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Bernadette Ruof: It’s painful to put the past to rest

Afterward, after the visiting hours at the funeral home, after the procession following his body into church, after the resurrection hymns and eulogies, after the commendation and the committal, after looking at the open grave and saying farewell, it’s over. We raise a glass to his name. We praise his best self. Then everyone goes home. I go home.

And I fold his shirts, to be given away. It has to be done. The clothes he cannot wear, someone else can.

I fold plaid button-downs, worn when he was promised a sweet spring day, with no need of a sweater. I fold dress shirts with a spread collar, worn to the theater with a Charles Tyrwhitt tie, which he crisscrossed into a perfect Windsor knot.

I fold concert T-shirts, polo shirts, athletic sweat-wicking shirts, old painting shirts, dog washing shirts, cooking shirts. I button their collars, fold, left arm in, then right arm in, fold, fold. Over and over again. Shirt = shroud.

Shhh. Consonant diagraphs that come together to make one sound. Shhh. It has such a finality to it. Shhh. You should be positive. Shhh. You should be looking ahead. Shadows and shapes are everywhere. I see them at dusk, hovering.

I must share his clothes. I give away his pants with ease. They are on hangers and need no handling. The shoes are easy, too. They are in boxes and do not need my attention.

I give away overcoats, suit coats, sport coats. They were easy to hand over to people who need them – people in shelters, homeless people, shut out in the cold.

But folding and preparing his everyday shirts is not easy. Shirt = shroud.

Oh, there are other things to discard: shaving brush, hair brush, toothbrush. I rush to finish this job before I cry, as anyone would, when you have to put away a life, shut it down. So I fold more shirts. Fold, cry, repeat.

As I do this, it occurs to me that somewhere nearby, we might see Steve, whose children are grown and have left home, folding things, too. For another reason, for sure, but it’s a loss for Steve. He has to pack away or discard stuffed animals, elementary school art and Christmas footie pajamas. His children have no more use for these things and neither does Steve, but still, the items he abandons mean everything to him.

Nearby, we also might see Sophie, folding her blouses and packing her books, for Sophie is leaving her marriage and she and her husband are dismantling their home. After she removes her things, the questions arise: Who gets the mantel clock? Who should have the only framed family photo? And who gets the cat? There are no good answers.

Not one of these losses is marked as more or less than the other; each loss is felt deeply by those who face it. We put away the past with respect, with love and with necessity. And it hurts.

But we know this much is true: Kids leave home. Marriages end. People die. And always, in any case, there’s work to be done; hard work, fraught with memories both sweet and painful. This work is necessary, physically and emotionally, in order to honor what was and embrace what is to come.

To finish my job, I must place the shirts in boxes. I was foolish to think this would be easy, but I will finish the task. Boxes full of shirts, size medium, are placed on the back seat of the car. I shiver as I drive away to deliver them.