By: Shannon O’Neill
In the last year and a half, I have lost two of the most important people in my life — my husband and my mother.
Not long after my husband Daryl died in October 2020, I started an open letter to him. It’s titled “Happy Anniversary,” because I started it on our anniversary that December. We were unwise in planning our life milestones. The anniversary of his death is followed by his birthday which is followed by our anniversary which is followed by Christmas. He also died right before Halloween, so I get the additional bonus of seeing macabre death-themed lawn and porch displays on my daily dog walks.
But, as anyone in grief knows, the world doesn’t stop because you lost your person, instead it churns on and sometimes means having to take a deep breath as you walk past tacky foam headstones and plastic skeletons and try not to think of your dearly departed.
My letter is half journal, half epistolary explainer of all that is going on in my life. Things he would find funny or annoying, updates on friends, reminders of how much I miss him, even some excerpts from my dating life which I’m sure he would find tragically comic. There are so many things I have missed about him, but our multiple daily conversations are a big one. The letter helps me feel like I’m still connected to him and even if it’s going into the ether, that’s fine. It’s the practice of allowing myself to connect to him in a familiar way.
Recently, I told him of my mother’s death. While we never talked about her death while he was alive, we certainly talked about her life: how we might help her improve it, how quitting drinking would have to be a big part of her moving forward. But then, Daryl got diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer and for almost two years, all my focus went to his body, his health and by the time I came up for air, fighting the undertow of losing him, my mom was far from shore. How far, I didn’t realize until the phone call from my dad saying she was in the hospital.
After she died, I spent a week helping my dad go through her paperwork, her things. A consummate phone talker and note scribbler, I found so many random envelopes and scraps of papers with cryptic notes of names and locations, phone numbers, names of dog grooming services. But I also found the pink piece of paper on which she had written the details of Daryl’s cancer diagnosis when he and I were on a trip to Florida. She had even written down the hotel room number.
My mother spent a lot of time shopping online and, over the last few years, bought clothes and shoes she never wore. I brought back six pairs of black boots—high, low, casual, dressy—some were never worn. Her closets reveal a love of cape-like sweaters and tasseled boots with stitched patterns. For a woman who barely left the house, her clothes tell the story of an adventurer or Himalayan guide.
I still have an entire dresser and a few storage boxes filled with Daryl’s clothes. I can’t say I will ever empty that dresser (also, because it is extremely satisfying to have everything put away). I wear his sweatshirts around the house and his flannel bathrobe even though it is too long and I trip over the sash. I wear the gloves he wore while cycling when walking the dog and his socks while cold.
I recently listened to an interview with the writer Ruth Ozeki — A Tale for the Time Being, The Book of Form and Emptiness. She talked about objects and their importance, not just the feelings and emotions we attach, but what the objects themselves emanate, what they want and need from us. We’ve become more aware of our things as a culture of hoarders and keepers, especially with Marie Kondo’s, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, practice of asking things if they spark joy. Ozeki explained how much of this practice of thinking of objects as alive in some way comes from Shintoism, the indigenous religion of Japan, explaining, “it is common sense that things are animate and have spirits.”
I have yet to ask the sweatshirts and socks and gloves and boots where they want to go or who they want to see. Knowing the miles between me and my mom and Daryl is immeasurable, I still long to search for them.
For now, I will wear their things and think of them.
I will add my steps to those they can no longer walk and know of all the guides I could have in this life, I’m glad they were mine.