Clare Saumell VanderWeele

essays on living

On Empty Milk Cartons and Gum Wrappers

Chris used to put almost empty milk cartons back in the fridge.

And when I say “almost” I mean there was literally one gulp left.

He’d eat almost all his dinner except two bites and put the almost empty plate uncovered in the fridge… On the off chance that one lonely bite of cold, congealed dinner would sound appetizing later.

He would leave empty tupperware containers in his car after work. Empty gum wrappers littered the bedroom floor as they came flying out his pockets, and empty Marlboro Reds packages would stack up on his night stand.

All the empty drove me nuts.


And then it imploded.

His death left my life empty in all the ways that made empty milk cartons and gum wrappers look silly.

Empty Red Wing hiking boots. Empty Sunday drive passenger seats. Empty winter morning hands. Empty wedding gift pillows.



My life is full, full, full. Of family, friends, career, homemaking, joy, abundance, Nicholas, and God.

And yet every so often flashes a crystal clear memory of Chris.

It’s a memory so pure that it renders the truth impossible.

It empties reality of any sense.


I see him in the smallest things. In a hawk waiting by the roadside, claws poised. I hear him in the buzzing of the powerlines against the thick summer heat. I catch his reflection in a passing car window. I feel his footsteps running next to me on the bike path. I feel his fingertips when I scribble across the page with his gold Cross ballpoint pen.

In these snatched moments, I discover pinpricks of profound emptiness that overwhelm my commonsense. Accepting he’s really gone forever feels like trying to imagine less gravity. Or trying to see through an optical illusion. Or tricking yourself into believing you could fly if you jumped.

It cannot be. This is not real.


I’m not sure if these pinpricks of surreal impossibility will ever leave me. Perhaps eventually the light will filter through, illuminating some kind of truth.

In the meantime, I can’t say I particularly miss the empty milk cartons themselves – only what their nonexistence signifies when I open the fridge every morning.

Empty no longer feels quite the same.

1 Comment

  1. I always tell you that everything you write, hits home for me. This article sums up my feelings to the mark. Thank you for sharing.

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