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Boxes of Life, Love and Pain

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Just when I think I’ve gotten over the hump, something happens, or a series of some things happen to remind me James is not here. He’s not coming back. Today I went to our storage units in search of things to put on my office wall, art we’ve collected and photographs I’ve taken of far away places. While I found the things I was looking for, I also found things I wasn’t ready to see.

One of the storage units contained mostly boxes. It didn’t matter what they were labeled, “Brenda’s Office,” “Fragile” or “Family Room,” these stacks of uniform cardboard boxes held the contents of my life, a life spent with James. Would you believe I’ve saved every rose James ever gave me? I have boxes and boxes, big cardboard boxes of dried roses; dried when they were perfectly formed, beautiful buds still bound together, petal upon petal, like lovers’ hands intertwined finger by finger.

James gave me roses for birthdays, anniversaries and for no other reason than because he loved me. I would always lay them out on newspaper on top of the refrigerator to dry. It seemed as though there were always roses there, some taking a month or more before they were perfectly dried. Afterward I put them in old wooden boxes, silver trays and crystal bowls. They filled the living room, the dining room, and my dressing room, even an old Lalique bowl in a nook beside the tub.

Today I didn’t open the cardboard boxes of “Roses” because I feared they would be too hard for me to see, too hard to think about the candlelight dinner on the floor with the vase of roses beside us and yet, I would have been better off opening the roses because I already knew what was in them. I would have been prepared. It was the boxes marked “Fragile” that disarmed me, that made my heart beat out of rhythm and brought me to my knees. Unlike the “Roses,” the contents of “Fragile” were unexpected. How could I have known the fragile things contained parts of my heart, our life and our love? They were full of James in the most unexpected ways: the inlaid box he bought me in Italy and surprised me with when we got home, framed photographs of ski trips with family and friends. I even found the place cards from the dinner after our wedding; a card with “James” and another with “Brenda” were written in black ink and an elegant script.

This week my online friend and fellow breast cancer survivor, Elaine Olsen, at Peace for the Journey, wrote about the various ways we can use our creativity to “solve the problem of pain.” Her words made me think about the pain I’ve experienced since James died, the pain and sweet memories brought to life by the simple act of opening a box. Each of us have experienced pain after a cancer diagnosis or other serious health problem; the pain we feel when we lose part of ourselves to death, divorce or job loss. Pain is universal. While we express it in different degrees of fear, hopelessness and anger, how do we solve the problem of our pain?

Do you remember how you felt before your most painful moments? Can you remember your life before them, and have you contrasted them with your life since then? Have you thought about putting your feelings down in a journal? It doesn’t have to be a journal or a blog you share. It can be a healing tool for your eyes only. Maybe it contains words and photographs you can call on again and again. Today I’ve put my feelings down in my blog because it helps me make sense of the myriad of emotions I’m feeling because of half-opened cardboard boxes, glimpses of the life I had and the one I’ve yet to figure out. I hope my words resonate with each of you in positive ways you didn’t imagine. What can you do, or what have you done to heal your pain? What steps are you taking to make your mind and body stronger? What can you do to help someone else who’s embarked on a similar journey?

Here a box, there a box, everywhere a box-box. James will always be in all of them. I know he’d want me to make today a good day, to do everything intentionally, with love and compassion and reverence for God. I want that for you as well, sweet friends.