I spent part of this weekend repurposing things that have been sitting in stasis. Each room of the house has undergone some form of transformation in the past year. The bedroom was first, completed a couple of months after Steve died in a whirlwind of new paint and furniture and window treatments to remake, or unmake, the room that had always been ours. Change leaked out of that process slowly as I’d concentrate on a new corner of the house and made it more mine than ours.
After six months I put away his piano music. Art was added or removed. After a year I moved his ashes from the altar-like presence on the piano to the bookshelf. A few months later I started purging all the unused bits from the kitchen – the ice cream and coffee makers, the pasta cutter, the deep fryer. Pretty much anything that wasn’t a good fit for my new world order was rehomed. He loved my homemade ice cream, his morning cup of coffee, a thick homemade fettuccini noodle, and my buttermilk fried chicken. I drink tea, hate cleaning out the fryer, avoid wheat, and prefer my friend Karen’s artisanal ice creams to my own.
It was Karen who, with kind intentions, initially expressed concern when I told her I hadn’t moved Steve into a different bed or a different room as his death approached. Her worries came from a prescient and compassionate place. How would I handle still sleeping in the bed and room where he would eventually die? Moving him for my future mental stability obviously wasn’t on my radar. I responded with my freshly honed pragmatism. He will die, and in our home. What does it matter which room? I’ll be reminded of him everywhere.
And that prediction has mostly proved true.
A previous statement requires some amendment. Each room of the house has undergone some sort of transformation, except one. Before the bedroom was repainted, before I ever looked at new furniture online, before I even picked up his ashes from the funeral home, I went upstairs, dismantled an unused glass-topped desk, brought it downstairs, and reassembled it in front of one of the main picture windows overlooking the backyard. I then went into our old, shared office, unplugged my computer and printer, and moved them to their new home. I’ve only gone back into the office to clean up after the pets or retrieve something from the linen closet.
It’s not the room where he died that’s a grieving point. It’s the room where he lived that pokes at my tenderest spots.
We shared a large, antique dining table as a desk, monitors positioned back to back so that we faced each other when we worked, Victoria and Albert style. He wrote plays and articles and letters on that table. I wrote and researched and drew on my side. If the kitchen and garden were my two havens, his were the chair opposite the kitchen when I was in it, and our office. The few times I went in there to look for some paperwork, I’d inevitably uncover something that would crumple me into a heap. One time it was the last note he wrote to me before his brain surgery. Another time it was the letter he wrote to me on our anniversary. There are a million artifacts of us and him in that room. And until this weekend, it had remained largely untouched.
When I spied the list in the bottom drawer of the cart I was cleaning out, I wasn’t surprised. Of course, I thought to myself. Of course I’d find something significant. My boyfriend was in there helping me, in part because his recent gift of a new easel was the catalyst for the emptying of the cart. I needed better storage for my paints and brushes. Observant and sweetly sensitive, he noticed that I had paused, followed my gaze, and quietly asked what it was. He has seen me confront things like this enough that it has become familiar. I told him, evenly and with a little sadness, that it was the list Steve and I had made for all the improvements we wanted to make to the house before 2024, the house’s 100-year anniversary. A simple yellow pad filled with his handwriting, some in black marker, some in different colors of ballpoint pen. It was pleasing to note that we had actually managed to plow through more than half of the list already, the dates of completion neatly recorded next to each item. Steve had a bunch of notebooks scattered all over, each with notes about a variety of things, often none of them related. But this pad he stored separately in the bottom drawer of his art chest within easy reach. I took a moment to read it through, remembering how we sat across from each other at our desk as we brainstormed our home’s future. That was a really fun day. We even prioritized each item. The struggle over which came first, the chicken coop or the solar panels, was quite the turn up. He was the chicken advocate. I wanted green power.
I think I actually said that I was ok out loud, answering the unasked but usual question. And I was. Ok doesn’t mean I’m not sad. It means I’m feeling all the waves and allowing them to spill over and through me and that I’m still standing. This room contains so many of those waves and some days I’ll be able to handle them better than others. This happened to be a day where it was all was easy to accept and absorb. There’s happiness, even outright joy, mixed in with the sad, the bittersweet, and the hurt. And even few awkwardly humorous thoughts, like I wish Steve could meet my boyfriend. Uncomfortable as it might seem at the outset, I think he’d like to see me happy, cared for, and loved, and I think he’d like to embrace the guy doing it, knowing he no longer could.
And in all practicality, it’s really nice to have a place for my paints. I labeled and organized them this morning, which means I have a dining table again. Maybe more notably, there is finally a positive reason for going into the office, which is probably the most significant modification I’ve made to date.