Shredding the Past

Four years and three months ago (a mere fifty-five days after his death), I cleaned out my life mate/soul mate’s “effects.” It was truly the worst day of my life.

You would think the worst day would have been the day Jeff died, but that was a sadly inevitable day, one I actually had looked forward to. He’d been sick for so long and in such pain, I was glad he finally let go and drifted away. But the Thursday I spent cleaning out his stuff broke my heart. I cried the entire day, twenty-four sleepless hours. I have never felt such soul-wrenching agony. I didn’t want to block out the pain — didn’t want to risk becoming hardened and unable to feel — but I sure as hell don’t want to ever go through anything like that again. (The only good thing about living the worst day of your life is that every day afterward, no matter how bad, will be better than that day.)

I couldn’t bring myself to dispose of all of his things on that fateful day, so I’ve kept several cartons in storage. I knew I’d have to sort through those boxes someday, but I hoped it would come at a time when it wouldn’t hurt.

Well, today was one of those somedays. And it didn’t hurt.

A couple of weeks ago, when I had to make a copy of his death certificate so I could finally get his name removed from our joint account, it struck me that I shouldn’t even have the certificate. It belongs to him, and he no longer belongs to me. (Not that he ever did belong to me, but we were connected in a very profound way that neither of us ever understood.) All these years of grief and all the effort to regain a new interest in living and trying create a new life for myself has severed the feeling of connection.

It seems strange now to remember that I was once so connected to another human being that his death shattered me. It seems strange to think of how I screamed my agony to the uncaring winds, how I spent hours every day in the desert walking off my sorrow. How I wept so uncontrollably for hours, days, weeks.

Now, whoever he his, whatever he is, wherever he is, he is his own being. He lent himself to me for more than three decades, for whictrashh I am eternally grateful, but life and time have separated us. (Odd that I wrote that “life and time have separated us” rather than that “death and time have separated us.” Just another example of how much I’ve changed during the past four years and five months.)

Today I sorted through some of the stored boxes, and disposed of much of the contents. Files of our old bills (well, they weren’t old at the time I saved them, though they are old today). Our joint bank statements. Notes he’d made. Magazines he’d started to read. Lists of books he’d read or wanted to read.

Our life. His life.

The past. Ripped to shreds.

I threw away a lot of other things such as boxes of music he’d taped from the radio and our old rotary phone.

I have many more boxes to go through — his, mine, and ours — but I stopped when both the trash bin and the recycle bin were full. And not a teardrop in sight.

It’s still possible the sorrow will hit me a bit later, but if so, it will only be for a minute or two. My current life with my aged father and my recent dealings with my dysfunctional brother have been so traumatic that I can barely remember the life I shared with Jeff. (I keep his picture to prove to myself that I once loved, once was loved.)

None of us know where the future will take us, but in my case, I won’t be dragging the past along. Or at least not as much of it.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.


Death Certificate Error

My mother, far right, on her 60th wedding anniversary

I found out something today that shocked the heck out of me, and after the horrendous shock of my grief after the death of my life mate/soul mate, I’m not very shockable any more.

My mother died of lung cancer four and a half years ago. Her cause of death surprised me a bit since she’d never been a smoker, but at 85, one is susceptible to many forms of cancer, so I mostly found it ironic that a woman who’d never even been around second hand smoke (except for my father’s very occasional cigars) should die in such a manner. However, as I found out today, her death certificate says that she’d contributed to her death because she’d been a smoker for thirty years.

What???? How is that possible? She’d never smoked as long as I knew her, so if she’d been a smoker for thirty years, she would have had to start puffing away a couple of years before she was even a glint in her parents’ eyes, found a way to sneak smokes before she could crawl, and keep up the habit while enduring the privations of growing up in a coal mining town.

I hope this mistake on her death certificate was simply that — a mistake — rather than someone’s agenda to prove that smoking causes lung cancer. My sister doesn’t want to take a chance on upsetting my father during his final years, so she’s waiting until after he’s gone to get the death certificate changed. Until then, it’s a wonder my mother isn’t haunting us. My mother was a very exact and truthful woman, who believed in choosing the right words. (I can’t tell you how often we argued with her about “almost exactly.” She insisted things were either almost or exactly, while we were just as insistent that there were gradations of almost.) And this error on her death certificate is a more grievous transgression than a simple misuse of words.

To be honest, I doubt she cares any more what her death certificate says, but it will be good for the rest of us when the record is set straight. It isn’t only smokers who die of lung cancer. Non-smokers die of the disease, too, and their deaths should not be dismissed because of errors on their death certificates. Nor should non-smokers smugly go on about their lives feeling secure in the belief that they will never get lung cancer. They can, and they do.