All through that fall and winter I had been gently but steadily moving ahead with the task of downsizing my household. It was a painful but necessary step to me redefining my life following Marlene’s death. I now had too much house, and too much stuff for one man living alone. I needed to shed a lot of that stuff; but first I needed to rid myself of Marlene’s things. Not the memories, nor the photographs, collectibles, the sentimental artifacts of life with Marlene, but her clothes (coats, and outfits and pyjamas and underwear), and shoes, her jewelry, (blessedly, she had given away much of this already), the details of a life. I was grateful to my daughters for their help – many of Marlene’s things just disappeared, so I did not have to linger over them, and grieve.
Once Marlene’s room was emptied – I even shipped all the furniture to Markham – I methodically worked through the other rooms of my house, discarding, donating and designating things. Marlene’s room may have been the most sensitive for shedding but I had nine other rooms like this. Then I realized there were other spaces that also hoarded so much of the random necessities of life: the laundry room with its tools and lightbulbs and patio gear; the hall closets full of old coats and boots, and board games, and kids’ toys; the basement with all its boxes of preserved memories; the garage.
I had also decided to close my office downtown. I told my business partner that I planned setting up a home office in the townhouse; I would be leaving our suite in April or May. My days were now almost completely occupied with packing: the memories of a lifetime one day, and then the memories of a career life the next.
Over the winter and into the spring months it took me hundreds of hours going through fifty years of memories. I suffered frequent bouts of melancholy. There were many days when I simply couldn’t find the energy, nor the will, to pack and make all the arrangements involved in downsizing. It was labour intensive, physically, but especially emotionally. Every object I picked up had a story. Often I would put it back down in the same spot. Tears came daily, many times daily. I was forced to adopt a new philosophy of life: instead of my usual drive to complete things, I began to tell myself, ‘today, if I just pack one box, that will be enough’.
I realized I was now embarked on one of the biggest changes of my life, and I was doing it alone, or almost alone.
But I had Emily. I was feeling blue about all the ‘endings’ in my life but I was also looking forward to ‘new beginnings’ with Emily.
Emily herself was present for much of this, helping me with packing and cleaning and deciding. I didn’t really notice that this often occurred on alternate Saturdays. She asked if she could keep some things for herself – Marlene had already given her some of her clothes, and some earrings – kitchenware, sweaters, a ‘Woman’s Daily Bible’ given to Marlene by one of her religious friends, and took them home in a Bankers Box.
By Spring my plans to sell and move were rapidly taking shape.
I hired a real estate agent, a former student of mine at Carleton University. Rhonda and I agreed that Royal-Lepage would list the house by the end of April. But I had a lot of work to do to ready the house for sale. The house needed to be very lean, a minimalist set of furniture, devoid of physical signs of the family home. Rhonda suggested I pack as much of the furniture and belongings in the garage as I could, even the window coverings, and she would then ‘stage’ the house for sale. I wasn’t happy with this. But it suited my sense of project planning and deadlines.
Emily was a diversion and a solace to me during all this, encouraging me from my mourning. We talked frequently about Marlene and what her attitude might have been.
‘Let’s get on with this Doug,’ Marlene would probably say. ‘This is just a new adventure. It’s going to be fun.’
Emily said she agreed with Marlene. For me, this wasn’t altogether comforting. I had strong attachments to the past; I felt a certain disloyalty in leaving all this history behind. Marlene tended to live in the moment and she welcomed new things in her life. But I also knew this was her gift: You can’t live in the past, you must live in the present, and can’t let the uncertain future deter you either. Marlene never read Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness, she didn’t need to, she had an instinct for happiness.
‘Let’s just take it one day at a time,’ Marlene would say. And I knew she had the right attitude to life. Every day held possibility. She was not one for postponing. This was the ‘Marlene Effect’ and I knew I needed to embrace it. I often studied the plaque on the wall over my writing desk, the one I had bought at the craft fair when Marlene was ill: There are seven days in a week, and Someday isn’t one of them!
I wasn’t sure what Emily’s take on life was – though her launch into an affair with me suggested she was similar to Marlene, in the moment – but I wondered how her sense of loyalty to her family might limit her freedom to act. An affair was easy, as long as it remained hidden; a partnership was about commitment, and it was public. Would she ever be ready for that? I would just have to be patient and see. It didn’t really occur to me she already had a public relationship – with someone else.
As March moved inexorably into May, and the house was about to be listed, the intensity of our activity increased. We spent one entire Saturday packing: She wrapped china and crystal and packed it all carefully in boxes while I packed boxes and boxes of books. I noticed it took me much longer to pack books than it did Emily to pack crystal. When she was done she showed me that she still had one orphan crystal flute. It was a taller piece than the rest of the stemware and there was no obvious place for it amongst the other crystal.
‘Why is there just one?’ she asked.
‘There were two, an anniversary gift from daughter Alison. But one of them broke at the stem.
‘Here’s what we’ll do: on moving day, you can carry this with you in the car as we drive to the new digs.’
‘Okay,’ she said, ‘but what if I break it?’
‘I’m counting on you to take care of it,’ I replied with a wink.
Emily smiled at me.
Moving date was Friday May 11. Moving Day from my downtown office was scheduled for the following Wednesday May 16. I had asked Emily some weeks earlier if she would help me moving day, and could she stay with me that weekend to help me unpack and begin the process of getting settled. Maybe she could stay the whole week. She smiled at me and said,
‘But May 11th is my sister’s birthday. I’m not sure when she will actually celebrate, maybe on the Saturday.’
Emily arrived Friday noon and as the movers pulled away from the house, she climbed into my Honda Accord Coupe. She held that crystal flute carefully in her lap. She smiled at me. ‘Watch those bumps,’ she said.
We supervised the movers all that afternoon, directing them as to where the furniture should be placed, and the various boxes. ‘For now at least’ we would say to one another.
After the movers had left we drove to the local plaza, even though it was walking distance, and had an excellent pizza with a glass of wine.
‘This is going to be good,’ I said to her. ‘We will be able to do this often when we settle in.’ She smiled at me but somehow that smile lacked enthusiasm.
We returned to the townhouse and she helped me unpack the essentials: kitchenware, cleaning stuff. She helped me make my bed, but she made no attempt to get into it.
Around 10 she said, ‘I’d like to go home now. Would you please drive me home?’
I was surprised. I looked at her questioningly, my heart beginning to fall.
I had expected she would stay the weekend as I had asked, maybe even into the next week. In my mind I imagined she would be staying forever.
‘I guess, if that’s what you want. Will you come back tomorrow?’ I asked.
She didn’t answer me.
And she didn’t answer any of my texts the next day. That first night in my new place was very empty indeed.
As the week wore on I called her; I needed to talk to her, text was so inadequate. I let her know I was very disappointed in her decision not to stay with me that weekend and week.
She started to cry. She told me the worst thing I could say was that I was disappointed in her.
‘That is a very cruel thing to say to me,’ she said. ‘You know I never want to disappoint anyone. I told you that is one thing my parents insisted on, that we never fail to do what we say. I sometimes hate my parents for giving me that obligation. I can’t always do it.’
But this didn’t explain why she had not stay with me that weekend, nor the silence.