19 Months Out: Emptying the Last Bag from His Last Hospital Visit

For 19 months, I was unable to use one of my reusable shopping bags. The gray polka-dotted bag was tucked away in the back of a closet, full of the items I had put in it when I packed things to go with my husband to the hospital for the surgery he would never wake up from. Almost everything he needed fit into one suitcase, but there were a few odds and ends that I tossed into the bag: salt and pepper (he was oddly enamored of the food at the hospital his surgery was at, but felt it lacked seasoning), a CBD patch (the medical staff frowned upon the use of CBD products because of the lack of long term testing, but knowing I had one packed made my husband feel more confident about being able to cope with the post-surgical pain), and six of his favorite condom catheters (he liked the ones I bought better than the ones available at the hospital).

When I came home from the hospital a widow, I put the suitcase in the area of our living room that we had used as a bedroom after his stroke, our basement bedroom rendered inaccessible. For a month, the gray polka-dotted bag sat on top of the suitcase. At some point, I emptied the suitcase, but when I picked up the gray polka-dotted bag and saw the things inside—all items intended to make my husband more comfortable—I quickly closed it and pushed it out of the way. While everything in the suitcase was typical stuff one might take to the hospital, the items in the bag were specific to my husband. In fact, he had specifically requested each item.

Over time, as I collected his belongings, giving some away to friends and family and donating others to charities, I began putting items I either wanted to keep or just couldn’t deal with yet in a plastic bin. The gray polka-dotted bag ended up in the plastic bin. For months, the plastic bin was in the dining room, a reminder to me that it and its contents existed. It made sense to have it easily accessible because I was still finding things to add to it, but over time, its contents stabilized, and I found that I was no longer adding anything to it. I moved it to the closet in my home office.

Whenever I bought groceries, I noticed that the gray polka-dotted bag wasn’t with the others and I went through a process of wondering where it was, recalling that it was in the plastic bin, remembering what was in the bag, and making the decision to leave the bag in the bin, untouched. This went on for a year and a half.

Two weeks ago, I went to gather up my grocery bags to go shopping and realized that my daughter had borrowed one and I didn’t have enough on hand. I considered getting the gray polka-dotted bag from the plastic bin, started walking toward my office, and stopped. I wasn’t ready. I went to the store but got only some of the items on my list, careful to limit myself to what would fit in the bags I had. Perhaps my daughter would return the bag she had borrowed before I needed groceries again, I thought.

Last week, the borrowed bag still with my daughter, I took a deep breath and got the gray polka-dotted bag out of the plastic bin. I brought it to the dining room table and spilled its contents out. The salt and pepper shakers, CBD patch, and condom catheters represent an anticipated outcome to his surgery that didn’t come to pass. I was expecting him to joke about enjoying the food so much he wanted to GrubHub it when he came home. I was anticipating panicky phone calls from him at 3 in the morning, asking me to talk him through the pain. I was looking forward to him showing off to the nursing staff that he had brought his own condom catheters.

That is not how things went. He never woke up from surgery. I am grateful that he did not experience the nearly unbearable pain.

I sobbed for some time over the bag and its contents—and I laugh-cried over it, thinking of the “I dare you” look he would have given anyone who threatened to take his CBD patch and the gleeful way he would have told staff he brought his own condom catheters. And then I put the salt and pepper shakers in a kitchen cabinet, the CBD patch with the painkillers, and the condom catheters in a box I’ll eventually take to a medical supply donation center, and I took the gray polka-dotted bag to the grocery store.

Scattering Ashes, Forgetting He’s Dead, and Intense Anxiety at 18 Months Out

I have been traveling for the past month. One stop in my travels was to Ushuaia, Argentina, where I scattered some of my late husband’s ashes. Ushuaia is the southern-most point of the Pan-American Highway. My husband loved riding motorcycles and read a lot of online forum postings by people who had ridden the Pan-American Highway from Alaska to Ushuaia. He wanted to do the ride when he retired. He didn’t get to retire or do the ride, so for me, scattering some of his ashes in Ushuaia was a way to symbolically honor those wishes of his.

The night before scattering his ashes, my anxiety kicked in hard. I’ve been able to manage it pretty well for several months, but I wondered if it would show up on my trip. The first part of the trip went smoothly, but as the ash-scattering day got closer and closer, I could feel the restlessness building up inside me, especially at night when I went to bed. I started dreaming about my husband being unhappy with where I scattered the ashes or not being able to find a suitable spot.

I wasn’t too worried about the anxiety because I have a good list on my phone of strategies to use to help me when it gets bad. I figured if it got very intense, I would just methodically work my way through the list until I found a strategy that helped.

The night it really hit me, my first go-to strategy, walking or working out, wasn’t available to me because of where I was in my travels, so I moved on to my second strategy: tapping. Tapping uses the same principles as acupuncture to channel energy to the body’s meridian points. I think it also helps by bringing my awareness out of my mind and into my body. Unfortunately, that night, tapping didn’t seem to have any effect. No problem, I thought, I’ll listen to some meditations on Insight Timer.

That night I was in a remote part of the world and didn’t have internet access. I had planned ahead for that possibility by downloading several of my favorite Insight Timer meditations within the app, but when I tried to find them, they weren’t there. That’s when my anxiety really started to escalate. My hands were shaking as I tried to navigate my phone. I checked and rechecked the app. I closed the app and re-opened it. I turned my phone off and back on. None of it helped. The downloads weren’t there. I could only listen to meditations if I had an internet connection and that wasn’t possible. My mind went blank and I could no longer even find my list of strategies.

I finally took a Lorazepam, which is kind of my last resort option. It felt like admitting defeat, which made my anxiety even more intense. By then, my hands were shaking so much that I spilled the pills all over my bed, leading to the kind of low-contrast situation in which I’m pretty much functionally blind: white pills on white sheets. I had to use my shaky hands to find all the little pills strewn about in the sheets. Even after I swallowed a pill, there was no relief. By that time, I had gotten too worked up for it to have a noticeable effect.

At that point, I went to a strategy I’m surprised I remembered without my list: reminding myself that everything is temporary. That the anxiety will eventually pass. That I will eventually fall asleep. That the world will carry on. And I did eventually fall asleep for a couple of hours.

I ended up finding an excellent place to scatter the ashes: at the base of a gorgeous and regal tree in the forest off the Pan-American Highway. The tree had lichens on it that only grow in places where the air is exceptionally pure.

My anxiety continued through my husband’s birthday, a few days later. but after a few days I at least had Internet access again and re-downloaded my meditations. Until then, I took a Lorazepam each night when I went to bed (it seems to work best when I take it before my anxiety kicks in, which becomes a mind-bending prediction game in itself). Once I was able to listen to my meditations again, the anxiety became much easier to deal with, although it still lingered for a few more nights.

My lack of sleep probably contributed to a mind blip while in Chile. I saw a sculptural door made out of old metal farm implements and said to my friend, “I need to take a picture of that for Tom.” It’s the first time in a year that I forgot he was dead. Somehow, for a moment my brain thought he wasn’t with me in Chile because he was back home, waiting for me. For that moment, I wasn’t a widow. For that moment, I was excited to share stories and pictures from my epic trip with him. I could see the look of wonder and appreciation he would have on his face, feel his hand on the small of my back, hear him saying, “That’s amazing, Babe.”

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I had the crushing memory that he was dead. It felt like all the heartbreak I’ve experienced since he died was compressed into a single massive wave that flattened me. Luckily, I was with a dear friend who knew to immediately pull me into a hug and didn’t mind that I got snot all over her shoulder.

It was a tough time, and it was temporary.

The Mysteries of Cremains

Before my husband died, I knew what cremation was and that when my husband and I died, we wanted to be cremated, but that was about as far as my thinking on the topic went. After he died and was cremated, I learned a lot more about the ashes that remain after cremation.

The first thing I learned is that the cremated remains of a person are officially called cremains. It’s a weird, goofy word, and if you don’t like it, it’s perfectly acceptable to call the cremains “ashes.” I use both terms.

One of the biggest surprises for me was that cremains are really heavy. I was shocked when I received the box of my husband’s cremains—I needed both hands to carry it. The ridiculous scene in the Sex and the City spinoff, And Just Like That, in which Carrie Bradshaw puts her late husband’s cremains in a little beaded Eiffel Tower-shaped purse is ludicrous. The cremains of a 200 pound person will weigh about 7 pounds and that little purse would have been overflowing, plus the strap would have been digging unfashionably into Carrie’s shoulder.

In terms of volume, a website I’ve mentioned before, Cake, uses this helpful comparison to describe how to understand the amount of ashes you’ll have: “The typical volume of cremation ashes is 200 cubic inches. If you’re wondering what that volume of ashes looks like, picture a common grocery store bag of sugar.”

What to do with the cremains is another question. I learned that many people have strong opinions on what the proper thing to do with cremains is when people started saying things to me like, “You don’t have the cremains on your bedside table, do you?” and “Don’t be one of those morbid people who puts the ashes on the mantle.” In my opinion, if you are bereaved, you can put the cremains wherever you damn well please.

I did, in fact, keep the box of ashes the funeral home gave me on my bedside table for a while, and how I have some of the cremains on my mantle. When I first brought that heavy box home, I put it on the bedside table in part because I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. Every night for months, I put my hand on the box and said good night to my husband. I knew I would eventually do something else with the cremains, but I didn’t know what, and it was comforting to have the bedtime ritual of saying good night to him.

I knew I wanted to scatter some of the ashes in a few places with meaning to my husband, and once I understood the sheer volume of cremains, I realized I had enough to share. I gave some to my late husband’s rafting buddies to scatter on the river. That seemed important because Tom loved rafting and some of his happiest days were spent floating down a river after having tackled a fearsome rapid. I also gave good quantities to his brother, his mother, his son, and my daughter. I kept a large amount for myself to scatter in a few strategic spots, and I put some in a beautiful urn specifically made for cremains that I found on Etsy, and which is now on my living room mantle.

Additionally, I had a teaspoon of the cremains incorporated into a memorial ring that I wear. Soon after my husband died, another widow told me about memorial jewelry, and I loved the idea of having part of my husband with me always. A quick search on Etsy helped me find hundreds of artists who create jewelry and other keepsakes using small amounts of cremains.

I have so far scattered some of the remaining ashes in the Pacific Ocean off the Oregon coast, one of his favorite places, and some in the forest outside Ushuaia, Argentina, a place he never got to go to but very much wanted to.

Dividing up the cremains means coming up with containers for the stuff. The funeral home would have happily sold me very expensive cardboard containers, but I chose disposable food containers that I got at Target. Mason jars would work, and I only decided against them because I knew I’d be traveling with some of the cremains and thought the glass was too fragile. Ziplock bags seemed like a poor choice because squeezing the air out of them would cause some of the cremains to poof out into the room and that seemed problematic.

Before I ever dealt with cremains, I might have felt strange about putting human remains into Tupperware, but after receiving the ashes from the funeral home in a heavy-duty plastic bag inside a heavy-duty cardboard box, Tupperware seemed just fine.

It took me a while to figure out how to open the fancy cardboard box, but luckily there are quite a few videos on YouTube made by others who had similar struggles and detailed their tips.

One last word to the wise: If you divide up the ashes and stash them somewhere “safe,” make a note of that safe place. I learned the hard way that it’s very awkward to explain to others that you misplaced the Tupperware full of cremains.  

Feeling Surrounded by the Love of Weak Ties

I’ve been listening lately to Shankar Vedantam’s podcast on the social science behind human behavior, Hidden Brain.  A recent episode was on the power of “weak ties,” the social connections we have with people who are not part of our inner circle. As my late husband’s birthday nears, I am noticing a difference in how I respond to the weak ties around me. 

At the gym the other day, I was on an elliptical with two empty ones to my right and about seven empty ones to my left. I was happily listening to the Hidden Brain podcast when two people began working out on the two ellipticals just to my right. This seemed obnoxious to me—usually when there is a bank of empty machines, people will space themselves out on the equipment rather than working out side by side with a stranger. Even worse, the two were friends who began chatting so loudly with each other that I couldn’t hear my podcast. In frustration, I turned my podcast off and continued my workout, pondering whether I should move to one of the empty machines on my left. I quickly realized, however, that these two had a fascinating chemistry and I became engrossed in the conversation I couldn’t help but overhear. They discussed in detail how to make the perfect turkey sandwich, the frustrating love life of one of them, and the degree to which the other one hated working out. They were very different people who saw every topic they discussed differently, but their disagreements were brought up with humor and affection. 

Another day, I was reading in a coffee shop, enjoying the white noise of conversations around me, when my concentration was broken by the sound of someone drumming their fingers against a table. I waited for the annoying sound to stop, but it continued. I looked around and found the perpetrator: an older man at a nearby table. My attention now drawn to him, I wondered if the woman with him found his finger-drumming as annoying as I did, but she seemed to find him enchanting, laughing and smiling in response to much of what he said, and chiming in happily to the conversation without seeming to be aware of his incessant finger drumming. I took them for a couple on a date until I overheard the man mention his younger days in the merchant marines; the woman’s response indicated they had been together back then. 

Another day as I enjoyed the quiet at a book shop, a woman near me made several calls with her phone on speaker. All the calls were in French, so perhaps she felt that the language barrier would keep the calls private. As she made call after call, I got more and more agitated—I find the sound of an overheard phone call much more annoying than the white noise of most conversations I am not a part of. At some point, though, I noticed that everyone she called seemed deeply happy to hear from her. The calls were punctuated with genuine laughter and each began and ended with what sounded like professions of affection. 

All of these situations would have irritated me in the past, making me feel more alone because I had no one to tell about them. I would have used them all as evidence that humans are just deeply annoying—and I might have even added the caveat “except for my late husband, who was perfect, and because he’s dead, I’ll never again experience the kind of connection with a perfect human that I had with him.” Yes, it’s a ridiculous thought—and I bet everyone who has lost a loved one has had a similar thought. 

It’s what I think of as the soulmate idea—the idea that there is ONE person on the planet who can understand you and make you feel connected and 1) you are lucky if you find that person, and 2) there’s only one person who can be your soulmate, so if they die, you’re just screwed for the rest of your life. I don’t consciously buy into the idea that there is ONE person out there that you can share a deep connection with and if/when they die, you will never have that kind of connection again—and yet, there have been moments in my grief where I have felt certain that my husband’s death means I will live the rest of my life disconnected from others, profoundly alone.

In other moments, I have used the depth of my connection to my late husband as evidence that I will connect in deep and meaningful ways with other humans again—not in exactly the ways I did with my late husband, but in ways that are no less profound and meaningful. This more generous interpretation is the one I prefer and I tend to default to it, but its darker counterpart does pop into my mind from time to time. 

Each of these three incidents lately have left me feeling very warm and fuzzy toward my fellow humans. The friends working out, the longtime couple, and the woman checking in with loved ones all demonstrated to me close and loving relationships. As I think about them, I can’t help but notice that I am surrounded by love. The love isn’t directed toward me, but it is there, in the ether around me, gently calling my attention to it. 

There is an aspect of bittersweetness to the realization. Not too long ago, I assumed my late husband and I would one day be that longtime couple. Listening to their banter was a poignant reminder that I will not have that experience with my late husband—and perhaps not with anyone. But when I think about that kind of love existing around me—truly, all around me, at the gym, at the coffee shop, at the bookstore—I feel lighter, buoyed by the love among the weak ties that surround me.