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.

27 thoughts on “Flotsam and jetsam”

  1. Nice drawing. I need to finally breakdown and buy a Moleskin sketchbook.
    When I moved to Florida, I had the same issues with deciding WHAT to keep and what to discard…


  2. Thank you for sharing. Very painful. When I had a moment similar to yours, I threw out few things I brought with me when immigrate to America, I told myself that the best my father left for me is his genes in me and my daughter.


  3. Danny,

    Thank you for sharing this chapter of your love story with Patti. I do think that your love story continues, and reading about how you are dealing with life alone makes me reflect on how lucky I am to share my life with my husband. You remind us all not to take even the little things for granted.


  4. Very thought provoking and wonderful. All those bits and pieces of paper are the puzzle of her life. I hope you find a creative way to use them to make the tribute to her that you so want.

    Your story has touched me deeply.


  5. All those bits of papers that Patti was inspired by, might be elements to paste into an altered book, collage and color and ad bits of your thoughts and memories as you sift through it all. It can be transformative and healing in unexpected ways. Thinking of you and Patti and Jack.


  6. You don’t know me and I don’t know you, but your words always touch a very deep part of my soul, and your drawings inspire me to follow my dream of expression through a pencil and sketchbook. Thank so much for being open to the world – you are a gift to so many of us.


  7. I am new to your blog, but I want to say your beautifully written post touched me to my own grieving core. In a way I envy your dilemma of what to keep, what to pass along; I didn’t have that opportunity. May I suggest that if you feel any reluctance to part with Patti’s things now, don’t, not even her clothing. At some point you and your artist friends will know how to transform everything into art that will continue the celebration of Patti’s life.


  8. “…And for Patti, because I want so very much for her life to matter.”

    Her life mattered in so many ways, her life made Every Day Matter(s).

    As someone who has boxes & notebooks filled with scribbles about how (ah, one day!) I shall make my life matter, I can see how titanic the task is of even deciding what you’ll do with all of that paper and other ‘stuff’.

    Perhaps you could use some things to build a little shrine, and ceremoniously burn the rest.

    Alternatively, scan the whole lot.

    Thank you for a thought-provoking & deeply moving post.


  9. That just made me cry. It makes me wonder what’s going to happen to all the pieces of paper that I don’t throw away for various reasons, my journals, my gazillion paintings of alligators….. that’s it, I’m going to start culling the herd of my flotsam and jetsam right away.


  10. Its been 4 months since my father passed and yesterday as my mother and I sorted for the umpteenth time through papers toward the resolutuion of some business affairs, I had the distinct feeling that the sorting and bumping up against ephemera will be a constant for not just months but years to come. I’ve feeling the urge to go through my own possessions to weed out and place everything in the illusion of “proper order”.



  11. Maybe it’s too soon, Danny, but I sure wish you’d write a book about this some day. Yes, billions of other people have experienced the loss of a mate too, yes, there are already so many books out there about grieving, or other people’s stories about their loss etc. BUT. This is Patti’s story, told through your writing, we get to know her by seeing her through your eyes, and I think she would really, really like that. There cannot be another story like it, just like Patti is unique. Is, not was. Because a life, HER life cannot just be undone by something as small as dying.




  12. Hello Danny,
    I just wanted you to know that your book “an illustrated life” got me back to draw in my sketchbook again! I had forgotten how wonderfull that is!


  13. Thank you! Thank You! Thank you! My daughter gifted me a copy of “Creative License” Loved it! Made my first attempt, {the medicine cabinet}, today and was pleasantly surprised. A new adventure at my age! We live on the east coast and my daughter lives on the west coast. While we were there visiting, Gina, an accomplished artist and teacher, was able to teach me a few simple techniques from your book. Wow! I’m off! I know you must be extremely busy, but if you ever have a few minutes, please visit her website, above and take a look at her beautiful work. She is such a kind and caring person, and an ardent admirer of you work! Julie Rossi


  14. Hi: Your post is sad and yet beautiful. What comes directly from the heart goes directly into the hearts of others. I am thinking of you as you work your way through this. From looking at your illustrations I know the result will be something beautiful.



  15. Thank you for this post Danny. I lost my husband of 22 years a little over a year ago and I found your post describing my thoughts and feelings as well. Very moving and heartfelt. I wish I could articulate and write as you do.


  16. May the smile that comes to your face
    when the pictures of her come to your mind
    never fade..
    never dwindle..
    never stop..

    Please know that your sharing has helped me thru my hard times


  17. thanks for your tender writing and drawings, pieces of all of your lives Danny
    I’ve been reading your books over the last year or so, starting with an Illustrated life, and recently, as I did the Sketchbook project, Creative license. I felt a keep going! a yes, you can do it, as I worked out in the sunshine outside having a cuppa many days.
    All the fragments of life and stories you’ve put into your work, they draw a picture of love and just living day by day. Such a lot of care and love in all of it. May you go on living well, past this heart healing time with Patti s dying. thanks for caring aloud about your life, and encouraging us with ours!


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