their day around me. Both of them had other things that they had and had not told me about, things they had pushed off or adjusted or delayed in order to be here, helping me. I knew that if I said I needed a break, they would give me one. They would take me back home and tell me to let them know when I was ready to come back and put more into storage.
I also knew I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to ask my people for even more, when they had already given so much. They have their own lives, too; their own burdens.
So, after the break, I returned to the study with my people. I began to fold all of his button-up shirts and ties that were hanging in the closet — there were so many memories in the folds of each collar, the length of the ties. I felt the recollections rush through me in a blur, trips, restaurants, special events, work functions, and date nights.
Next, I pulled the plastic tubs out of the bottom of the closet and began to open them up. I didn’t move anything out of the tubs he so carefully stored them in, I just wanted to see what it was that he wanted to bring with him when we moved.
The first tub I opened, I immediately closed. My people were in the room with me and I knew if I went through what I saw was in the tub, I would not be able to prevent myself from crying.
The day is hard enough on my people, I thought. I didn’t need to make it harder on them by breaking down.
So, I said I’d come back to that tub, and opened the next one, and the next one, and the next. After all the tubs had been assessed, my people carried the tubs to the van and set them in the back. I told them while they drove the tubs to storage, I’d stay back and pull his bikes out and get them moved into the entryway. They were the last, large things we had to store. There were other, small pockets of his stuff (in the bathroom, in the bedroom, in the kitchen) that I knew about, but as it was closing in on seven hours of work by then, even I knew those things would have to be left for another day. Perhaps even for another month.
As soon as my people vanished in the van headed for the house, I turned and went back to the study. I knelt and opened that first tub again.
Inside, he had placed all of the cards I ever gave him, dating right back to the first year and month that we met. There were all of the Polaroids from our wedding — every single one. He also kept every card we got at our wedding. All of them. There were also the film photobooth strips we took on New Years, in malls, at his holiday staff party, at food festivals, and at bars. There were 4x6 photographs of us through the years and every single photo from our wedding, printed out in neat stacks. There were ticket stubs from festivals we had gone to, and movies we had seen. There were two tickets to the Zoo, which we never used, always intending to go and then never quite making it there. There were the little notes I used to write him, just because.
I sorted through all of it. A pain hot-burning seethed in my body, but I wouldn’t let myself cry.
Can you imagine having this capacious, this tender, this open, this gentle, this commemorative a heart? Can you imagine loving love so much?
I know that it is an indescribable gift that I don’t have to, that I know what it’s like because of him.
When I heard the sound of the van outside, the low burble of my people’s voice as they came in and then back out, taking, I assumed, the bikes with them to place into the vehicle, I got up and took a sip of water. The cold stream tracked its way down my throat and it helped some of the hot-burning, a little.
Then, I walked out and told my people I was endlessly thankful for their help. The day was finally done, I said. It was dark and cold outside, but we had done what we could. I made some kind of joke, but I can’t remember if it landed. My head hurt badly.
I had brought my own vehicle, so though I would see them shortly, I waved my people goodbye as they set out for home, headlights cutting through a bitter cold of almost -38 degrees Celsius and a blue-black dark.
Once my people were out of sight, I walked back down the hallway to his study. I didn’t turn a light on. A streetlight was outside the window and it cast a weak beam into the largely emptied room.
The books I hadn’t wanted to store were gathered in stacks on the carpet, the standing desk was pushed to one side, his clothing rack was skeletal, hangers like rib bones along the bar’s length. In the closet, the sole tub of his tender heart, clothes I couldn’t put in storage either, his cowboy hat, his cycling helmet, his cowboy boots, his Air Force Ones that we got together in Tokyo at the Nike flagship.
I stood, for a moment looking at all of it and then I closed the closet doors. I had been telling myself all day that I couldn’t cry because I didn’t want to ask more of my people, and that was partially true. Yet, standing there, I realized I had another reason for not crying.
Sometimes, the agony of loss can be so much that I do not want to bear witness to it. I would rather, in fact, endure the migraine that I will, and did, wake up with the next morning, because this is, at least, a familiar pain that I know will eventually leave me.
To be clear, I am not recommending this way of being. I am just explaining why I stood there in his study, feet sinking deeper into the pile of the carpet, and did not cry.
How long was I there?
I don’t know.
How long can anyone stand the valley of the shadow of death?
You can connect with me by hitting “reply” on the Sunday email or by leaving a comment.