What You Keep

When you die, one of the first things the hospital gives your loved ones is a plastic bag with your belongings.

When you die, one of the first things the hospital gives your loved ones is a plastic bag with your belongings. It’s the same sort of sterile plastic bag that you get when you throw up on yourself and would rather not wear your soiled sweatshirt home. When your loved ones are ready, they’ll open it to find earrings, a scarf, and other things you couldn’t take with you to the afterlife.

My best friend’s mother died the day after Christmas this winter. There were still poinsettias in the church during Suzy’s funeral, and my friend asked in a murmur if I thought the color inappropriate. I told her that I didn’t think anyone would make the connection. I wondered if the room found comfort in the pastor’s words, if they even knew how to respond to his routine “peace be with you.”

Normally, one has some time to separate the materials that constitute memories from those one feels comfortable donating. People comb through things they’ve never seen before and weigh sentimental value against space efficiency.

But Alivia, a teenager with little storage space and no way to pay rent beyond January, faced the assignment of power-purging her former home of her deceased mother’s belongings. It was fortuitous timing in some ways, mainly because Alivia’s good friends were on a break from school and could help her. I was there so often that one could probably explain my present tolerance of cat dander by calling my stay “allergy exposure therapy.” We ate cheesecake, blasted One Direction, looked through Suzy’s photos from fashion design school, and wondered what in the hell we were going to do with the giant looms in the corner.

When you die, your house becomes a dumpster of sorts, and those whom you leave behind are left to scavenge at will. I kept a wallet of Suzy’s. It’s a 90s-utilitarian, ugly, pink thing that I never saw her use. Maybe she never did. But when I see that wallet sitting on my desk, I don’t think about the wallet itself. Actually, I’ve probably spent a little more time smelling it than looking at it. It has that same smoky, yet fresh smell that overpowered me every time I walked into Alivia’s apartment.

Alivia is afraid that she’ll forget certain things about her mother. It’s only natural; in some ways, it seems like so much of her mother’s identity is in a landfill now. Alivia lost so much that is tangible that she believes she’ll forget what was perceptible—her mother’s face, what her voice sounded like, maybe even what she smelled like.

What she will remember, however, is moments in time with her mother. She won’t forget calling her mom during the occasional walk of shame (or, as my roommate emphasizes, “stride of pride”) and telling her mother/best friend about her night. She won’t forget when her mom took the lead in a parents’ rendition of one of our show choir performances (and did her booty-poppin’ daughter proud). What she truly gave her daughter never took as solid a form as something that she wove or sewed, but it will inevitably last longer.

The two giant looms—at which Suzy spent hours each day weaving—will likely end up either pathetically disassembled in storage somewhere or in a stranger’s house. They’ll practically become invisible to Alivia, but as soon as she thinks about coming home from school each day, she’ll see her mother look up from her weaving to greet her.

When you die, maybe your belongings become a metaphor for your body. What is palpable melts away, freeing what is truly you. Their apartment is barer than ever, but I don’t think it’s empty. It’s filled with more substantial things than looms or photographs or even a smoky scent. It’s immaterial.