I said I’d be back here the day after Thanksgiving, with lists of acceptable Christmas music, and a sort of “OK, start your holiday engines” vibe. I’m late, because I needed just one more day to enjoy the russets and golds of autumn – the corn stalks, the pumpkins, the gourds. The day after Thanksgiving was beautiful and warm, and I took a long nature walk with our child along paths and preserves we had enjoyed together with Mike, and that the two of them had enjoyed with each other.
As I put away the deep autumn burgundy tablecloth, the russet and yellow and orange napkins and the good china, as I rolled the table back to its usual spot, I noticed the gourds and the flowers of yellow and orange, and I just couldn’t switch to Santa Claus red and Christmas tree green, not yet.
I have been driving around for a month now with Mike’s good L.L.Bean field coat, the one made of heavy tan construction-worker-in-the-winter fabric, with the thick plaid flannel lining and the corduroy cuffs and collar, and good L.L.Bean snow-sneaker hiking boots, trying to decide where to donate them, and coming up with an excuse every time I think of somewhere. The coat drive for the nearby impoverished school district? No, whichever high school kid got the coat or boots, there would be never-ending teasing, maybe even danger, I reason, for looking so, well, so L.L.Bean.
Goodwill, Salvation? No, Mike wouldn’t want someone to have to buy his used stuff – he would have just found the right guy and given the coat off his back and the shoes off his feet. Homeless vets, maybe?
Mike wore the coat and the boots as he became weaker and more weary, stoically driving himself to his infusions, until the driving became too exhausting and the doctor switched to something he only had to have every three weeks or so, not every week.
He wore them when he suddenly decided to go to Home Depot in the midst of the insane remodeling job I decided to go ahead and do (long story, book, working on it) in some crazy desperate attempt to get him the kitchen he deserved to cook in and the new deck he deserved to relax on and the basement he could cool off in, before he died; a distraction, a goal, something to take our minds away from the inevitable.
The last time I remember seeing Mike wearing the coat and boots was when he decided to pile all his chess books, a substantial library cataloguing historic games and tournaments, strategies, openings and “novelty” moves discovered over time, into the car and drive them deep into the South Side, to give away to a young man who was trying to start some kind of chess coaching business or charity. It absolutely exhausted him, that trip, especially since the young man he delivered the books to, a young man who knew Mike had cancer, didn’t help him unload or carry them at all. Perhaps it would have been risky, I don’t know, to be seen helping a guy wearing that coat, those boots. Mike came home dispirited, and didn’t really go out again, except to his infusion appointments.
And now 15 months after Mike left this world, the coat and the boots are back in the front hall closet. I just can’t give them away when I still see them filled up with him.
I kept only one of his chess sets – the one he won as an elementary school student, with the pieces kept in a nice wooden box with an engraved plate, “Irving School 1975 First Place” and the accompanying board.
I kept his glasses, and his hats, the ones he wore when the last round of chemo made his hair fall out, before he chose hospice and it grew back, in a perfect, silver-grey feathered cut. How’d he do that?
The hats still smell like him. I take them out of the drawer and bury my face in them from time to time, and I think I’ll keep doing that for as long as they still smell like him.
Some days the cat sleeps on his bed, on the heavy plaid wool blanket (yes, L.L.Bean again – I’m not getting paid for this, honestly) I got him one Christmas, before we knew he was sick. I agonized over the color – should I get the mostly blue one? Or the blue-green-camel-russet one? I opted for the latter, and to my great surprise and relief, he loved it.
But every morning before she decides to jump up on that blanket on that bed, or up on whichever other piece of furniture she will appropriate today, Sophie the cat walks over to the Afghan war rug that my parents brought back from one of their port-of-call side trips on one of their cruises, the one that was under the hospital bed Mike died in. If you look closely you can see the woven images of rifles and helicopters in that rug. The cat plops down on one corner of that rug, and cries, with a loud MYOW, MYOW? Mike and Sophie, the two most territorial beings in the house, had a love-hate relationship. But clearly she misses him too, and finds something of him still hovering above that rug.
I kept his wallet, the tooled leather one I gave him that was like the ones my Dad could always find for my brothers, with his final driver’s license and his sad-faced college ID, the photo for which was taken on a frigid day when he was wandering around UIC, freezing in an absurdly thin windbreaker, pining for some long-ago unrequited love.
There’s a difference between stuff that is just stuff, and stuff that is suffused with memory – things that are semi-sacred. I cleaned out almost all of the just stuff in the two weeks after he died. I donated clothes and books, mostly poetry, keeping only the ones we enjoyed together, the ones with the poems we read at our wedding and the poems we read when we buried his ashes, or the rare chapbooks he said might be worth something, and I gave away all his other chess boards. (For most of our life in this house, every available surface had a chess board on it, with an open chess book next to it, with pieces poised in the middle of a game that was being studied or an opening that was being relearned.)
Right after Mike died, I was overcome with a weird belated nesting impulse. In addition to giving away stuff, I repainted bookcases and wished he could have seen them, they looked so much better. I had the floors done, and sat sobbing among a clutter of furniture in the kitchen alcove, watching the Cubs win the World Series on my phone because the floors weren’t ready for me to reconnect the TV. I had a bluestone patio installed just outside the kitchen door, which makes a great place to enjoy a cup of coffee on a summer morning, and planted shrubs that would attract hummingbirds and butterflies as a sort of memory garden for Mike. I hoped he could see it and enjoy it from the other side. I think he did, or can – I’ve had visits from hummingbirds, monarchs and even dragonflies, all of which Mike remarked on before he died, and these creatures hovered unnaturally close to me, as if to say hello.
But I haven’t been able to give away the huge tandem bike he rode our child to school on for years, even though it is way too big for me to try.
Or the watch my father gave him, at least twenty years ago, that still beeps at 6:37 a.m. each morning.
Each day I think to myself I need just another day with these things. I’m not ready.
The unseasonably warm weather made the day-after-Thanksgiving annual tree-lighting better than bearable, pleasant, even, and our child and I sang carols heartily along with the high school choir, and once those lights went on, at that point, I felt ready to roll over into Christmastime. So the next day I dutifully put up the lights and the garlands and the wreaths, while our child took on the Christmas knick-knacks, tree- and angel-shaped candles and other thingamabobs inside the house, arranging them on the mantle and bookshelves and tables and we rolled on from the season of russet and orange to the season of red and green. And we got out the Christmas CDs.
We did a pretty good job of being thankful, this second time around without him.
But although I was able to set the table with just two places, I couldn’t do it with just two chairs. The third chair was there, and he was there in my mind’s eye, enjoying the candles and the good china and the Beaujolais Nuveau.
And so far we’re doing a pretty good job of seasonal good cheer, this second time around without Mike. We talked about it and decided we would not hang his stocking this year. Just ours and the cat’s.
But I’m keeping that stocking.
And though the tandem may go someday, I’m keeping the chess board, the hats, the glasses, the wallet and the watch. Just one more day. And then another and another and just one more…