When my boyfriend died in August, a few of his family, friends, and I, went over to his apartment to pack and dispose of his belongings. My boyfriend lived in a small studio apartment; I wouldn’t call him a pack rat, but it still took us nearly two days to decide what to keep, what to donate, and what to throw away.
This wasn’t the first time I had to pack away someone’s belongings after they died, but it was the first time I took a hard look at the possessions that make up a person’s life. There was the chachka that was on the display, but then were the secret items tossed into boxes and drawers: the map from our first adventure to New Westminster; tickets to movies and plays; notes left on counters—tiny momentos of days gone by that held a special meaning to him, but like an inside joke, you had to be there to understand them. Those were the hardest items to get rid of. Taken on their own, they were meaningless, but put into context they told a story, like a slide show.
This was the second time in two years I’ve had to clean out someone’s apartment after they passed away. Last year my best friend of 25 years took his life a few months after he divorced his husband. He had reduced his life to the bare essentials after the divorce—art and clothes, plus a few items that had sentimental value.
“You need to keep this,” his friend from high school told me, holding up an old t-shirt, a brownie camera, and the antique doll head with one eye that always creeped everyone out. I obliged him to be polite, but with the exception of a few odds and bobs, most of the boxes that came out of the apartment went directly to the donation bin at Gordon Neighbourhood House.
My boyfriend’s house was different. I had spent so much time there looking at his things, listening to him tell me the story behind each and every one of them. It didn’t seem right or fair to just toss or donate them. At the same time, there was no sense in keeping it either.
I remember picking up a wooden figure of caveman that I gave him—it was the first thing I ever bought him. I had snuck it into the apartment and left it on a shelf without telling him, waiting for him to notice it. Holding it in my hand brought back the memory of the day, but it didn’t bring him back. It was merely a piece of painted wood.
As we packed and purged, I imagined what it would be like for my friends when the time comes for them to clean out my apartment—a depressing thought I know, but inevitable just the same.
Like most people in Vancouver, I live in a small space. I’ve managed to cram quite a bit into it without it looking cluttered, thanks to IKEA shelves and a walk-in closet that I use to hide the real mess. I’ve been promising myself for years that I would purge my place once and for all, and I’ve done so in spurts, but it wasn’t until I went through process wrapping up my boyfriend’s estate that I started making hard choices and getting rid of stuff. Because in the end, that’s all it really is: stuff.
Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting pictures of the items I’m purging from my apartment and telling the story of how they came into my possession and what I did with them.