For Her Return
Reaching into my coat pocket this morning to extract my gloves, I think, for the first time, about the plastic sandwich bag I find still there. It doesn’t matter which coat I wear. The plastic bag resides in one or another pocket of all. It remains in those pockets a full twenty-two months after its services are no longer needed.
For almost two years, I felt the bag in my pocket, and, though its presence undoubtedly registered in my mind, rather than extract the bag and place it in the garbage, I nestled it securely back into the pocket where it seemed to belong. This morning when I touch the bag, I pull it from the pocket, and I feel something akin to surprise. What is it still doing there? I wonder.
Before the kidney failure and resulting fight for my dog’s life, I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, throughout which Didion examines her emotions and behavior after the sudden death of her husband in much the same way an entomologist might examine a newly discovered butterfly specimen. Though sentiment surely lives and breathes beneath the surface, only the facts are displayed. Throughout the reading and long after, one image hovered off the page and returned to me periodically. The image of her husband’s shoes. Looking at the plastic bag in my hand, the image returns to me now.
I could not give away the rest of his shoes.
I stood there for a moment, then realized why: he would need his shoes if he was to return.
The recognition of this thought by no means eradicated the thought.
I have still not tried to determine (say, by giving away the shoes) if the thought has lost its power.
Didion does not comment on her feelings about the fact that the shoes remain, nor about the reasons why they might. In this scientific exploration of emotionally generated behavior, the facts are the facts. Perhaps it’s the lack of sentiment that inspired me to wonder what comforted Didion about the shoes. Was it really for comfort that she kept them?
Thinking of the bag in my coat pocket, I realize that, while comfort surely contributed to the duration of its stay, the primary reason the bag remained was no different than its original purpose—to clean up after my dog during our frequent walks. To this day, I am prepared.
I am reminded of my uncle’s funeral, which took place three years after the car accident that claimed my younger cousin’s life. She was two weeks away from her college graduation. On the night of my uncle’s viewing, that cousin’s parents welcomed my family to stay in their home. I slept on the pullout sofa downstairs; my parents occupied the spare room; and my brother and sister-in-law stayed in my cousin’s old bedroom. The room had been cleaned, the bed made up for guests, but the arrangement, it seemed, remained just as their daughter had left it. A pair of jeans hung over the back of a chair. Pencils and notebooks lay scattered on the desk. By all appearances, my cousin could return at any moment and pick up where she left off.
Was it a shrine? My brother wondered. I think (just now) perhaps it was not. How would she feel, my cousin’s parents may have wondered, to return to a rearranged room—clothes and projects not where she’d left them? Her parents, by my interpretation, were prepared for her return.
It’s the same with the shoes. The same with the plastic bag. Why those items? The answer doesn’t matter.
What matters is that you think they will return. You think someday, in some shape or form, they’ll migrate back to you—re-enter your physical orbit. You’ll recognize them when they do, you are sure, in whatever shape or form they’ve taken. You’ll embrace them then. So you wait. You are prepared.
As I place the bag back into the pocket of my coat and walk out the door on my way to work, I wonder, did Joan Didion ever part with her husband’s shoes?
Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. 1st ed. New York: Vintage, 2007.