When I moved to Atlanta (the second time, in 2006), Harry came home. By then he was skinny, elderly, mewling, and living like an afterthought. The morning he could no longer stand, I took him to the veterinarian; alone and sobbing, I held him as they administered the final injection. Since then, each time I've passed his tin of ashes I've thought not of his formerly happy life (sunbeams, cuddles) but rather of his miserable final years of displacement and exile and—I know I'm anthropomorphizing here—confusion and despair.
Now, however, surrounded by all these outgoing Hefties, I look at that tin and think: "I bet I'd feel better if I took care of that." Why am I hanging on to something that makes me feel wretched? Moreover, how did I convince myself that Harry should spend eternity on a dusty bookshelf in the first place? He deserves an actual, ceremonious farewell, and I know just the place: at the last real home he ever knew, in the yard of our old house in Charlotte, where he roamed hosta patches and woodpiles and lounged on a sunlit porch and spent every night curled up on a bed or sofa or in the crook of a neck, purring and warm.
So in January, in the course of my holiday travels, that is where I take him: to Charlotte, to the bungalow we all loved, now the home of another nice family. With their permission, I stand beneath the Japanese maple my ex and I planted in memory of my father. "You were a good and beautiful boy, Harry, and I'm grateful that I knew you," I say. "I'm sorry if I let you down, but I loved you." Then I open the plastic bag and pour out his remains. The act feels freeing and important. For so long I believed I'd suffer horrible guilt if I ever scattered those ashes, but what I feel is closer to redemption. I've found Harry's fitting end.
And it occurs to me: What if I could find similarly soothing finales for other troubling possessions—other relics I haven't been able to part with even though they weigh me down? This is the purge I need to make my life lighter and less complicated! For the weightiest possessions, I'll simply go about finding their respective heavens.
It takes about 45 seconds to identify the most hurtful offenders. The soul shredders are everywhere. There's the painting I bought after reluctantly leaving New York, where my dream life was supposed to start, for Atlanta. I hoped the painting would cheer me up, but it had the opposite effect—it seemed to get uglier and more mocking by the day. There are the books my friends have published, which only remind me that I've yet to begin publishing my own. There's the Japanese postcard from my ex-mother-in-law, whom I loved and admired and who recently died. And there's that tiny photo in the Victorian frame.
Because it's so tiny—a mere one inch by two—I start with the photo: a shot of my old friend Carol and me. She and her husband and brother had come to visit me in Spain, and we were on a ferry to Morocco. In the background, sea and sunset. We are tanned and smiling, our hair blowing in the wind.
Carol was one of the first people I met when I moved to North Carolina, weeks out of college, to become a reporter. She was crazy-smart, funny, ambitious, well mannered, a vocabulary ninja. An investigative reporter, she could dethrone a nefarious public official by 6 P.M. and shop for cute earrings on her way home. She set the standard for friendship, journalism, and womanhood, and she set it high.
Today every one of my female friends is some version of Carol. The problem is, Carol has slipped away. Somewhere amid all my moves and our respective marriages and my divorce and her motherhood and our exhausting careers, our signal friendship faded. I've kept her photo up no matter where I've lived, but now that I'm defusing emotional land mines by putting them in their proper place, I need a more fitting resolution. I could wrap the photo in tissue and store it away, or remove it from the frame and slip it into an album, but then it hits me—the problem isn't the photo; it's what the photo represents. What do you do with a picture that reminds you of failure? Here's what: You turn it into a portrait of resurrected friendship. If Carol has meant so much to the quality and trajectory of my time on Earth, I should call her.
We Hear You!