It’s Not About the Books…

I’ll admit it; I’ve been searching for answers.  Answers to questions like these:  How long will I feel like this? What can I do to feel better?  How do I go on without him?  Is it normal to feel weepy at the slightest provocation? Talk about him all the time? Leave the kitchen light on every night?

And for the most part, I am finding my answers in the books I’ve picked up, and from those who have gone down this path before me.  I have filled pages of journals with heartfelt sentiments, jotted down notes and quotes. I have made a list of my regrets, and transcribed some of the last conversations David and I shared. I’m writing essays and filling my calendar with future speaking engagements and workshops that I am looking forward to.  Moving one foot ahead of the other. Functioning.

I thought I was doing so well.

And then, this morning, I get a phone call. When our friend Bob died, his sister had promised all his books, the books I had located and bought for him over a period of ten years, would come back to me. Even at the wake, his own sons expressed their appreciation for helping feed their father’s book lust, and they stood in front of me and shook mine and David’s hands and insisted they would get those books to me, despite my protestations that they were given to their father as a gift. Bob’s sister called to inform me that all the books had been carted off to the local library over the weekend. It was evident that she was horrified by the lack of consideration to me, and yet I reassured her they were just books, and I could attend the next library book sale and buy any of them I wanted. She has had more than her share of pain in her life, and I hated to hear the worry and concern in her voice.  “Don’t worry about it,” I assured her.

Then I got off the phone, and burst into tears.

This is how it works, this thing called grief. It hits us when we least expect it, and in ways we could not imagine.  When I found a half-empty bottle of men’s cologne in the downstairs bathroom medicine cabinet last week, I was thrilled. None of David’s shirts have retained his smell, but now I could sprinkle them with my favorite of his scents. When I hunted for a box of tea bags in my cupboard a few days later and found a stash of David’s gum, I cried. Why the gum and not the cologne? Why could I easily rid the closet and drawers of David’s pants and shoes and yet I cannot bear to part with any of his shirts? It made perfect sense to one of my sisters who remarked that it was the shirts I touched as I hugged him.

I am learning that grief doesn’t always make sense. I was not crying about the hundreds of books I’d bought Bob. I was crying about the few personal books of  David’s that he had loaned to Bob; books I’ve already replaced in my library, most notably Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven and Todd Burpo’s Heaven is for Real. Simple paperback copies of these two books that David had loved, and then loaned to his friend to enjoy. Then there were the two Chicken Soup books David had me inscribe to Bob because my stories were featured in them.

I was crying about the few books that David had loved, touched, and personally cared about.  And yet, without any sense of loss at all, I had packaged up and sent David’s brother the last few books he’d been reading at the table. When one of my daughters expressed the desire to read her Dad’s 90 Minutes in Heaven (since he’d mentioned it so often), I’d commented that it would be returned to me when Bob’s books were, and then I purchased a replacement copy for her to read. I decided I would pass that replacement copy off to someone else when David’s came back to me. I assumed all along that I would be getting David’s personal books back at some time, and maybe even with one of the little pieces of paper he so often used as a bookmark inside of it.  Paper with his handwriting on, if I was really lucky. Suddenly, that tiny, tenuous thread of a future connection to David was broken. Even if I attended that book sale, would I be able to find David’s books among those for sale? What if someone bought them before I got there?

Of course I called the library, and began explaining what had happened. I was horrified when I started sobbing on the phone. Whoever it was who had answered must have been just as horrified; I was suddenly talking to a dial tone. A few deep breaths later, I called again, and was transferred to a woman I know. Dianna seemed to understand my dilemma perfectly. She told me someone had donated about 30 boxes that hadn’t been gone through yet, and I was welcome to go through them. Nearly ten years of collecting books for Bob, at an average of 10 books a month in the winter and fewer in the summer; yes, 30 boxes sounded about right.

All the reading and the talking over grief I have done since David’s death couldn’t have prepared me for the onslaught of emotion I felt over the loss of a few paperback books. Of course, I have now filed away this experience in the notes I have been accumulating for my own “someday” book on grief.

It really wasn’t about the books. When I go to the library to look through the boxes, I just might find what it is I am looking for;

Another small connection to the man I loved, and miss so much.



Wednesday night my sister Angela called and asked if I had plans for Good Friday, Saturday, or Easter. “I might be filling a dumpster,” I answered, and I’m sure she wondered if I had gone over the edge. Yesterday after the dumpster was delivered, I pulled the old carpeting off the porch and threw it in, then grabbed some wood from a desk my son had destroyed. I relished the sound of the heavy boards hitting the bottom of the metal dumpster and threw the next ones in harder, practically slamming them into the trash receptacle. I began crying, then laughing, as I imagined the curtains of nearby houses being pulled back and the residents of our neighborhood whispering to each other about the crazy widow down the street.  Widow, widow, widow, the word taunted me. I opened the garage door, looking for more things to throw away. I wanted glass, or mirrors to shatter. Tears poured down my cheeks as I surveyed the garage; the cluttered shelves, the empty flower pots my husband had collected.  I thought back to David’s last three weeks before his heart attack, when he’d spent several hours out there; a radio playing. “I got a lot done today,” he’d announced one afternoon. Surveying the garage yesterday, I wondered, where? Where had he gotten cleaning done? The state of the basement and the garage had been the bane of his existence. It had become overwhelming. There had to be four coffee pots in the basement that barely dripped, and yet David saved them “in case.” I tried not to nag him in any way after his cancer treatment, but the build-up of junk did bother me.  He knew that.  So I was glad it was his idea when on the way home from the hospital he’d said, “Let’s get a dumpster soon and clean up. I won’t be able to do much, though.” He smiled when I told him he could sit on the porch and order us around.

This morning started out as one of the Good Days. Before the children were even awake, I’d printed out a speech to work on, revised an essay I’d begun while David was in the hospital, and started my Sunday column. I’m writing! I’m writing! was the joyful refrain inside my head.

Then I went to Wal-Mart with the girls. Standing in the Easter aisle, I couldn’t think.  I couldn’t care less about chocolate bunnies and jelly beans. “Hi, how are you doing?” a woman I’d once interviewed approached. A woman who had been married over 50 years. A woman who still had her husband.

“Not very good,” I replied carefully. What is the proper protocol for these situations? Was I just supposed to answer “fine?”

“What’s wrong?” she asked, and when I told her my husband had passed away, she was genuinely sympathetic. The rest of the shopping trip was a blur. I know I sobbed in the car afterwards and Emily ran into the grocery store for the eggs because I couldn’t seem to stop the flow of tears.

I decided to use my sadness as an impetus to clean the basement. The first two or three trips out to the dumpster were easy; an old office chair, some broken plastic tote lids, a torn rug that had gone through the flooding in the basement.  When I entered the corner room of the basement, I suddenly wanted to turn back. This was David’s domain, and surprisingly well-organized;  lined up on the shelves were rusty-lidded cans of paint, a dozen spray cleaners that he’d confiscated when they were thrown out at work, and empty water bottles I’d discarded that he’d evidently plucked from the garbage. I was overwhelmed with sorrow at how my thrifty husband held onto things I would so easily toss. My eyes lit on the glass jars in a corner. When the sanitation company informed Manchester residents they would no longer take glass in the recycling, I’d casually dropped my jars into our kitchen trash. I’d  recently caught David removing a pickle jar and asked him what he was doing. “I’m going to take them somewhere,” he’d mumbled.

Evidently, the basement was “somewhere.”  I filled a box with the jars and headed up the stairs to the garage. My feet felt leaden as I walked towards the dumpster outside. With a grunt, I hurled them over the side, and was heartened when I heard the shattering, and saw sharp pieces of glass hit the sides of the container. I was surprised at the anger that assailed me. Who was I angry at? Certainly not my gentle husband who would not have chosen to leave me or the children. Not God, who had blessed me with those bonus five years after David’s cancer.  Was I angry at myself? I’d sometimes teased David about his frugal ways, removed his precious pie tins when I knew he was saving them for something. I didn’t always understand his penchant for saving everything, even as he didn’t understand all my idiosyncracies.  Had I hurt his feelings at times? I suddenly couldn’t stand to have hurt him in any way. I should have loved him more, treated him better! I railed at the skies, even as I knew I couldn’t have loved him any more than I had, and he had known how much I cherished him. One thing we could thank the cancer for was that each of us had learned to treat the other in the best way we knew how, short of kissing each other’s feet, and we’d even been known to do that on occasion.

The anger dissipated as quickly as it had come.

I went into the house to make a cup of tea, with a fresh sense of loss. David had made 75% of the cups of tea in our house for the last year or two.

I’ll get back to the garage and the basement, but not alone.

And here I’d thought it would be the clothing that would be so difficult.