It has been 7 and a half years since my beautiful husband Don Shepherd's sudden death.
About 18 months ago, I found new and wonderful and beautiful love.
Somewhere in the first few months of the relationship with my new love, the topic of "Don's things" came up. I think I was the one who brought it up. We were in my bedroom talking, or kissing, or something. I forget. But in that moment, I looked over to my nightstand next to my bed, and noticed, as if for the first time or through my lover's eyes, the shrine that it was to Don. Our wedding picture was there. The American flag folded up and in it's frame from the Air Force funeral. The framed certificate from the Sharing Network for being a tissue/organ donor. And his rally monkey stuffed animal that was his lucky charm. I asked Nick very honestly: "Does it bother you that I have so many of Don's things all over my bedroom? Is it weird for you? I feel like it must be weird. " He paused for a minute, and then said just as honestly: "He was your husband. And he died. I think it's normal, and I don't ever want to be someone who would ask you to subtract anything about him from your life. I don't believe in subtracting . Just adding. " Then we talked about how we both looked forward to the day when we have started to build our own memories and private jokes and "things" that could be added to my life's collection.
I remember loving his response that day. It was exactly what I needed to hear, and it was comforting. It also made me fall in love with him just a little bit more.
Fast-forward to now. We have been together 18 months. Last Christmas, he showed up here one day in late November, and surprised me with a real Christmas tree for my bedroom. We went shopping together and picked out ornaments and decorations and lights , and then came back and created our very first Christmas tree. It was awesome. When the holiday was over, we packed up all our "stuff" and put it into a large cardboard box. I carefully labeled it "Kelley and Nick's Box of Christmas Stuff." Or something like that. I took the box and placed it on top of a very large pile of other boxes. An entire basement in my parents house of boxes. Boxes labeled "Kelley and Don". Kelley and Don kitchen stuff. Kelley and Don wedding gift. Kelley and Don coffee maker. Kelley and Don's tax returns. Kelley and Don's dishes, mugs, wine glasses, on and on and on. We were married 4 years and 9 months when he died suddenly. We hadnt yet bought a house together. We shared a tiny Jersey apartment, and so most of our "nice things" were in boxes or in storage, waiting for that time when we would have the space for all of it. Our first home. Children. A different life.
That life never came.
Don was dead, and there I was, with piles and piles of boxes. Things we never got to use together, but that I would someday use on my own. Nice things. Things you hold onto and use when you are building a life together.
Placing the box that was labeled for me and Nick, on top of the piles of the life I used to know, was momentous. It felt like a big deal. I was now in a place emotionally where I was very slowly building a life with someone again. And that life we are building would not be possible, had I not been changed forever by the love, life, and death of Don Shepherd. So I placed that box on top of the foundation on which this love was built, and my heart cracked. It was joy and hope and fear and growth, all in one big jar, shaken up and stirred.
About a week ago, Nick showed up at my parents house again, just like last year, with a gorgeous little Christmas tree for my bedroom. Our Christmas tree. As he started to put the tree up, I went and grabbed the box. Our box. I carefully took it down, and placed it on my bed, next to the shrine that still exists of Don memories on my nightstand. And there we stood, together, in the midst of my room filled with Don memories and our kitties and his recliner chair - taking pieces from our box, and creating our tree. Taking out ornaments one by one, remembering purchasing them last year for one another, or Nick recalling my joy when I saw him in my room with a Christmas tree. We built our tree, put on our lights, and hung our stockings and decorations. I put the box back at the top of the pile, looking at it with unbelievable pride.
We never know in life, how many boxes we will get.
How many years, or months, or days, or memories.
How many anniversaries, or birthdays, or healthy summers or peaceful winters.
Don and I didn't get many "life milestones" together. It just didn't pan out that way.
There's a lot of boxes that were never opened, or that moved with me again and again after his death.
Nick and I have one box.
And I hope like hell we get many more, and that they are filled with moments and lovely things.
But however long or short our story is,
and whatever amount of time we are honored to have together in this life,
I will be most proud,
that my new love honored my husband who died,
by never making me feel like I need to erase or subtract him in any way.
And in this way,
everything we create together,
will be guaranteed to be fueled by Love.
One box at a time.