I've been reading a lot of interesting and beautiful things centered around the death of a parent lately. I'm interested in death and the culture around it, and I think my interest has primarily grown out of mourning my mother for the last 7 years. It seems like a long time to mourn someone, but if you've visited a cemetery you know people put a lot of stock into grief. Some people continually decorate the graves of their family members, visiting often with balloons, single shot bottles of whiskey, the always appropriate bouquet of flowers... My husband's family visits their grandmother's grave every Christmas for a toast. My mother doesn't have a grave, however, so my ability to decorate and go to a place to grieve is a little more difficult. Her cremains are in my dining room overlooking the dinner table and the living room. It's a good enough place for her for right now, but it's not her final resting place. She wanted to be scattered in the Gulf of Mexico and the Smoky Mountains, making her final wishes a bit of a trek and even a burden for my brother and I. It just hasn't happened yet, but I digress.
I know that part of the reason my mourning has lasted so long is because she's not been appropriately laid to rest yet, but I also am starting to believe that grief is something that stays with you forever, like first love. I almost wrote "like first love, but sadder" but it's not. It's exactly like first love. You're sad about it, but you're also wiser. You've found a way to let go of the hardest parts and you recognize how you've grown from having lost. There are days you wish things were different, but most days you know you're both better off. You feel okay. But maybe that's just me.
Part of the grieving process both I and my brother resisted was keeping her things. This has also been something I've been reading about as of late - what it means to handle the belongings of someone you love who is gone. It's interesting to me that the items of the dead typically hold so much value to us even though they are utterly useless and often times merely clutter (this is the topic of many, many episodes of Clean House). This wasn't my thinking when I chose not to keep most of her belongings, however. Of course my brother and I chose some of her things to take with us, but the rest, for me, just didn't seem right. The things that were left barely seemed like her own things. I didn't recognize the clothes, the blankets, the shoes. She had an extensive collection of books at one point in her life, great stuff, Maya Angelou, the Madonna sex book, tons of Toni Morrison and Ellen Gilchrist, weird vampire books, books on world religion, literary erotica, lesbian fiction, but by the time she passed she had given them all to the thrift store; they wouldn't fit in her room at the house where she was living, where she had to live so that someone could care for her. It bums me out sometimes to think about how little she had and how little I kept, but the reverse may have been harder. I can imagine the day I finally decide to pare down and coming to that Madonna book. What do you even do with that thing? The Salvation Army won't take it.
Even now there are some things I keep that I don't need. Things I don't understand. I've written about her jewelry boxes and the ephemera they contain, but there's more. An ill-fitting, itchy pink sweater that I love to wear when I'm feeling gauzy and grey. A collection of ceramic forest animals that I loved when I was a child, but I realize now they must have meant something to her as they are completely not her taste. A red and peach satin blanket with embroidered cranes that she never let me use when I was young. I use it all the time now, and it shows, but I will probably use it forever. A small, plain black makeup bag that came with a purse she bought me. I never used the purse and so gave it to the thrift store, but I felt so bad that I kept the makeup bag. She bought me some underwear when I was a teenager and I still have them in my dresser, rarely getting worn but not taking up much space. A half empty bottle of perfume. Some crinkled up tubes of paint. In my attic in a large portfolio are some ct scans of her brain. I took
the small ones and my brother took the large ones. I've always meant to
do something with them, but I just look at them sometimes and try to
decipher what's tumor and what's brain. I don't know what my brother
does with his.
I've lost things a few things. The pendant with her name written in Hieroglyphics. A turquoise ring that slipped off my finger at Wrigley Field. I forget that these things existed until randomly I recall losing them and the loss feels so heavy, like I'm a kid again and she's telling me I can't wear something or have something in my room because I'll lose it. It feels like guilt.
A lot of these things feel like guilt, like I didn't say enough or do enough or keep enough, but I can never know. Just like I can't know if having kept more of her things around would make me feel better or make things harder or easier. I might have more questions, but I also might have more answers.
I don't think grief ever goes away, but I know it isn't always overwhelming. I know it turns into something else, something that's sad, but not terribly so. It feels like nostalgia, but not the kind you get for cartoons or your best friend across the street. It's nostalgia like when you're walking the dog and the light and the smell is just right and you feel like you're almost in a time that's gone but you're also not and you never can be. Like lost love, because it is, but it's okay.