BOXING A LEGACY
What we keep in drawers and boxes reveals more about our true intentions than any prepared will.
For ten weeks after my husband died, I put off clearing out his office. I thought I was afraid of the finality of the effort—of disconnecting with Ned’s business associates who had become our friends, of severing ties that assured invitations to parties and personal celebrations. But what I really feared was the discovery of secrets that belied our wedding vows and other special promises. As I crossed the threshold of his office, I prayed that I would find no more than what I expected.
I thought I knew my husband. Ned was a sweet and simple man. His actions—those that I’d seen—fit his personality and matched his words. He had a strong sense of what really mattered and, as far as I knew, lived his life around those values. He put his family first and told us everyday that he loved us. He could fit in anywhere; his friends called him a chameleon. Although he could change his colors, Ned seemed to be the same man in every circumstance.
But as I set a box on Ned’s credenza, I remembered the harrowing stories I’d heard from others who’d had to clean out a husband’s desk, a wife’s drawer, or a parent’s crumpled car. How does a widow cope with finding stashed in a folder marked “Miscellaneous” a packet of recent letters from an old girlfriend newly divorced? How does a grieving wife justify her husband’s insistence on cutting back their living expenses after she discovers he’d cashed out his retirement benefits when he last changed jobs? How does a widower fight the temptation to open his wife’s personal journal marked with a handwritten note: “DESTROY. DO NOT READ.” ? And how does a grown child deal with the discovery of empty vodka bottles wedged under the driver’s seat of his father’s wrecked car?
I had never thought to question who else my husband might be, but I knew if I found any incongruous evidence, I would begin to question everything about him. Because of my husband’s death, I had to reinvent my future. I did not want to reinvent my past.
So I hoped to find nothing more than a casino coin or unpaid parking ticket.
Soon I was packing the framed photo of a shrouded mountain I’d taken on our trip to Kauai, portraits of our sons as boys and men, years of performance evaluations, receipts from a business trip, video tapes of my husband playing in charity golf tournaments, a red baseball, a paperweight engraved with his company’s logo, and a joke hammer that made noises like glass shattering.
Unlike so many others, I found out my husband was the man I thought he was.
Sudden deaths catch everyone off guard. People assume they can play out an affair, snort a few rails of cocaine, or gamble with money from savings. But time runs out. Many of us leave a devastating accumulation of stuff that creates suspicion and anger.
Now what I fear is what I might find in my desk.
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