By Elizabeth Brady
Your blue camo backpack hung on the back of your desk chair with your Pittsburgh Penguins baseball cap on top of it for eight years. It was as you left it on the last day of school before the Christmas holidays in 2012.
It was September 2020; I was in your room with a mug of dark roast and my phone because we had decided to replace the wall-to-wall carpeting upstairs. The installers were coming the next day and I was on deadline. Both Dad and Iz were out of town. The task for dismantling your room came to me. In truth, it was probably good to have an excuse to finally tackle it. The air in your room was a little stale.
Looking around the room, I smiled remembering the last time we spring cleaned your room together. Dad and Iz were at a retreat for the weekend, so we decided to clean out your drawers and rearrange the furniture. You had two large blue plastic bins of stuffed animals, so I suggested you sort them into two piles: one to give away and one to keep. I opened the window and screen above your desk and said, “Toss the ones you want to give away out the window.”
“Are you kiddin’ me?” you laughed and peered through the window at the porch below.
“Sure!” I smiled at your delight. “We can collect them off the porch later to give away.
”How you laughed. This is totally awesome! You said and lobbed a handful of beanie babies out the window.
Your desk was largely how you left it except for the absence of Fi-Fi’s cage. We had given your dwarf hamster to Mrs. W’s classroom a few months after you died. Fi-Fi had been lonely without your attention. She was surprisingly social and delighted the class until she died a few years later. Mrs. W read the students a book about dealing with the death of a pet and for some reason it sent me into a fit of giggles thinking of you and how you would have reacted to all the fuss. They buried Fi-Fi under the tree dedicated to you in front of the school.
Over the years your bed became a depository of gifts for you. There were several professional signed soccer jerseys. Iz bought you mini snow globes and left them on your nightstand. Dad continued to buy you key chains from his travels. I bought a stuffed animal for every event and holiday that reminded me of you: a monkey with a red kiss on the cheek, a little brown bear with blue slippers, and puppies of all colors and sizes. It was an impressive mountain of animals! I sifted through the pile; I had had the foresight to jot the date and event on each tag, so I was reminded of the occasion.
Your room remained a place where we came to remember you and leave mementoes we would have shared with you. But, you were frozen in time in that room as an almost-nine year old boy. I had been in many bereaved parent groups when the discussion of “stuff” came up. It can be the source of great tension between couples and families. Long before I met your dad his grandmother had tossed out all her husband’s personal belongings in the days after he died essentially erasing him from the house. That complicated and impulsive decision on her part reverberated decades after his death.
I had given a few items away in the early months after your death, including a new wool navy blazer that you complained bitterly about wearing, “It’s itchy!” but you looked so handsome in it and received so many compliments you began to enjoy dressing up. Both Q and C wore your blazer to their first communion services.
Many people advise not to rush, to try not to make big sweeping changes too soon. For me, this was good advice and thankfully both Dad and I agreed. But, after almost 8 years the room felt different to me. In the early days I would come and cry on your bed, I could still smell you in your pillow. The red pom-pom on the hat of your favorite plushy stuffed snowman stayed crunchy from when you had chewed on it. But now the stuff felt more inanimate, not as infused with you as it was when you infused it with joy and care.
I looked around the room again and decided to dismantle your bed first. I sat down on the floor with my coffee and phone and pulled two drawers full of jammies out from under your trundle bed. I emptied them onto the floor. I picked up each one and remembered you in them. I held them. I smelled them deeply to see if I could still smell you. I couldn’t. Your terry cloth robe with the teddy bear ears was your favorite. You were so huggable in it. My teddy bear. I tied the arms of the robe around my neck like a scarf.
I pulled out a small, stapled book made of construction paper that was stuck in the back of one drawer. It was an old class project. I felt like I had discovered a lost treasure! I marveled at each page, looking at your handwriting, hurried as always, and your drawings. At the top of each page there was a prompt “My Favorite Toy” and “My Favorite Sport”. You had answered every question with either the word soccer or had drawn a soccer ball. At least you were consistent I said out loud and smiled. I felt you near and it warmed me. On the last page the entry was “My Favorite Things” and you drew another soccer ball and wrote Mom and Dad with a blue heart. This melted me. Tears streamed down my face. I miss you, Mack. I laid down on the pile of your jammies and hugged as many as could fit in my arms and cried until I fell asleep.
At some point my phone buzzed and woke me up. Dad Facetimed to check in and when I answered with my puffy eyes and your teddy bear robe tied around my neck, he was mildly amused and concerned.
“Oh boy,” he said.
“I’m okay,” I assured him. “Just feeling the feels.” It was getting dark, and I was on deadline. I brewed a fresh pot of decaf and gathered the boxes and green bags from the garage and headed back up.
After a slow start, I tore through the rest of your room like a tornado. I made three piles: save, give, throw away. In the pile to save: your soccer kits and gear. I also kept your Teddy Bear robe, slippers, and a pair of unopened Adidas socks. I still wear them when I run a 5k.
The biggest pile was to give away: lots of games, lightly used clothes, stuffed animals were all boxed for donations. The whole furniture set and your bed we gave to a second cousin born several years after you died. His mom later sent us a video of him dancing around his new ‘big boy’ room. His excitement breathed new life into the old Ethan Allen set, that had also been your dad’s.
And the last pile to throw away: in your honor, I smiled as I opened the window and pulled up the screen to shove several large green plastic bags full of stuff through the window to thud on the porch below.
Learning to live into a new identity as a bereaved mom has unfolded slowly for Elizabeth since Mack’s sudden death in 2012. Elizabeth teaches, writes, and lives with her family in Lexington, Kentucky, where she is a member of the Carnegie Center Author Academy. Find her here.