Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The sanctity of objects

I took this photo today. It's Leif's wallet, nearly exactly as he left it, even the $12 in cash. I still have it. Why?

Some people keep their deceased loved one's room untouched. Some can't bear to part with their belongings. Why?

I've thought a lot about this in the nearly three-and-a-half years since Leif died. There are probably at least three reasons why people do this.

First, some really can't bear to part with those belongings or clean out and change a room. There is something comforting about having them. It provides some kind of emotional connection, makes them seem somehow nearer than death. Some people even keep unwashed clothing that they feel smells like their loved one.

Second, it seems somehow wrong to take someone else's belongings and dispose of them. They aren't ours. Even though that person is dead, it feels like some sort of stealing or misappropriation. We aren't sure they would approve of what we decide to do. It's as though we are doing wrong.

Third, and this is perhaps the strongest reason for me, at least in my conscious mind, is that getting rid of their belongings, especially things like ID cards and drivers' licenses, feels like dismantling their lives, their identities. It's as though we are erasing their existence, wiping it out. That is emotionally painful and very hard to to.

One could argue that keeping these things is unhealthy and allows the grieving to focus on loss even more. For some, that may be true. For others, perhaps here is some tiny comfort in the thought that we have not disposed of those small pieces of their identity, as foolish as that may seem.

We washed and gave away most of Leif's clothing, though Peter W. chose to keep some of his shirts, particularly some we gave him as gifts or some he could wear. I kept a set of his army fatigues and his dress greens, his combat boots, his dog tags, his photos, even his high school yearbooks, his school records. I don't know whether we will keep them always, but for now, they are here.

There are other things we kept and use daily, even some forks and spoons, but those are utilitarian items that we kept because they were practical, not because of any sentimental reason. Leif was not attached to such objects. Still, I sometimes think of him and remember that they were his when I use them.

But the wallet, that is somehow for me a poignant symbol of identity. I can't even bring myself to take the $12 out and spend it. That's Leif's money, the last money he had in his wallet. It's not mine. I can't take it.

The only thing missing from Leif's wallet is his military ID card, which we had to turn in (or at least we were supposed to). I've written about how doing that made me cry, how I felt then that it was dismantling his identity. I can't bring myself to go further and destroy the rest of his wallet's contents.

Who would ever want them but me? Someday they will no doubt be destroyed and gone, and I won't be there to see that or miss them, but as long as the wallet is in my care, even though I KNOW he is not coming back for it, I will save it for him.

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