We went our separate ways after high school, but, convinced we were always meant to be together, Matt came back into my life in 1992. I moved to Austin, where he was living. We had a daughter and named her Zoë, after a high school classmate, and moved to Northern California, where I worked as a reporter and Matt landed a job as head of public affairs at the University of California, Berkeley.
Like any marriage, ours had its ups and downs, but I remember once being so happy that I stole a line from the Nora Ephron film Heartburn. Meryl Streep plays a woman whose husband's infidelity ruins their marriage. "I love our life. I love how it just goes along," she says to Jack Nicholson, who plays the philanderer in question. She's clueless that the other shoe is about to drop.
A week or so after I said those same words, on February 16, 2002, Matt died of a massive heart attack. He was 45. He left behind not just me and Zoë, who was then 8, but a deep, full life. And physical evidence of that life was all over our house, his office at work, his computer.
Matt wasn't neutral about stuff. In fact, he was an assiduous collector of stuff of all kinds—a rusted pulley wheel, part of an old lathe, an antique glass car-battery case. And at first sorting through it all was easy, even healing. Giving one of his brothers the beautiful suits Matt owned seemed exactly the right thing to do.
He was also a passionate artist and craftsman. I gave Matt's boss the elegant, sturdy desk Matt had built for himself. And I donated a piece of his art to Berkeley's public affairs office, where it now hangs.
But there were things I couldn't, and wouldn't, part with. The no-brainers were the books from his childhood with inscriptions from his parents. As for his hundreds of other books, I had a rule: If it had underlining or notes in the margins in Matt's neat, precise hand, I kept it. Personal correspondence stayed, and so did his writings. Ditto the dozens of scraps of paper covered with his doodles, name badges for events he attended, old birthday cards, and intriguing little knickknacks he kept on his desk—a box shaped like a pair of ruby lips, a piece of a cornice from an old building. The down jacket, now tattered, hangs in my closet next to my own clothes. Very occasionally, I bury my nose in it.
Through eight years and four moves, I have carried around some two dozen boxes filled with these tangible memories. But last September, during a particularly brutal move that entailed condensing two households into one, I began to realize that Matt's boxes were beginning to feel like a burden.
So I decided to sort through it all, box by box. The goal, I decided, was to end up with a smaller collection of more selectively curated things for Zoë to have as an adult.
I probably wouldn't have done any of this had it not been for Cheryl Hughes. Cheryl is a professional downsizer and organizer who had helped my mother plow through 40 years of accumulation as she readied her house in San Diego for sale. Cheryl lives in San Diego, too, but came up to San Francisco to help me unpack from the latest move. My mother had found Cheryl invaluable and offered to pay for her time and airfare. It turned out to be one of the best gifts I have ever received.
Cheryl is kind and gentle but also extremely tough. She knows that sorting through tangible memories can be more difficult than grappling with the intangible ones. One can always shape and reshape memories in one's head. But objects, in their very concreteness, tell a more relentlessly truthful story.
Unpacking the boxes
And then she left. With her gone, I felt unmoored, unsure where to start. Cheryl weighed in by phone with some wisdom that would become my main guidepost: "You don't even have to think about what Zoë might like. Think about what Matt might want Zoë to know about him, or what you want her to know about him."
Zoë, for her part, claimed not to care. "Mom, I don't remember him. Why would I want his old stuff?"
But I chose to ignore her, and decided that someday she would cherish some of these things as much as I did: Matt's blue and gold Cal ties; his favorite T-shirts; photographs, sketches, and paintings. And, of course, the down jacket.
Cheryl suggested I start with something impersonal, perhaps old college papers. Good idea, I said, and we hung up.
I went out to the garage, pulled down one of the boxes labeled documents, and began digging through it, a recycling bag at my side. Mediocre grade on a political science paper? Not necessary. But his senior thesis from Hampshire College? Keep it.
Then, a third of the way down into the box, I came upon a bundle of letters—dozens of romantic missives from a parade of ex-girlfriends, postmarked Los Angeles, Amherst, Connecticut, Boston, and Austin. I tried not to read them but got sucked in. There was one ardent marriage proposal, and a fraught reference to an abortion. I flinched. I had known about these women, had even become friends with two of them. But who was Nikki? And why would I want Zoë to see these? I threw them into the recycling bag.
Then I grew disgusted with myself. Here I stood in a San Francisco garage, editing Matt's life, destroying evidence that other women had loved him, and that he had loved them back. I stopped for the day and went into the house.
That night, my sister-in-law called, and I told her about the letters. She offered this: "The only relationship with a woman Zoë really needs to know about is his relationship with you." She was right.
Early the next morning, I started again. I dug the letters out of the recycling bag, put them into their own box and decided that someday—not now, but sometime in the near future—I would get in touch with the women and offer to send them.
The next box I opened was far easier to deal with. I discovered things I hadn't known, or had forgotten: As a teenager, Matt had served on a search committee for a school superintendent in Amherst. In 1976 he had applied for a White House internship.
Just as I was working my way to the bottom of that box, Zoë poked her head into the garage. She was all attitude. "Why are you wasting your time?" she demanded. Before I had a chance to answer, she spied his passes from the 1984 and 1988 Democratic National Conventions. Her eyes lit up. She wanted to keep them. What a cool dad she had!
Then she saw a photo of him from the early '80s, picked it up, and disappeared. Ten minutes later, she returned. "Mom, look at this." She held it up alongside a recent shot of herself. The resemblance between the man in his early 20s and our child of 16 was absolutely eerie. She tacked up the photos side by side on her bulletin board.
For the next month, the garage became my second home. Every day, I got up early to do more sorting. The job got easier as I went. I was developing a sense for what might really matter to Zoë—and to him.
I found another box of letters, many from Matt's parents. And he had saved every letter I had written to him over the years, even when we weren't speaking. (When we were teenagers I had broken up with him, and he was crushed. Years later he explained that he had always assumed we would spend our lives together; the shock of the breakup had made him angry and silent.) He had never responded to those letters, and I was sure he'd thrown them away. But he hadn't. And then there were all the letters and faxes I had sent him after we got back together.
One postcard I sent on his birthday in 1992, shortly after we reunited. On the front was a photo of a dozen or so antique Steiff teddy bears, staring at the camera with their little button eyes the way small children often do. I had clearly been fantasizing about what our children might look like: "Will they be like this?" I wrote on the back of the card. "Blonde hair and brown eyes? I hope so. Happy birthday, dear Matthew. You're right. Life is long. And big. Isn't it?"
We were both wrong. Life might have been big, but it wasn't long. At least not for him. I took the postcard and all my other letters to him and added them to a box I have always kept near my bed, containing all his letters to me.
Cheryl advised me to move on to the art pieces. Matt's work was wildly various—sketches in charcoal, or chalk—and he often painted on large canvases, which I had been moving around with Zoë and me for years. (Couldn't he have done miniatures?) My favorites I give a place of pride on my walls. But most have remained in storage.
Cheryl was particularly tough about the art. "You don't have the luxury of having a Museum of Matt," she said. "And even if you did, would you want to?"
Well, yes, perhaps I would. Each piece was a window into his mood—light, whimsical drawings in the good times, dark silhouettes of people on bridges in the bad. He was especially prolific in 1989, the year his older brother died of melanoma. How could I discard any of that?
I had an idea. I hauled everything inside and up to my bedroom. Zoë sat on the bed while I held up every piece and let her decide whether to keep it. Often my tough little critic shook her head. But if something resonated for her, she quickly knew that too: She softened, her eyes twinkled, and she said, "Let's keep that."
Next came the clothing. Cheryl instructed me to pick out some things I might wear and send the rest to Goodwill. And I did: a shirt or two here, a T-shirt there. But why had I saved every single pair of boxers? The reality of eight years having passed hit me straight in the stomach when I picked up a pair and discovered the elastic was shot. They expanded but didn't contract. I set one pair aside and put the rest into a garbage bag.
I had always loved wearing Matt's clothes—especially his sweaters. After he died, I kept a couple in my dresser to wear when I wanted comfort. I found another half-dozen in boxes. I kept them all.
By the end of my time in the garage, I had winnowed my way through everything. The palimpsest of Matt's life is now condensed into a tidy handful of boxes for Zoë to keep someday. She might have started out indifferent to her father's possessions, but I could tell now that, when the time came to take them, she would do so happily.
In the course of the clothes sorting, Zoë latched on to one of the sweaters, a blanket of a garment as nubby and soft as an old Steiff teddy bear. She wears it sometimes, and her chestnut hair, which is really just a long version of Matt's, flows down her back, blending into the blondish-brown wool. And whenever I see her in that sweater, I think that maybe life is long after all.
More O: The power of friendship over grief