Monday, October 4, 2010

The Biggest Mysteries

by Julia Buckley
I suppose we all wonder, at one point or another, why people have to grow old and die. My father-in-law passed away this summer, and because we are still slowly emptying his apartment, we spent a good part of Sunday doing something that felt like an intrusion--going through the personal things of someone who is gone.

Dick lived a very pared-down lifestyle, so most of the things we found were practical: clothes hung neatly on hangers, divided by season. Umbrellas on a high shelf, ready to be clasped in one hand while he grabbed his all-weather hat with the other. Luggage, canes, comforters in plastic bags. Books to be boxed and papers to be sorted.

But some things were more painful to contemplate. First, the thousands of albums and cds--all jazz--that bulged out of every available space. These will be sorted by more knowledgeable hands than ours, when the time comes. Dick loved jazz, was a noted jazz announcer in Chicago, and to see his music sitting there in a silent apartment felt like being thrust into a void; it is in that void that the questions arise. Where is he now? Does a part of him linger here, near his beloved music and the family who walks through his empty rooms?
Or has he gladly moved on, to an unknown realm where his beloved wife was waiting?

There were pictures of his wife, many framed photos from the time they married. She was only twenty-one, and he was ten years older. Still, because of Alzheimer's Disease, she died before him, and he never quite adapted to life without her. My husband prefers the younger pictures of his mother--the ones in which you can see the spark of life and mischief in her eyes. But Dick had a large and prominently placed photograph of her in the midst of her disease--her gaze unfocused, her face blurred. He liked the photo, perhaps because he was a realist. It was how she looked in the present, and it was the way he loved her at that time.

There are pictures of him, too--some of them poster-sized, given to him as gifts along with plaques of honor by all sorts of people in the jazz world. Most of these will be passed down to my sons, who are aware and slightly in awe of their grandfather's legacy in the music world. They, too, are aware of his absence as they help to inventory the little things that made up his life: a drawer full of batteries, all sizes. A neat packet of manuals for various mechanical things. Pots and pans, dishes and cups, all in amounts suitable for a bachelor, which is what he was in the end.

It's a real mystery, walking through the empty rooms of someone who is inexplicably gone. My biggest philosophical question, the more that I experience death in my life, is how gone are they? How much of them remains behind like a blessing or a positive emotion? And is there a small essence of them in each little thing they leave behind?

I watch as my husband puts on his father's hat and leaves with a bag of items, bound for the car. From behind he is a shorter version of his father, the man whose memory towers over us still.


Paul said...

It was Faulkner who said "The past isn't over. It isn't even past."

Julia Buckley said...

That's a great quote. And it does seem sometimes that we are all under a joint delusion about the notion of life and time.

Sandra Parshall said...

What's really sad is when somebody dies and leaves behind evidence of a secret life--an affair, for example. Mystery writers might love this scenario, but the poor spouse who comes across the stuff can be shattered by it.

Julia Buckley said...

A great point, Sandra. And we never really know a person the way we might think we do.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

My husband and I have done this three times (both our parents and a 96-year-old maiden aunt), and each variant carries its own freight of poignancy. My parents: treasures that spent my childhood on their parents' shelves and now grace mine. My in-laws: after a frugal life, nothing worth saving except old photographs of people they never mentioned. My aunt: never threw anything out, no children to cherish what she left: closets full of brand new pocketbooks and hats, thousands of paperback romances including all of Georgette Heyer, her diploma from Juillard, 1922, two 1968 issues of Playboy--huh? We'll never know where those came from.

Julia Buckley said...

Liz--how funny and poignant. It is interesting how those objects, if not invested with meaning, are just objects.