Flotsam and jetsam

It began when I pulled my sweaters out from storage and saw how much of Patti’s wardrobe was in there too. After eight months, I need to finally confront the chore I have been dreading — sifting through her stuff, giving it to friends, the Salvation Army, the recycler, and archiving the rest.   It’s not just sweaters and dresses and jewelery. It’s all the stuff she left behind — wallets, curlers, thigh-highs, pills, and lots and lots of paper.

I started going through the repositories that lurk in every corner. It’s a mammoth task because as I open every drawer and file cabinet, I find boxes, bags, envelopes, and loose piles of the detritus of life. Patti tried to organize a lot of these things but there’s so much still left. I find my willingness to edit quite viciously is much stronger than hers ever was. I’ll open a beautiful archival quality box and inside there are a few yellowing 10-year-old newspaper clippings describing an island she once thought might be a nice place for us to go on vacation. I find old receipts and pieces of mail, bank statements, recipes, printed emails, pages ripped from old mail order catalogs. All these things had some significance to her and she held onto them for years. They seem like trash to me.

But I hesitate.

Instead of throwing them in the garbage or transferring them to yet another file folder I have to parse them. Why did she want to keep this? What was the value to her? Is there something about her I can learn from them? What memories do they dredge up? So I separate the papers into categories of my own: receipts from gifts we gave each other; Jack’s school papers, stories and essays from third grade; notebooks filled with records of wheelchair repairs, insurance letters, hospital bills; letters I wrote to her from business trips; notes she left by my bedside or stuck into my suitcase; Frank’s vet bills from a decade ago; cards from friends; holiday letters and photographs; a folder full of songs that Patti was learning by heart so she could perform them at the library where she read  to children every Wednesday afternoon. And diaries, filled with Patti’s state of mind — getting mad at herself for the things that she hadn’t done, or reveling in the dreams she had, or how much she loved me, or how lucky she was.

I didn’t allow myself to feel much as I went through these stacks of papers, but just kept my head down and beavered through, sifting wheat from chaff, obsessed with getting through it.  But now on Sunday morning as I sit in bed alone and think about it, I can’t keep tears from  rolling down my face.

All of these documents were the building blocks of the life we had together. And now I have to arrange them into a monument to what we had together. As the pieces separate into  categories, they tell stories, stories that I want to keep for myself and for Jack. And for Patti, because I want so very much for her life to matter. Her last fifteen years were so much harder than they should have been, full of challenges and indignities and pain, difficulties that a sweet and kind and generous person should not have had to endure.

Now that the last chapter has been written and the book of her life is closed, some meaning has to come out of it all. I look for it in these piles of papers.Patti doesn’t have a headstone or a crypt, just a cookie jar filled with her ashes. I guess that by shaping these piles of paper into something understandable, I’ll be freezing the memories while they are still fresh. The river of time keeps flowing past and out to sea, carrying all of life with it. Sometimes we cannot see what is passing until it lies at some distance, but the current is strong and moments vanish around the bend, never to be recalled.