Cleaning House

January 29, 2011My cleaning frenzy began with the hallway closet. I scooped up three of my husband’s winter jackets and placed them over my right arm along with a corduroy sports jacket and two pairs of worn sneakers. Grabbing the car keys, I unlocked the rear door and laid them neatly across the back seat alongside his black canvas briefcase with his initials M. S. R. embroidered in the lower right-hand corner.The next stop was my bedroom closet where I began a sweeping motion with my right hand from one hanger to the next as if I was in a department store shopping for the perfect outfit. I placed four tops, two sweaters, and four dresses across my left shoulder so that I could continue my madness. It was Saturday, my day off, but I still felt as if I had a timeline in which to complete this task. I’m clearing out reminders of my late husband.

In a dresser drawer, I spot the silver pill box I bought for my husband five months before he died. By that time he was taking oxycotin and oxycodone, heavy narcotics, for long lasting and breakthrough relief from his severe bone pain. I watched his prescribed milligrams increase as his pain became intolerable. He often skipped a dose or waited too long before taking his breakthrough medication–all in an effort to think clearly for as long as possible. But mostly because he feared becoming a drug addict.  

A Keepsake

I rub my thumb and forefinger across the smooth layer of silver on the outside of the box as if I it was magical and had powers to bring about my husband’s resurrection—as if it could somehow bring him back to me. I felt a comforting connection between his fingertips and mine as I caress the lines on the maker’s mark. I open the box and find 12 pills neatly laid out in their individual grooves; the pink and brown color coordinated narcotics, along with the green Neurontin, ibuprofen, and two small diuretic tablets called Lasix for the swelling in his legs.

None of these medicinal remedies saved his life. None of these pharmaceuticals did what we wanted them to do, what they proclaimed to do. They were just pills taken routinely to guard against pain, ingested like candy until the end of his illness when he could barely swallow anything without aspirating except soft foods and small sips of water.  

For some reason, his pillbox got left behind when I went on my initial rampage and disposed of all traces of his illness immediately after his death. All the liquids, pills, wraps, gauzes, tinctures, salves, patches, weekly pill organizers, and daily medicine logs—all the mixtures and concoctions. All the walkers, wheelchairs, shower seats, canes, and orthodics that were scattered throughout the house. As I closed the lid, I knew these drugs weren’t going anywhere. I knew they needed to stay in the little silver box—at least for now.

By afternoon, I cleared out seven drawers of a large filing cabinet in our garage. I threw out thick folders stuffed full of old receipts clipped in thick rubber bands, information on previous house mortgages, tattered bank statements, and profit and loss disclosures from my husband’s past restaurants. I stood on a step-ladder tossing old menus laminated with his caricature on the cover, writing tablets which read “From the desk of Michael Ratner.” I imagined my late husband standing over me, pointing his index finger and shouting, “Stop. Don’t throw anything away.” That’s what he’d say if he was still alive. Just thinking about his reaction somehow lessened the drama and fortitude in which I went about my mission. I felt my body relax and for the first time that day I realized I was hungry and had missed breakfast. It was now 2:00 p.m. I broke my momentum for food.    

Memories are reminiscent of the past, reminders of what can never be again. But that wasn’t the reason I felt compelled to pitch the clothes that were constant reminders of the last few months, or the papers cluttering the steel drawers. It isn’t the reason I was driven to clear out the debris, the old manila folders that were packed tightly next to one another. No one saw the mess. No one complained about the piles of old papers, but still I was bound to complete my mission.

It’s been two and a half months since my husband died. I wondered if my frantic actions were part of the grieving process, part of something a widow needs to go through during her first few months. It’s as if the act of investigating, sorting, discovering, along with the disposal of certain items might lead me to a sense of calmness and rationality. Just watching the bulging files, ancient trade publications, and ragged menus pilot themselves down to an opened trash bag on the cold cement floor unleashed a freedom I hadn’t felt for months. With a swift motion of my left hand, an old framed black and white photo of a covered wagon joined the pile. It was then I heard the shrill sound of shattered glass. I stepped down from the ladder to investigate the extent of damage. Tiny pieces of glass pierced through the sides of the bag and glistened from an afternoon sun. 

The cement floor I stood on seemed to shift beneath my feet. This might be a good time to cry, but I hold my tears in their path until my vision is completely obscured. I wait patiently, opening and closing my eyes in hopes that the fog will clear. I lift a bag with crackling glass on either side and place it in a red wagon. Walking out to the alley, I am careful not to tip the bag. With one arm I lift the lid of the trash can while my other arm thrusts the bag up above my shoulders and whips it into the opened trashcan. I listen to the sound of glass hitting the sides of the trash—-tiny fragile pieces breaking apart, never to be one again. 


About TRatner

Terry Ratner is a freelance writer, registered nurse, and writing instructor in Phoenix, Arizona. In June of 2004, she graduated with a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative nonfiction from Antioch University, Los Angeles. Writing has always served a purpose in her life, but it wasn't until her son died in a motorcycle accident in March, 1999, that she began to publish her works. What's unique about Terry is the way she balances the life of a nurse with the life of a writer. "Nursing allows me to give back to the community and then write about those experiences." Ratner teaches creative writing in a variety of settings from community colleges to a school for homeless children (Thomas J. Pappas) to wellness communities throughout the Valley of the Sun. In 2004, Terry launched an Arts and Healing program for children undergoing dialysis at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center. She has published numerous personal essays, cover stories, interviews, and book reviews for a variety of national and regional publications. Her manuscript, a work in progress, features a series of twelve essays, ten of which are introduced with black and white photos, dealing with issues of family and identity.
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2 Responses to Cleaning House


    It’s interesting, the different ways that people grieve……I too have the pill box with the pink and green pills, let just the way that it was when I last filled it. Almost five months later, Glenn’s clothes fill half of the closet just as they always have. Sometimes I go and bury my face in his shirts and inhale the scent of him. Sometimes I listen to his voice on my cell phone, to hear his beautiful Aussie accent declaring how much he loves me.

  2. various says:

    My sincere sympathies at the loss of your husband.

    I tried to think of just one thing I could offer that would be of some help, and as I was thinking, the radio said “Take the 30-day challenge and listen just to this station for 30 days” – I must say, that is probably the very best thing. The station is Family Life Radio, and is at 90.3FM. I’ve listen for several years, and with their inspirational music and no advertising, I’m hooked. Perhaps you’ll find it helpful.

    If you’d ever like to hike the mountain (Shaw Butte) sometime, I’m a pretty good listener. Again, so very sorry for your loss.

    Peace and comfort,
    Karl J.

    Your writing is very meaningful to me as my wife died of breast cancer November 9, 2010. I too was a caregiver like you. My wife (Judy) first noticed a lump in her left breast about November/December 2009. After the holiday’s she went to see her Doctor. The bad news followed. The plan was to shrink the tumor and then have surgery end of August 2010 to remove the breasts. To make a long story short, after 3 – 4 months of Chemo and the awful side affects that accompany it, the cancer was detected in other area’s of the body. Surgery was postponed. Chemo resumed with different drugs September 2010. Judy was devastated, but put up a brave front not providing any detail to relatives or friends. I believe she was still determined to beat the cancer, in spite of the setback. As I mentioned in the beginning, she died November 9, 2010. I think of her much of the time and miss her so much. I can relate so well to a lot of your personal experience. Thank you for sharing.
    Ed D.

    Your writing is excellent. You are not afraid to show your feelings, and that comes through. I’ll be eager to read your book

    Years ago (1972) I co-authored a book with a clinical psychologist, a psychiatric case study in the form of a novel. That seems another lifetime ago now. I have several chapters of another book hiding away in this computer someplace, but if I were a Real Writer, it would be finished, I think.

    Hoping you are having a good day.


    Dear Mrs. Ratner:

    I have followed your column in the Tattler for quite a while — ever since your husband was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. I am uncertain when I read the first one, but I believe it was shortly after I had a laryngectomy for throat cancer. I could identify so much with what you and your husband were going through. My Stage 3 cancer was diagnosed two days before my husband and I were to leave for a trip to Ireland. We went ahead and despite my doctor’s prediction that I would worry about what I faced on my “““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““
    On April 10, a Sunday, (which is our wedding anniversary) once again I was a little short of breath. My daughter happened to drop in with an anniversary gift, noticed I was short of breath, and despite my protestations, I finally agreed to go back to Mayo’s ER. We got there about 3:00. I don’t remember much of anything after that. I am told that I was scanned and my airway was completely closed. I was apparently unconscious. At about 7:00 the PA in attendance called the ENT surgeon and they did an emergency tracheotomy. I was in the hospital for about 10 days. Then I was sent home to get myself well enough for the laryngectomy. That was done on May 6th, 2005. At the end of May, I developed fistulas on both sides of the stoma, and my husband had to take me every day, 7 days a week, for 4 months to either the hospital or the clinic (depending on where the surgeon was ) to have the fistulas packed. Apparently the radiation had so damaged the tissue that I couldn’t heal.

    Finally, about the end of August the fistulas closed. I began to work with a speech therapist and have learned to speak fairly well with a TEP prosthesis.

    I am a Rotarian and was the first woman Rotary district governor in Arizona in 1997-98. I was in charge of visiting and speaking to 42 Rotary clubs around the state. I did a large housing project in the Sierra Norte del Pueblo region of Mexico and in 1998 at the end of my year as governor, I traveled to Pakistan where I spent time in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi where I spoke to approximately 450 male Muslim Rotarians.

    I tell you all this because it was so difficult for me not to be able to really speak anymore. I belonged to the Scottsdale Rotary Club, and when I began to feel sorry for those I chose to sit with at lunch because they had such trouble hearing me and I had trouble eating and talking. I finally resigned. I now belong to a Rotary eClub which “meets” on the computer. We have 84 members on six continents. So I no longer need to be able to speak.

    I was drawn to write to you each time I read one of your columns. I was so hoping your husband was improving. I am so sorry to hear that he died. My heart goes out to you. I now realize how fortunate I am to be alive, to see one grandchild and four great grandchildren born since my surgery. I have another great granddaughter due any day. I count my blessings every day.

    I know it is so hard to go on when you lose someone you love. You have written so lovingly about your husband and your marriage. I just want you to know that your column has touched me – and many others, I am sure. You will be in my prayers that you will gradually heal and go on with you life and find happiness. I think that is what Michael would have wanted for you.

    Norma T.

    Diary essays

    Hello Terry,
    I am a resident of Moon Valley and I just read your “diary” in the Tattler. I just felt an urge to write to you, even though I do not know you. I guess I just wanted to tell you that my heart feels deeply for you and where you are right now. I am 44 and have been married to my husband for 20 years.
    I think about what life would be without him, frequently, because I am a worry wart.

    When I was 6, my dad was killed by a drunk driver on his way home from the office. My sister was 4, my brother was 8, and my mother was 27. My mom told me she married my dad a few days after high school graduation and had never even written a check by herself. My mother tells me, in fragments, how she got through those first few days through the first few years and I can not imagine myself having the strength to do what she did.

    In October, my 13 year old daughter contracted E. Coli. She was admitted to Phx. Childrens Hospital for IV’s to help her stay hydrated. On day two, the doctor came to my husband and I and told us that Kendall had contracted a very rare “spin off” of E. Coli called Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS) and that she was being taken to the ICU for support. I felt as though we had fallen into a black hole.
    For 3 days we watched our daughter spiral downhill and her kidneys went into total kidney failure.
    On the fourth day, we watched our daughter in a drug induced sleep hooked to both a ventilator and a dialysis machine. After 30 days in Phx. Childrens Hospital she came home, just in time for Thanksgiving.

    I learned many things about myself during Kendall’s illness but the four most valuable things were:

    1. I am stronger than I realized.
    2. The prayers and thoughts that people send can be a huge source of comfort.
    3. Through adversity, there are gifts…. although they are not always present at the time.
    4. Writing (journaling) is extremely therapeutic.

    After reading your journal, I know that the four lessons I mentioned above you are/ have experienced.

    I just wanted you to know that I feel for you and the sadness you are experiencing.
    I hope it brings you some sense of comfort knowing that you are in my thoughts and prayers.

    Kristi M.

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