I am standing in front of my closet, trying to figure out what to wear to my father-in-law’s funeral. Over the next few days, on top of a writing project that I need to complete, I will now be traveling to Illinois to meet with family and begin the process of wrapping up his life, and all I can think about is how disorganized the closet is.
I pack two dresses, and an assortment of casual clothing to manage the ever-changing weather (we will arrive in Illinois to 0° temperatures, but by the day of the funeral, it will be in the mid-30’s, and I will drive home without a coat on a sunny 50° day). I throw in jewelry and makeup, a hairdryer, toiletries, and a few pairs of shoes. I grab my work bag and throw in the laptop—mid-project, the writing will just have to wait. I fill my purse with tissues and chocolate because these are the things I’ve come to realize are a necessity at all funerals. At the last minute, I throw together a tote bag of things I think I might need. I take one last look at the closet, close the doors, and meet my husband at the car.
On the road, we look at each other in that first moment you have after the whirlwind of activity when news like this sends you flying out the door, realizing that our Florida vacation isn’t going to happen.
I look out the window at waves of brown empty fields, at shivering naked trees, at the steel grey sky. I look at my husband again. Are you okay?
“I’m fine,” he says, good midwestern stoicism masking his face. “I just need to get things squared away, get the funeral arranged, and start dealing with the estate.”
I know what he’s really saying is that he’ll have time to grieve and process later. I also know he handles grief in ways that I don’t understand. We are opposites when it comes to working through emotions. After 10 years of marriage, I know to give him space.
In Illinois, we stay at an aunt’s house, in his grandparents’ master bedroom. The quiet room is a time capsule of my husband’s family. Pictures of the boys in 1980’s turtlenecks and plaid jackets, a rotary dial telephone next to his grandmother’s address book, a powder puff next to a dish of vintage watches. His grandfather’s golfing trophies. And the closets.
Five closets in this room, filled with the wardrobe of a woman with incredible taste and a comfortable life that afforded her time and money to shop. I marvel at the blues, reds, and greens and imagine what she must have looked like at my age, in a suit with a soft blouse, coiffed red hair, and a beautiful scarf.
A couple of days later I sit down to write. My project isn’t finished, and I know I need to get to work. But, I’m stuck. I can’t write a single word. After 5 minutes, I put the computer away. My feelings are raw, and I can’t explain what I’m going through. I look at the closets, and for the first time in all the years I’ve visited this house, I feel overwhelmed looking at the cozy space filled with memories.
I spend a day out at the farm where my father-in-law lived, working with my husband, his brother, and his brother’s girlfriend to begin the massive project of dismantling this chapter of the family home. Things had gotten away from him in this big old farmhouse. These closets were overstuffed, disorganized, and poorly maintained. For years, the brothers had asked their dad to let them come and help him to clean some things out, but he held on to his things and pushed them away.
As I went through a pile on top of a dresser, I was reminded of a story I once read about a nun whose worldly possessions fit into one box when she died. I remember that she had a beautiful hairbrush, an embroidered handkerchief, a prayer journal, and a pair of polished shoes. The writer spoke about her impact on the world around her as such a contrast to the small footprint she left behind. I am filled with grief, looking around the room at the many possessions of a man who I was never close to, and who didn’t give much in the way of an answer as to who he was in these rooms filled to overflowing with random things.
I begin to drag a giant plastic tote filled with old clothes to go to the burn pile through the hallway towards his back door. It’s a struggle to navigate with the load, and as I push and pull and fight with it, I am filled with rage.
I make it to the kitchen, and see my husband and his brother. I give the tote a giant kick and storm out the door. I stand on the porch and tears begin to flow. In the evening light, the sky is purple and crystal blue with streaks of pink clouds. The air is cold and crisp. Silence fills the expanse of fields surrounding us for miles.
Over the last 10 months, I have lost my grandmother, my grandfather, a cat, and a close friend from an old job. My husband has lost his father. Our core friend group has lost three more parents and another grandparent. Each time, the grief has hit in completely different ways, as we all help each other through—walking each others’ dogs or feeding each others’ cats; ordering dinner and staying in watching stupid tv instead of facing the world, knowing that at least we understand each other in this weird time; and laughing together about the macabre new trend we have of going to each others’ funerals.
Now, I count 2019 in losses:
- For my grandmother, I was engulfed with a sense of wonder at a life lived in the service of others and how she had so much joy in the simplest of things, like a family dinner with her seven children and all the grandkids. Random friends? Welcome!
- For my cat, only a year old and killed in a freak accident, I raged against god and was so angry I couldn’t breathe. My minister friend told me it was okay, that god is fine with us being angry. That anger is a real emotion, and helps us to get through the things in life that we can’t understand, like the cruel death of an innocent creature. He told me god could take it if I wanted to scream—and I did. It didn’t help much to ease the pain.
- When my friend died, at the memorial they spoke of her struggle to come to terms with her illness and how she wrestled with the injustice of death come too soon. How she worked through it and found her faith strong enough to see her through, even though her body was failing her. I wept for her young adult children, and that they’d lost her daily strength—she was a rock for us all.
- With my grandfather, only gone in November, I am working through my sense of loss even now. I found unexpected comfort from a friend who wrote on Facebook that his smile was familiar in a picture I posted—I never realized I’d inherited his mouth until that moment.
On my father-in-law’s porch, staring at the setting sun, I am dealing with a different grief. This death has brought me resentment—that a person would push his family to arm’s length and they still show up for him to pick up the pieces. That he wasn’t there for his boys, but yet they loved him. My husband comes to talk to me. “You are just now experiencing what we felt many years ago. We’re past this now, and have moved on to accepting how he was,” he says. “You’ll get there, too.” And I realize that he’s been grieving his father for years. For him, this is nearing the end of the story. For me, I’m just beginning to learn the lesson that waits for me.
When I get home, I begin to put clothes away. I open my closet, and start to purge…