The Art of Honorable Grieving

Her father died in the early days of shelter-in-place, stranding the two of them in his house within the Minneapolis neighborhood where she grew up. He left behind two cats and a boisterous fifty-pound rescue dog named Dinky, all very much alive and missing the man who fed them too much while asking nothing in return.

Except for houseplants that would die with or without her presence, not a whole lot waited back in Maine, the place she called home. One more divorced, unemployed marketing director wouldn’t be missed. Even in regular times there weren’t a lot of jobs like the one that had left the state as part of a business acquisition. During a pandemic, when the economy rocked like a small craft in the Gulf of Maine caught as weather fronts changed, jobs were collateral. Portland was a rough place to seek refuge.

So Belinda, formerly known as Beauty to her family and close friends, used meditation, white wine, and occasional sleeping aids to temporarily nest in her father’s house. Always a clean guy, the intensity of his second battle with leukemia lingered in a slightly offensive blend of illness, strong cleaners and pet odors. During the ten days she kept watch by his side, the smells faded under the immensity of watching the man she loved for her whole life die. In the two weeks since he passed, she kept windows open by day, bought fresh clothes, and littered the house with air fresheners.

His ashes waited in the trunk of his favorite 2008 BMW 325i for the right time when she could drive north and spread the remains in a field where he hunted turkey with friends. A pair of someone’s old hiking boots, a knife to cut tape on the box, a camp chair and the fleece throw from his bed would keep his ashes secure. When the weather was right, she’d pack a lunch, free him on the empty field and keep watch for a time to be sure all was okay.

Nine years earlier, during the days before her mother’s funeral, Belinda observed a web of numbness settle over her father. A son of the Iron Range, his normal emotions ran from quietly happy to bravely stoic. Witnessing the rawness of his grief not even six months later at the side of her brother’s broken body seared her tear ducts, made the act of crying too painful. He did not deserve to suffer the losses of the two they loved so much. She was a minimal substitute for what he had known as father and husband, but they found a way to be good to each other. His hugs felt like home even in the week before he passed. He laughed at her jokes, was thankful for the fruit juice ice pops she made, let her hold his thin hand for hours. At the end he told her not to cry, as if losing him was no more eventful than scraping a knee, moving across the country, or ending a marriage.

All decisions and responsibilities were now hers alone. The brief will of Deck Blake had only two directives: a generous gift to the animal shelter and transporting a drop leaf table to a friend of her mother who lived across the river. Shelter-in-place meant she literally lived amid his stuff with no opportunity to draw down the bags with trips to Goodwill. Yesterday’s hard decision, discussed with Dinky, was to contact a junk collector to carry the first piles away. Her father would have been upset if he knew that his recliner, his mattresses, the drapes and old tools in the garage had been downgraded to junk. There were no other choices.

She thought about adding the dozen boxes, child’s rocking chair and ugly metal sculpture in the basement that had remained untouched 12 years after she and Aaron moved to Maine. Her then-husband’s promotion, a beautiful old house near downtown and the crashing Atlantic promised new beginnings for a tired young marriage. College sweethearts, they had become best friends, then merely pals by the time they turned 30. Watching her parents, she knew there wasn’t enough passion left to start a family or grow old together. She got the house, he found a new spouse. There was no blame, but she carried the failure forward.

In Minnesota, routines developed in the absence of human contact. Each day after opening the windows, Belinda fed the animals, cleaned the litter boxes, snapped a harness on Dinky and battled with him about direction, speed, unnecessary pee stops on a two-mile route. Back at the house she ate her toast, cereal and diet cola breakfast on the three season porch where spring sunshine barely warmed cool air. Then she headed inside to the dining room table to execute her father’s estate.

His trust allowed Belinda the choice of a few years of financial independence, or a nest egg to build retirement savings. Her Maine unemployment benefits ended soon and money banked from selling her house there might stretch through year’s end. The tiny, freezing, studio above a family’s garage was about the cheapest Portland rental place available. She’d held off grabbing a retail job, but even if she had, the pandemic would have taken it away.

Dread of losing the ocean, the forests, her deep friendships hung as heavy on her mind as the scent of death lingered in her senses. This city of her family was where she grew up, went to college, got married. Walking along the riverbanks she felt air pollution and high density housing weakening the emotional well-being nurtured by connection to the Pine Tree State and its rocky coasts. Minnesota organic blueberries were subpar to Maine’s crop.

Dinky and the cats rushed past her as she opened her father’s bedroom door. While not of any religious following, she had honored his passing with a mixture of Shiva and other grieving traditions. For two weeks she had not touched this door, hoping his spirit would travel to a place of peace. No funeral, no memorial service, the barebones notice he allowed to be printed among the COVID-19-jammed obits kept her unsettled, as if the solemnity of his passing had been debased. A good man deserved a good send-off.

Stripped, the mattress showed its age. She spread a tarp over it, then brought in boxes and bags to pack the first load of her father’s things. Room darkening drapes came down first to give the sun a chance to pierce her sadness. The windows she had washed on her first day with him still sparkled. A cat jumped to the sill, eyes turned toward the yard.

Dinky stayed by her side. The other cat perched on top of the bed headboard watching everything from Belinda’s movements to dust motes. Beginning in the small bathroom, she carried medical equipment, a scale and portable storage rack to the mattress. Linens she divided into cleaning materials and pet towels. Medications filled two grocery store bags that she placed in the shower stall. She left his hair brush and razor in the drawer. Everything else was thrown away.

While she worked, she talked out loud to the animals. She could stay here until summer, find them homes, sell everything, and return to Maine. Maintaining Maine rent and utilities would swallow thousands of dollars. Pragmatically she spoke out loud about the price of closing down life in New England. Free housing with a marketplace that had history of recovering from deep economic downturns. She could revitalize her father’s vegetable garden, keep his pets, treat renovating the house as work. He hadn’t asked her to make his house or memory her future, but she needed purpose.

Dinky broke her concentration as dogs are likely to do. Rounding up the cats, she once again closed the door. Watching from the patio while Dinky explored his domain, Belinda drew out her phone and pressed a favorites name.

“Hey, Beauty, how are you doing? Coming home soon?”

“That’s what I’m calling about, Aaron. This is a huge favor, but I wonder if I could ask you and Jacie to close up my place and send everything here. Not the stuff in storage, just the apartment. I’ll find a mover and make all the calls. I know Jacie sometimes rattles you, but she’ll know what I need and what to throw.”

“This is quite a jump. Maine is where your friends are. We aren’t married anymore, but we’re still friends. That’s why you called me. I know you’ll find another job here when everything settles down. You said you could never be landbound again.”

“People say a lot of things before something hits them in the face. I’ve thought it through and this is what I’m going to do. Nothing’s permanent. Are you willing or does it make you uncomfortable?”

“Think about it overnight and call me back. Don’t be hasty, Beauty. But if this is what you gotta do, I’ll help out. We’re friends, Beauty, and don’t forget it. No need to bother Jacie. Annie and I can pack the place.”

“Jacie has a key and would be pissed if I didn’t ask her. You can be in the same room for a few hours. I’ll let you know tomorrow.”

“You want me to drive your car out and drag a trailer with your stuff. I can help you get settled. That house needs some updating. I’d like to visit the cemetery and pay respects.”

“No nonessential travel. Remember there’s a virus out there. I don’t need a dead ex. Let the professionals take the risks. Jacie’s brother has been interested in the car. I was waiting for the weather to change so I could get around on the scooter.” She sat on the wood Adirondack chair her father had built. “I’ve got Dad’s dog and cats for company. There’s some relatives near and he emailed friends to look in on me. So I find groceries I didn’t order on the front porch and neighbors waving when I’m outside. One’s coming to the fence now. Talk later.” She was still a lousy liar. Took after her dad that way.

Dialing Jacie, Belinda let Dinky lead the way back in. She closed the door, then the inside door which she locked.

“I’m staying here, friend,” she said before Jacie spoke. “There’s no ocean and more fields than forests, but Dad’s trust means there are four walls that are mine and more money than I ever had in the bank. I’ll be able to find a job when it’s all clear. One that pays enough for a decent living. Freezing in 500 square-feet above someone’s garage and settling for a seasonal retail job are too much to pay to eat lobster rolls with my friends. I love my friends in Portland, but there’s no special person, no stable housing, no job, no prospects. I’m scared of what’s going to be left when the virus is under control. ”

“I was waiting for this call. This is why the lifers don’t invest in relationships with folks like us.”

“You sound like a Maineiac, friend.”

“I’ve only lived here since high school. Became a nurse so I could make a living. Married a local.” Her voice quieted, “I can hear your heart breaking. I’m gonna miss you, Beauty. And I won’t be the only one. Give me the details. I’m hoping you aren’t planning to come back and pack your place.”

“I’m hoping you and Aaron might take care of the packing. Just the studio. I’ll hold off on the storage unit until it is safe to travel.”

“Is your dad’s place getting better? You’ve been uncomfortable there since he passed.”

Belinda looked around the kitchen her father remodeled in 2000. She’d replace a few appliances, paint, replace some cabinet doors with glass, swap out the pulls and knobs, remove the blinds. Maybe soon. Knock down walls later.

“It’s growing on me. I started pulling down curtains and cleaning out a room. This is going to be my job for a few months. You know me, I’ve got to have a reason to get up each day. No telling what’s going to happen in the world, but it feels damn fine to outright own the place where I sleep and have enough money to eat more than eggs and toast. Makes the starting over easier.”

“Amen.” Jacie cleared her throat. “Now tell me what you need me to do.”

“First I need you to stay healthy, Jacie. I can’t watch the news without thinking of you pulling down doubles.”

“We’re all doing our best, friend. You, me, everyone.”

Featured image: yuRomanovich / Shutterstock