Expiration Dates

by Laura

I finally got around to watching my mother’s memorial slideshow again. I feel like I’m in the third phase of… whatever this is. This process. This newly constructed What Comes After. In any event, there were certain things I could do immediately after she died, when I wasn’t prepared to do them and not really equipped, but the awfulness was so substantial, it hardly mattered. Everything was devastating, from washing the dishes to sorting through her clothes, so it didn’t much matter. Making the slideshow was one of them. It hurt, along with everything else, no more, no less. In the second phase, I couldn’t view it. I couldn’t look through her shoes. I couldn’t watch videos. My focus shifted to current circumstances, real bills due in real life time. Real people with real problems, alive and struggling at that very moment. And though that’s all still happening and still my primary focus, I now feel more able to face the memory of her. I watched the slideshow. I looked through photos and videos with my kids. I’ve entered Phase Three.

(Note: This is an unofficial phase. I haven’t read any books about the process of grieving. I’m sure there’s an official set of stages and agreed-upon terminology for all of this, and if you have the money for books or the time to go to the library, by all means, go get those books, but even after nine years of parenting, I still don’t know when I’m supposed to read.)

So in Phase Three I’m sorting through some boxes of crap my dad brought over, because he’s been bringing me boxes of crap since she died. This makes total sense, because his house has at least 1500 more square feet of storage space than mine, so clearly this shit needs to reside with me and all my crap from two small children and a husband who’s never thrown one thing away ever. Inside these boxes are the things left behind that have no sentimental value. No lockets, no photographs, no handmade scarves or postcards sent from anyone who cared from anyplace that mattered. No, this is just the other stuff. Pantry items. Bathroom things. Cotton balls and hair goop, tan pantyhose in a cloudy plastic egg and acetone-free nail polish remover, 3/4 gone. This is the stuff from daily life, which somehow affects me even more, because it never got used. Like the two wintergreen Tic-Tacs in her glovebox, they’re just the stuff that stays after we go. I’m not sure why my dad hasn’t thrown the Tic-Tacs away. I could suggest it’s a sentimental thing, that seeing them there brings him comfort, but he’s an engineer. Believe me, he does not think like that. It’s more likely he’s just frugal and can foresee a day when he might want a Tic-Tac for the first time in his life, so there they remain, just like the yellowed lotion in his bathroom that probably turned caustic two decades ago.

So he keeps giving me this stuff. Just yesterday it was, “Can you think of anything you might do with these?” as he handed me a stack of plastic zipper bags with the word Biotene on them, neatly rubber-banded together. “Um…. I can’t really… yeah, sure, I’ll take them,” I said. It’s easiest just to give in. If you argue, he’ll wait a year or two and berate you for buying something similar to the item you refused. “A sandwich bag for that breakfast bagel? How much did that set you back? Seems to me a while back I offered you a perfectly good stack of Biotene bags that would’ve worked just as well. But I guess you’re made of money, eh, Toots?”

But the thing that gets to me is the expiration dates. Not that my parents ever looked at those, but I do. Many of these things, the Tic-Tacs, the jar of molasses and food coloring droppers, they have expiration dates. At some point in all our lives, we’ll buy a carton of milk or orange juice with an expiration date beyond our own. At some point, no matter how vital we are, our brains chock-full of fresh thoughts and ambitious plans, our limbs aching to stretch and move, our stuff will surpass us. We will spoil before the cheese. We go and the pantyhose stays. That messes with me. I look around at all my crap with resentment. How dare you outlive me, you stupid ream of paper, you tropical-themed tablecover that was supposed to make me feel happy on dreary winter days? Why did I have to pay money for you when my parents got me for free? What’s my value?

Apparently, Phase Three involves misdirected anger and existential crises. Scratch that, that’s probably just me.