When your husband dies, things change, but not in the ways you might imagine. You get cravings for Hot Tamales candy and Korean kimchee—things he loved but you did not. And while you’re packing up the medications, syringes, and alcohol wipes—and putting them in a box labeled medical supplies, you realize that these things that were once his possessions—and necessary for his survival and comfort, are now simply artifacts of a life lived. You shove them into a closet—as far back as possible. You can’t believe that sneaky letter “d” has slinked in and replaced the letter “s” as in my husband likes—no, no, no, now, it’s my husband liked folk music.
You no longer walk through your house—you creep, and you crawl. Ghosts are everywhere, alight in open spaces and hiding in the faint forgotten spaces. You ask them to stay, then beg them to go. You ignore the left side of the walk-in closet, or at least try to, because the specters there are loud and demand your attention. Dress shirts he wore to work. The dad jeans he wore on weekends. And the Hawaiian shirts he wore everywhere. Shoes—tennis, wingtips, sandals, and an unworn pair of ski boots now forever entombed in a box. When you surreptitiously peek at his jackets—denim, bomber, and leather, you notice they are holding deathly still as if they know, they too are soon to be goners. Threads of memory. He wore this one to the nephew’s bris, that one on your first trip to Greece. Every garment is a chapter of a shared life.
You look at his clothes; the weight of them causes the rod to unceremoniously droop near its middle. Decades of clothing are heavy with memories, but the garments of the dead can speak only of their owner’s history. Once the heart and breath stop, the future is obliterated. You wonder what to do. Everyone tells you that you cannot keep them. It would be too painful. Of course, these are well-intended friends who have not lost their husbands, so they have not endured the kind of phenomenon that fills your bones with a leaden dread. This pressure is constant, so their worries are silly—as if the wardrobe and its accoutrement are the sole tormentors. That’s when the walk slows to a crawl.
You wonder what your husband would want you to do with his clothes. Actually, you don’t have to wonder, he told you. He wants them to go to people without housing. “I want to look down and see a homeless guy taking a dump on the sidewalk in front of Neiman Marcus while wearing my Harvard sweatshirt and Doc Martens.” He laughed. I told him he wasn’t funny.
You drive to the largest homeless shelter in San Francisco with boxes of shoes and bags upon bags of clothing when the young woman informs you that they cannot accept such a large donation. They’re down two sorters. You take it personally. Doesn’t she understand that these items—which had once caressed your husband’s skin—had gone places and seen things?
They had stories to tell. Look at this shirt—it had accompanied your husband on his hike to the top of Mount Otemanu in Bora Bora. And that one there, with the tiny stains on its collar? That’s chocolate from a croissant your husband was eating on the banks of the Seine River. This tattered paisley—right here, this one was the real crown jewel as it had once traveled with Bob Dylan through the boroughs of New York.
Then, you see her dig into one of the bags and pull out a tie. It wasn’t just any tie but the one he’d said, “I do” in. You grab the tie, wrap it around your own neck, and the tears begin to fall. You leave the scene and his clothes behind, despite the fading pleas to take them back.
That night you walk around your house and ask him to show himself. He promised he would but there is only silence. The loudest sound of all is the auditory void that comes after death—once family and friends finally leave you alone. It is eerie and downright shocking. Night times are the worst. The darkness is oppressive.
You walk into the bathroom and see his robe hanging next to yours. You forgot to pack it up. You reach out to pull it off the hook and you can smell him—an evocative fusing of Dial soap, Jean Paul Gaultier cologne, and musky horse sweat. You smile remembering when he got too close to a colt who was teething; the foal took more than a nibble from the back of his leather jacket. It was funny to think that his body odor smelled like the sweat from an animal he was afraid of. You slip into his robe and wonder if you’ve made a grave mistake. What if all the clothes you gave away contained more than just memories of your husband? What if they carried with them his actual DNA—skin cells, hair, and traces of bodily fluids—and you just gave it all away?
To ease your heartbreak, you play music—not your music, but his music: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Ani DeFranco, and David “Fathead” Newman. You let the melodies embed themselves in you. You can feel Dylan’s lyrics wishing you to stay forever young. “May you build a ladder to the stars. And climb on every rung.” The stars always seemed to follow your husband around, making him appear almost ethereal at times. Friends and strangers alike gravitated toward his luminosity. Strangers were simply friends he had not yet met. You would tease him, convinced he was an enchanter of sorts who could cast a spell on anyone in his orbit.
There was the time when the three of you were waiting in a long line for a movie. You and your daughter left to find a bathroom. When you returned, your husband had made the other movie goers his audience. He was recounting an occasion when he was a college student and the president of the Blues & Jazz Club at the University of Chicago. The college was hosting John Lee Hooker. Mr. Hooker was craving a homemade spaghetti dinner, so your husband invited him for supper in his cramped apartment. He then hurriedly found a payphone and called his mother, long-distance, to find out how to make spaghetti. You and your daughter looked at each other and just laughed. He then introduced you to his new friends.
You sit in the rocking chair his sister gave you for your newborn daughter. When your daughter was so colicky; she could cry for hours. Your husband figured out how to cocoon her into a tight blanket burrito, then drape her over his forearm and rock gently back and forth as he hummed “I Love You Honey.” One night, you peeked in to see them both. Moonlight had shone in through a gap in the curtains, casting a silvery light on their sleeping faces and a chair-shaped shadow on the floor next to your husband’s bare feet. You thought of looking for your camera, but that fleeting moment felt like it should be remembered, not captured. You wonder if this chair’s memories will ever fade. Will it ever be simply a chair? What if you gave it away? What if you gave it all away? You feel darkness seeping in again, spreading through your veins—trying to find all the nooks and crannies that contain even the tiniest bit of illumination. You walk briskly from room to room dismissing this and that. Everything. Everything except the menorahs.
That menorah came from Bali. This one from Woodstock. That one from Disneyland of all places. (The irony hadn’t been lost on us.) There are two or three in every room.
You gather them up and carefully place them in a wide circle around you, but not before digging out all your many boxes of candles. You touch a lit match to the shamash in each menorah. Then the shamashes bring to life the remaining candles. This will be your very own festival of lights.
You watch the candles burn slowly; the flames shimmy and sway and dance the night away. This private fete of light shatters something dark within you, allowing just the tiniest slip of light in.
In this moment, your muscles twitch and tingle, and your synapses shock you into a different place. The space around you becomes electrified. The hairs on the back of your neck stand at attention and you get the slightest whiff—not even a whiff, but rather a hint of a whiff of cabbage scented with garlic and ginger. This, encircled by Maccabean light, is where you feel him, rather than just the pain of losing him. It is at this very moment when you finally realize you will never be alone again because your husband can exist in this temple of your own making.
The power of your own light can slay the darkness.
Victoria is an APA style-certified editor and the founder of www.LocalEditors.com, which helps high schoolers craft their college application essays and graduate students polish and publish their theses and dissertations. Victoria’s recent pieces have appeared in print and online in Kveller, Piker Press, Reader’s Digest, The Bark, YourTeen.com, WOW-womenonwriting.com, Chicken Soup for the Soul (Nov. 2022), etc. Her first children’s book, “If a Mantis Finds a Fly in the Sky” is available for purchase through Amazon. You can reach her at: email@example.com; Instagram: victorialorrekovichmiller; Twitter: @Vic_Lorrekovich