The Bookshelf

I stood there staring at the bookshelf for a long time before I started.

I’m not quite sure why. The bookshelf stood in an infrequently used part of the basement, next to the printer and the filing cabinet and bins of old magna-tiles. I could delay organizing it because I didn’t need access to it on a daily basis, and so that is what I had done. It stood there, crammed with books and memorabilia and all sort of other things that Shawn had once owned. And I let it collect dust over the months – and then years – since his death.

I’m not totally sure why I waited so long to do this task. I’d cleaned out much more difficult things over the past two years. I went through every book on defense strategy that Shawn ever owned (and there were many), I cleaned out his closet (twice), I decided what to keep and what to toss in his office, and I got rid of his razors and all of the medical equipment.

I did so many of these clean outs in the first year that I basically forgot about the basement bookshelf. I mean, it was mostly full of the books he read as a kid, and those that he returned to when he needed a break from the intensity of his job: Ready Player One and World War Z and 2001: a space odyssey. There were comic books and old paperbacks I knew he hadn’t touched for years before he died. But that bookshelf was part of what made Shawn the man he was – one who was such a great thinker but who also who loved a great story. Shawn didn’t want to be just a policy wonk. He wanted to be well-rounded, and his bookshelf downstairs was part of that effort.

As I stood there looking at it, I thought, “maybe this is why I left it for last.” These books were the ones that brought him joy.

As with any time I do this sort of thing, I searched for music that reminded me of Shawn. I settled on the Tragically Hip, and played it so loud that my kids actually came down for a bit to see what I was doing. Claire thumbed through the comic books and picked out a few she liked. Austin saw the turntable Shawn used to DJ parties and took it to his room to try and figure out how to work it. Tommy played with a few of the Star Wars figurines that were around. “Take anything you want,” I said to the kids, and they did.

But my kids’ attention was short lived, and I knew this job would be mostly mine. I took everything off the shelves, laying the books in piles on the floor. My own books were stacked in the corner, mostly ones about widowhood and grief and resilience, and I thought about how much space they would take up. The kids’ board games needed a spot as well. I didn’t want to erase Shawn from the bookshelf, but we needed to live on this bookshelf as well. Our family needed it to grow. Still, standing there looking at the piles of his books was overwhelming, and I bent over the toy bin and sobbed for a long while.

God, I miss him. Even now, even more than two years later, the grief can take over in such an intense way.

I put many of his books in a donate box. Yes, I saved some of them, but what good were books if they weren’t being read? The few I saved went on a shelf, next to the comic books and the campaign poster from 2008 (“Change we can believe in”). Below it, I put the plank given to me from his work, a stack of magazines with articles he’d written, and our wedding photo – the one that looks like I am a child bride.

There was just one thing left that I knew needed its own shelf. It was an American flag that Shawn received from his boss on the day he became a citizen in 2008. Being an American was a point of pride for him and he loved this country like many immigrants do – with a level of awe and devotion that is inspiring to witness. The day when he became a citizen was one of the happiest of his life. He stood with 600 other people as they read the names of everyone’s home countries, which was an overwhelming thing for me to witness. Tears streamed down my face, not because it mattered to me what it said on his passport, but because I knew it was important to him to be an American.

Afterwards, his boss gave him the flag and we hugged and cried and he said, “I can’t believe this day is here.”

I gave the flag its own shelf, which felt right. I moved the kids’ board games just below that shelf, so when they went to play one, they would see this special marker of their father’s life. The bookshelf was emptier by the end, but it was beautiful, filled with our things but also many of the parts of Shawn that I loved.

My children might not know everything about their father. They may have already forgotten how he used to laugh and what he sounded like when he told a funny story, but that bookshelf shows off many parts of him that were truly special. And every time they go to get a board game, they will be reminded about him. They will know something about what he liked to read, how much he loved Star Wars comics, and how devoted he was to the country they call home.

11 Replies to “The Bookshelf”

  1. If you still have his defense nerd books, I’d be delighted to have/read/love some of them. 🙂

    1. Almost all are at CNAS in a little library there. 🙂

      1. Perfect!! I’m glad they have a good home.

  2. Yes, this: “As I stood there looking at it, I thought, “maybe this is why I left it for last.” These books were the ones that brought him joy.”

    This is why I’ve been reluctant to do anything with my husband’s large classical music collection. It’s in a tall standing shelf in the room over our garage where he could let the sound boom away as loud as he wanted without bothering anyone. It was a big part of who he was. I didn’t have as much trouble cleaning out his clothes closet early on. With his illness his wardrobe had been pretty much reduced to sweatshirts and sweatpants and those were just sad reminders.

    But this…I go up there and stand in front of it and marvel at how logical and organized it is (like he was) and how he knew and loved every piece. I’ve been thinking maybe I could donate it to my grandkids’ school, but….I haven’t been able to take that step. It’s like, if I do…then he’ll really be gone.

  3. Wow, another touching description of how difficult and rewarding it is to sort through Shawn’s belongings. It been 9 months since I lost Shaila and I have barely filtered through her personal belongings. Every dress that now hangs in her closet was something she selected to make herself beautiful, confident and strong. What will it feel like when I open that closet to find no trace of her. That scares me the most.

    1. For me, having a closet that was mine was something that made me finally feel like I could grow. I’ve kept a number of Shawn’s things, but I also have stored some away, and given others away. But it’s not something that can be rushed – you have to do it at your own pace.

    2. My husband passed away 6-1/2 months ago. The 1st thing that I went through a couple of months after was his bathroom drawers as I needed the space for myself to get organized. I’m not exactly sure why, but since then I have gone through and organized every tool in his tool box and the whole garage. I emptied out his entire pick up truck and reorganized everything. Again, I am not sure why, but I must have been ready. On Easter Sunday, I decided to go through Tom’s clothes. I had previously given some of his nicer shirts and jackets to our son. His section of the closet is first so I would walk by his clothes to get to mine. I looked at all of his XL clothes, his dress pants and piles of jeans and thought to myself, “I am never going to use any of these clothes and I want to get the closet organized (that organizing thing again?). I bagged up his clothes. I think I had 15 bags. I kept a pile of clothes that I felt meant something to me. Then I came here to Marjorie’s blog to see if she had written anything on going through Shawn’s clothes/things and came across the post about making the T-shirt quilts. The clothes were still sitting in the spare room in bags, as I just couldn’t load them up and take them somewhere yet. I ended up going through the bags with his T-shirts in and taking out all of the T-shirts that had a meaning to them. We loved to vacation and Tom would get a T-shirt (or two) everywhere we visited. I laid those T-shirts out on the bed and decided to keep those and a few other shirts to make a couple of quilts. I feel much better now about getting rid of the clothing that doesn’t really have a meaning to me, now that I am keeping the ones that do have a meaning. Now, I just need to find someone to make the quilts for me. I also would really like to find someone who is in need of XL men’s clothing that I could help out by giving Tom’s cloths to. I think I would feel much better giving them to someone in need. Knowing that I (we) could help someone. For me, opening the closet and seeing organization comforts me. I think these baby steps of organizing are helping me try to “organize” my life right now?

      1. Oh, I LOVE that you’re making quilts! The quilts we have are so loved by my kids and I am so glad I have them. I love this comment!

  4. I love this post, especially the part about becoming a US citizen. My husband was so proud that day and he really wanted to VOTE. I struggle with anyone that does not see it as a privilege and I have never missed any election. I look forward to your blog each week. Hugs, Babette

    1. Oh, totally. Shawn loved this country so much and LOVED voting. Such a privilege!!

  5. […] Shawn died, I moved the photo to a special bookshelf in the basement bedroom, right above where the kids kept their board games. I wanted them to see it […]

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