You Can’t Take It With You…
Most of us are familiar with the saying, “You can’t take it with you…” I heard it before Charles died but I lived it after he was gone, and repeated it often as I was faced with the task of disposing of his belongings. It is true. You can’t take it with you. My late husband, Charles, certainly didn’t. Even so, his belongings taught me lessons despite his absence.
It felt vitally important that I take great care when allocating his belongings to family and friends. I was aware of situations where someone felt deeply hurt when they did not receive a prized item after a loved one’s death. Charles made no provision for his belongings so the task of deciding and dispensing of his worldly goods was left to me.
After Charles’s death on Thanksgiving Day 2001, I looked ahead one month for an opportunity to give his family special items as we all celebrated our first Christmas without him. I created large care packages for his father and step-mother, sister, brother, and son. These each included one of his work shirts, a copy of the beautifully written children’s book that was read at his funeral, a CD of music played at his service, and a funeral bulletin. These were mailed in time to be received before Christmas. As the months passed, I created additional care packages for his family, releasing Charles a bit more with each package.
For a long time, however, Charles’ clothing hung untouched in the right side of the closet. I rarely opened that side, instead opening only the left side of the brown faux-wood bi-fold doors to access my clothing, shoes and sweaters. Everything remained where he left it until one cold fall day nearly one year after his death.
While visiting some friends, I overhead them discuss their plans to attend a special gathering that weekend. My friend’s husband is Lithuanian and he gathered monthly with a group of Lithuanian immigrants for a meal, discussion in their native language and a Lithuanian-style worship service. Many were struggling to adapt to their new country, finding employment opportunities scarce, housing expensive and the weather sometimes harsh. Every time they gathered, those who could brought clothing and personal care items for those in need, especially those who just arrived who were struggling with the reality of American life. I watched my friends fold and bag pants and sweaters as they explained the difficult circumstances that some of their peers faced.
As they described a young man who had only a thread bare suit to use for job interviews, I clearly saw five beautifully tailored suits and nearly one dozen pairs of pants of varying sizes hanging still and untouched in the right side of the bedroom closet. My friends recounted the story of one young man’s futile attempts to repeatedly patch the soles of his boots and how he was concerned about the onset of winter weather. As I listened, I saw Charles’ nearly new boots lined up and gathering dust in precise rows on the green shag carpet at the bottom of the closet. These images marched across my thinking. It felt as though Charles’ wardrobe was impatiently awaiting an opportunity to serve their purpose, like well trained troops lined up and awaiting deployment. A question I had so carefully tucked away since his death now stood front-and-center in my mind, answered.
I recalled numerous times when Charles arrived home from work without his jacket or sweat shirt because he gave it to someone who was shivering and cold. I remembered the night he filled a bag with canned goods from our full pantry in the kitchen and drove into the city to deliver it to someone he just met who was hungry. I remembered how he insisted on giving to World Vision his $8 per month, even when he was unemployed. Charles was most contented when in the service of his fellow humans. He would have deeply despaired that his clothing was hanging unused and forgotten when someone else could put it to use. Despite months of quiet wondering, I knew immediately what I needed to do. More importantly, I clearly knew what he would have wanted me to do.
Without hesitation, I went home to find boxes, bags and cartons to transport his clothing to the waiting Lithuanians. As I opened the right side of the bedroom closet door, his scent greeted me in answer to my slight hesitation and lingering questions. A scent that was distinctly his gently filled my nostrils and greatly soothed the tug in my heart.
I stepped into the closet, placing my hands on the right and left of his hanging possessions. I gently gathered them together before me and buried my face in the fabric. I inhaled deeply many times, consciously filling some place inside with this scent so I would never forget it. Then I set to work sorting and folding, making a point to touch each item, to bless it on its way and release it to another place and purpose.
There were some items that that I was unwilling to part with and seemed to stick to my hands. A pair of silk boxer shorts. A t-shirt he loved and used as a night-shirt because it was so soft. The pajamas he wore during the final months of his life. A purple shirt he claimed was his favorite and I thought that looked particularly good on his tall, broad shouldered frame. One of his work shirts with his name tag still affixed to the right front pocket.
If you would have told me these would be the items that I would cling to, I would have been surprised. Some things I would have thought would be difficult to release, easily found their way into bags with nary a backward glance. An ancient navy hooded sweatshirt, the words KANSAS STATE CREW, surprised me in its resistance to leave. I never saw Charles wear it but recall fond stories of his days on the rowing team, to which this Minnesota-lake girl would tease him about rowing in Kansas — asking about the size of the wheels on the bottom of the boat. How fitting that I am wearing that sweatshirt in the pre-dawn hours as I write these words.
Before long, my vehicle was filled with clothing, jackets and footwear and I was driving down the driveway. The sense I felt from the bags behind me was akin to the excitement of a child awaiting the arrival of the school bus on the first day of school or the excitement in the station wagon setting out on the annual family summer vacation.
The following week, my friends regaled me with stories of many joyful Lithuanians, now dashingly clad in Charles’ clothes. These items, created for a purpose, were no longer imprisoned in the dark of the closet. Instead they were serving deeply grateful people and serving a purpose. There is no question in my mind that there was much rejoicing in heaven that day. I remember feeling grateful for the certainty that filled me as I executed a task which I previously perceived as monumental, even impossible.
So often in my grief, the answers to the seemingly unknowable questions showed up unbidden, effortless and whole. All that was required was my patience, letting go of my need to know before it was revealed. I know from personal experience that the saying, ‘you can’t take it with you,’ is true. Charles found a way to instruct and nurture my awareness of this reality through what he left behind.