Yesterday we came home from Ellie’s tennis lesson and I rushed to the kitchen to re-heat leftovers and boil corn and empty backpacks before the sitter would arrive and I’d be running out of the house to go to my own tennis lesson. There was a sink full of dishes and I could feel the noose of time tightening around my neck. I kept glancing at the clock, my hands plunged into the warm soapy water, trying to wash as fast as I could in my effort to juggle it all. Peter begged to go on the tablet, which I had banned so we could be more traditional about how we spend our time. Ellie complained about being hungry as if her whines directly correlated to the speed of which dinner would be served. Their noise was like the sound of fingernails scratching a chalkboard.
Right in the middle of the chaos, Ethan asked where his father’s glasses were.
I don’t know why I said that out loud. Of course I knew what he was talking about. Kenneth’s thick-rimmed glasses that were the color of dark honey. The glasses they handed to me in the hospital before I left his dead body behind for the mortuary to haul off. The glasses I clutched against my chest in those early days and weeks, one of the only tangible reminders I had left of him. The glasses that I set on top of his urn, as if somehow I was putting them back on him. Or maybe it was my way of finding the glasses for him one last time, just like I used to do when he fell asleep with them on at night and then needed me to help him find them in the morning. Humanizing that box full of campfire ashes just in case anyone forgot that was my husband.
“I think they’re in the memory box,” I told Ethan. The memory boxes in the garage, probably under a pile of old baby clothes I needed to get rid of.
He looked at me with big eyes.
“Do you…uh…want me to get them?”
He nodded eagerly.
I could hear the gurgling water ready to boil over on the stove. The pile of dishes wasn’t getting any smaller. The minutes ticked dangerously close to the hour.
“Okay,” I said, and headed to the garage. He followed. So did Peter and Ellie, because that’s what they do. If there is any promise of adventure, they are right there, with or without an invitation.
The garage was as hot as a sauna and I worried somebody would get too close to my new car, so I tried to work quickly. I lugged my memory box off the middle shelf where it had been collecting dust. The outside of the box said “Teresa’s Kenneth Memory Box” and it had hearts scrawled all over it in black Sharpie marker. I was sure the glasses were in there. I would have kept them for myself, I thought. Kenneth looked so cute in those glasses. Of course I would have claimed them.
Little hands attempted to swipe items from the box. I swatted them away like a game of whack-a-mole.
I felt a familiar ache growing inside of me. The kind I don’t like to feel. A feeling I’d rather hush. Why open up that can of worms? Nothing will ever change. Better to just keep walking straight ahead, not looking back. I usually keep boxes like these closed and stowed away for safekeeping.
“Daddy’s hairbrush!” Ellie gasped, lunging for the black hairbrush that is missing its handle. Kenneth was always brushing his hair with it and annoying me.
“Why are you brushing your hair AGAIN?” I’d ask him, cringing.
“You don’t get a head full of thick hair like mine for nothing,” he’d say proudly and keep brushing, ignoring my disgust.
These conversations always re-play in my mind when I touch seemingly innocuous items like a hairbrush. I want to tuck the memories away. Contain them in my mind for really quiet moments when nobody is around, when I can mull them over on my own terms and then dismiss them as quickly as they come.
The kids want memories today, though. This is what they need. I go along with it. Sometimes we need to open boxes.
We do not find the glasses in my memory box. The next logical place seemed like it would have been Ethan’s box, so I put my box away and take his down.
When Kenneth died and I had the burning desire to purge the house of everything that reminded me of him, when I had to throw away his favorite jeans and shoes and sift through the piles of his journals and intrude upon the sacred boundaries of a person’s humanity, I tried to be methodical about it. I kept what I considered to be the most memorable items that would tell a story as to who he was, and then I divided them between four boxes: one for me, and one for each of our children.
I noticed Ethan trying to pick through the contents of his box. It made me anxious that something terrible was going to happen with the memories, like, say, Peter drooling all over an original document.
“Do you want to look through your box?” I asked Ethan.
He nodded, clasping his hands in front of him in eager anticipation.
I told him he could go through everything in my room, as long as he went slowly and carefully, especially with the papers. I put the baby gate on the door so he would be left alone and soon he was swallowed up by memories while I returned to the kitchen to finish my business.
When I came back, there were items strewn all over the floor. Kenneth’s tiny handprint in clay from when he was 5 years old. Drawings he did in 1970, with the name “Kenny” scrawled in a child’s handwriting. Pictures of him as a teenager. His favorite belt buckle. The thumb tip magic trick he always practiced. An old employee ID badge. A picture of Kenneth during his first year teaching, looking very young in his oversized suit.
“Did you find the glasses?” I asked Ethan.
“No,” he said, but it didn’t bother him. His attention had shifted to the other items he unearthed, and I could see that he already claimed the Star Trek communicator. It seemed his longing for his father had been temporarily quenched by these discoveries.
I helped him pack everything back into the box, being careful so we would not crush the kindergarten artwork. Soon Ethan was off doing something else while I lugged the heavy box back into the garage.
That’s sort of what grief is like. It comes in bursts. Opening a box. Fresh wounds exposed. Closing a box, collecting dust. It is the ebb and flow of feelings inside of you that shifts and swells and shrinks and whirls. It is the pain that sits heavy in the pit of your stomach and also the pain that folds up neatly inside of an organized drawer. Pain that is ever-changing but always present in some form.
The other day Ethan and I were walking to school. I can still get him to hold my hand. I kept looking over at him, admiring the way his faux hawk was the same texture and jet black color as his daddy’s.
“What do we do with pain?” I asked him.
“We look it straight in the eye,” he said.
“Yes. We look at it. Acknowledge it. We don’t bury it. Even when it hurts. And if we feel pain, what does it mean?”
“It means we’re alive.”
My star pupil. Always listening. Absorbing. Their eyes watching me for guidance as to what we should do next.
I don’t want to disappoint these children, my precious, living legacies. Their father has entrusted them to my care.
So we keep opening and closing boxes as often as we need to. I have to show them that I am not afraid of boxes. There is a time to compartmentalize and a time to unpack. It is all okay. We can use our boxes to organize or we can use them to bury and hide the clutter in our lives. We get to choose.
In the end, these heavy boxes do seem to be a better alternative than having a life full of empty ones.