I recently came across Muriel Rukeyser’s brief poem in response to Sylvia Plath’s death, “The Power of Suicide”:
The potflower on the windowsill says to me
In words that are green-edged red leaves :
Flower flower flower flower
Today for the sake of all the dead Burst into flower
I love the sentiment of living harder in honor of people who don’t live anymore. This is what I have been trying to do since my husband died 6 ½ months ago. My husband was known for living life to the fullest and when he passed away, I felt strongly that the most fitting way I could honor his memory would be to embrace life, have adventures, and bring joy to others. Although I have felt intense sadness, I’ve also felt intense happiness, sometimes at the same time.
Many times since my husband’s death, as I’ve navigated doing alone what I thought I’d have a partner along with me for, I’ve felt something like “bursting into flower,” although the phrases I’ve been thinking of are “blossoming,” “coming into myself,” and others that capture the slow, gradual nature of what seems to be happening.
Last week, I read an excerpt from Ocean Vuong’s novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, in which he observes, “If, relative to the history of our planet, an individual life is so short, a blink, as they say, then to be gorgeous, even from the day you’re born to the day you die, is to be gorgeous only briefly.” That reminded me that the time that Tom has been gone—6 ½ months—is just a flash in the grand scheme of time, and that this blossoming that seems to be happening slowly, is, relative to “the history of our planet,” bursting into flower. So this week, I’ve been thinking of myself as bursting into flower in slow motion.
What isn’t possible one day often feels possible the next. One day, even looking at his clothes didn’t feel possible; a few days later, looking at them felt possible; a few weeks after that, moving them out of the closet felt possible. They are in the garage now, and one day, it may feel possible to give them away. The day I collected his ashes from the mortuary I carried the very heavy box around with me for most of the day; being apart from them felt impossible. The very next day, it was possible to leave them on my nightstand. One day I moved the box into a drawer. Over time, I’ve been able to scatter some of the ashes.
I wrote earlier this month about moving the glass of juice Tom drank the night before he died from the front of the fridge to the back. Today, I took a deep breath, excavated the juice glass from the back of the fridge, and moved it to the sink. It was gut wrenching—saying good-bye to the glass of juice is just another good-bye to Tom. The good-byes seem to keep coming. Good-bye to this mug of his and that book. Good-bye to the piece of paper he wrote on, good-bye to his hats, good-bye to his toothbrush. I have said good-bye to hundreds if not thousands of Tom’s things in these 6 ½ months.
This week it was the juice glass and a jar of pickles he bought at a farm market Lily and I took him to a month before he died. There will be something else next week or the following week. Or maybe it will be a few weeks or months before I am able to part with something else of his. Twenty years from now, looking back at these months, it will probably seem as if I got rid of things quickly, packing up Tom’s 61 years of life in a flash. The deliberation over each item, the stopping to dwell on a memory, the gentle interventions of the dogs to comfort me will all be erased and all that will remain is a line of my personal history: I packed up Tom’s things.
Somewhere in my personal history, it will read “After her husband died, she traveled to Europe and South America and Antarctica.” It will appear that I burst into flower, going from afraid to travel alone with my impaired vision to traveling the world in a flash. All my minor mishaps last week in Portland, Oregon, my first solo trip since Tom’s death, will be invisible. I did not burst into flower in Portland—I tripped off a curb into oncoming traffic, I wandered onto a construction site and had to be escorted off, I needed the help of multiple strangers to find and buy a cleaning cloth for my glasses when I got caught without one in a rainstorm and couldn’t tell the difference between the sidewalk and street.
One day, maybe when I am scattering some of Tom’s ashes at the tip of South America, a place he dreamed of riding his motorcycle to, I will remember how in the days after Tom died, the idea of traveling without him felt fantastical. I wasn’t sure I could ever find my way around an unfamiliar city on my own, navigating so many obstacles with my impaired vision. The mishaps in Portland will likely be condensed or maybe even forgotten, and I may think, “Here I am, on a continent Tom never made it to. Look at me, bursting into flower for his sake.”