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What's Left Behind

(Originally published in the Boston Globe, March 13, 2011.)

The refrigerator broke down and most of its contents went bad. As I was taking everything out, I noticed the row of medicine bottles on the door shelf and picked them up for the first time in two years. There were Franco’s insulin and a bottle of Epogen, the medicine that had given him enough strength to live as long as he did. I hadn’t ever wanted to touch them; I had wanted to keep them there, to remind me of him.

Franco died two years ago, and this was not the first time I had mixed feelings about what to do with his things.

One of my widowed friends gave away her husband’s clothes a month after he died. Her son took the things that fit him, and she gave the rest to charity.

“How could you do that so soon?” I asked.

“I just didn’t want to be reminded all the time. It was too heartbreaking,” she replied.

Another friend whose husband had died a year before Franco did would visit, have tea, and console me. The third year after her husband died, she had finally given away his clothes.

“For me,” she said, “they had become just things.”

I know of a widower who has kept his wife’s clothes in her closet just as they were when she died 20 years before.

Seeing Franco’s clothes has given me solace; I couldn’t bear the thought of looking at the empty space in our closet. For a long time after his death, I would open the closet each night before going to bed, gather up his shirts in my arms, hold them close, and be reminded of his smell.

When I first looked through his desk, I discovered all the writing he had been working on. I also found three pairs of glasses, his cellphone, his hearing aids, the walkie-talkie he bought so we wouldn’t have to shout to each other from downstairs and upstairs (it never worked), and myriad little quirky objects such as glues and wire and a soldering iron, the things he used to make his sculptures. I put the glasses aside, planning to take them to the ophthalmologist so they could be recycled and given to the needy. But I couldn’t do it, and I put them back in the drawer. I still needed to see them.

Then there were his shoes. For months and months I never touched them, feeling as Joan Didion did when she wrote in her book The Year of Magical Thinking, after her husband had died: If he walks back in, he will need them. Now that hope has dimmed. I finally took his moccasins out from under his desk, where they had resided for two years, never touched. I’ll give the other shoes away (I can hear him saying: “Good riddance. I always hated those uncomfortable shoes”), but never those moccasins.

What about that cologne called 4711, the one we had to special-order from that fancy store that sold imported perfume? Franco told me he bought it because it reminded him of his father. I used to tease him about buying cologne, but the bottle still remains on the bathroom shelf.

I’m ready now – ready for some things, anyway. I’ll give the slacks to charity; they don’t fit anyone in the family. I can no longer find his scent in his shirts. I will keep some, though, especially that old favorite one – the beige shirt that has two front pockets with flaps, the one frayed at the cuffs and coming apart at the collar. How many stores did we visit to try to find its duplicate? How many hours did we spend in futile attempts to find the same shirt? We never did, so the weather-beaten shirt with the holes at the elbows still hangs in the closet. I could never give it away.

I’ll take the glasses the next time I go to the eye doctor. It would be good if someone could use them. The ties can go (he never liked wearing ties anyway), but the ascots stay. They were his trademark; they made him look distinctive. I’ll never give them up.

What about his Social Security card, his charge cards, his driver’s license, those handkerchiefs with the “R” on them, and all those certificates and assorted souvenirs in the desk? Maybe next time.