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.