Grief Revisited

On my book shelf, on the second row, is a hoard of philosophy books. Pages and pages of words direct from the mouths of Heidegger, Kant, Kierkegaard, Descartes, Wittgenstein, and more. I’ve lost the fluency of it all – if I ever had it to begin with.

These were Chris’s books before he died, and I read over his shoulder. Like him, I graduated with a degree in philosophy, and it taught me the beauty of logic and questioning and truth-seeking. But when in this life am I ever going to pick up Nicomachean Ethics again? Or Gödel’s Proof?

There’s an odd sense of loss as I consider this shelf of forgotten books.

After five-and-a-half long years, this is sometimes what grief looks like. The lament over forgotten pages, long-ago philosophical debate, and illegible notes in the margins written by a freckled hand that is no longer warm.

It’s a quiet grief, nestled there among yellowing dogeared pages.

I feel this same slow ache when I unbox Nicholas’s old baby clothes for Isaac, who’s growing faster than I imagined possible. As the familiar onesies pass through my fingers, I come to a tiny white button-up shirt that I recognize. I bought it for Nicholas to wear at his daddy’s funeral. My breath catches. I refold the shirt. I tuck it away in a drawer I know I won’t open soon. It’s a gentle, careful grief.

The soul-shattering grief of old is rarer these days, softened by years of mothering, writing, praying. The heart-wrenching flashbacks and hot tears don’t happen often but when they do, I can’t lie and say it isn’t somewhat bizarre to dry those tears on the shoulder of another man. The man who took me, shattered heart and all, and promised to build new life onto this foundation of grief.

And so now when I ponder this old pine bookshelf, I see it is filled with little bits of everyone. Next to Chris’s philosophy texts are Mike’s books, exploring the intricacies of politics, personal finances, world history, and economics. Scattered throughout the shelves are my poetry books and literary journals, some C.S. Lewis, Dostoevsky, Wendell Berry, Elie Wiesel, and, yes, a little J.K. Rowling.

And there, between the dogeared copy of Les Miserables and a decades-old Treasure Island, is a ceramic jug that once poured Tullamore Dew from its depths, the earthiest Irish whiskey I’ve ever tasted. Now the jug is dried out, but its insides are filled with crushed white rose petals. Some are from my first wedding bouquet. Some were plucked from Chris’s funeral spray. Instead of that biting smell of whiskey, the jar emits a musky scent of old memories, and I’m not sure how Chris would feel about that.

Perched on top of my bookshelf is a plant I keep killing but miraculously lives on. Its unexpected green splendor is reflected in the glass of an old hurricane lantern, a gift from my new in-laws. Next to that, Mike added an ELO record. Lastly, an Oberweis milk jug stands, stuffed with pale curly willow branches and dusty memories of Chris. It is a motley crew of decoration, of jumbled memories, of grief and love and life.

These shelves have been filled to bursting no matter how often I prune in the name of misdirected minimalism and promises of the life-changing magic of tidying up (thanks Marie Kondo).

As a result, the books I’m actively reading aren’t on these shelves at all. Instead, they pile up on the arms of overstuffed recliners, precarious end tables, and crowded nightstands. When my 7-year-old son tells me he can’t wait for spring, when he can go barefoot outside to read a book under a tree, I understand it’s in my blood. These books. These memories.

Maybe one day those philosophy books will again captivate awe, pages meeting sticky fingers in an awkward but welcoming embrace. The eyes of a son picking up where his father left off.

I understand that this is another of the tiny ways that Chris, the man who first made me a wife and mama, who showed me what it means to give in love and to stand in truth, stays alive in the world that he left and makes a mark on the earth that he is buried in.

These bookshelves, I hope, won’t always house grief and spark lament. They will open up new worlds. They will lead to new life.

A Small Handful of Chris’s Favorite Books

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Discourse on Method by Rene Descartes

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