There is an old schoolboy joke that goes, "How do you know when an elephant's been in your fridge?" The answer is, "You can tell by the footprints in the butter."
Losing someone you have loved and lived with carries echoes of that silly joke. The one who was half of your existence is gone but, between them—the vastness of her life, and the elephantine, Jurassic creature called Death—leave paradoxically tiny marks or footprints all over your house, your heart, and your life. For a long time these marks of passing are to be found everywhere, every day. Each new discovery is likely to trigger a fresh outburst of grief.
Some of them really are in the fridge. On the bottom shelf stands a carton of skim milk, a small aspect of the scheme that she devised to make sure of losing a few pounds before going on our planned sunshine holiday in late summer. She bought it on the morning of the day before she was taken ill. The carton should have been thrown out a long time ago, but the dustbin outside my back door is somehow not large or appropriate enough to contain the implications of such an action.
Upstairs, on the table next to her side of the bed sprawls an untidy pile of books that she has been devouring, dipping into, hoping to read. One of them was about pregnancy and childbirth. This was to have been the year . . .
Beside the books stands a tumbler, nearly filled with water.
The books should be returned to the bookcase, but the exact order and positioning of them on the bedside table, the sheer disarray of them, is a unique product of her hands, of her attention and her inattention, and will be lost forever as soon as they are moved or removed.
Her lips were still warm when they touched the cold, hard smoothness of that glass as she sipped from it. The amount of water that remains was precisely determined by the extent of her thirst.
She has no choice now but to give up exactness and inexactness.
These tiny museums of personal randomness are all that is left to me.
How many times and in how many ways is it expected that one should have to say good-bye? I assent and assent and assent and assent to the death of the person I love, yet still she phantoms to life and fades once more to her death in the sad ordinariness of an unfinished packet of cereal, a tube of the wrong-colored shoe polish, a spare pair of one armed reading glasses in a drawer, CDs I never would have learned to enjoy, the Bible that is not mine, its thousand pages thickly cropped with markers that were sown over a decade, but have yielded their harvest in another place, her sewing box filled with "bits and bobs that might be useful one day," familiar doodles on a pad beside the phone, and, buried behind coats hanging in the hall, a wide, dark-blue woolen scarf that, when I bury my face in it, still smells of her.
I disposed of such items as the milk carton eventually. Of course I did. There was never any serious danger that I would descend into some kind of Dickensian preservation mania. The books were returned to their correct position on the shelves. I tipped away the water and washed the invisible prints of Jessica's lips and fingers from the tumbler. It took about half a minute and meant nothing immediately afterward. I noted how the glass shone and sparkled as I replaced it with its fellows on the top shelf of the cupboard above the draining board. It was, after all, only a glass. Tomorrow I would be unable to identify which one of that set of six had contained the last drink that my wife had enjoyed in her own home.
In fact, after the very early and most intensely anguished days I became reasonably good at clearing and sorting and dealing with things of this kind as soon as they appeared, albeit sometimes by gritting my teeth or through little bursts of sobbing, conduits carrying away the overflow of continual grief.
The problem was that it never seemed quite to end. Months after Jessica's death I was still having to cope with less frequent but no less unexpected reminders of her life and her death. Some of them came from outside the house, brought by the regular postman, a young man with shiny spiked hair and a brick-red complexion who continued to whistle his way up our front path every morning as if, in some strange way, the world had not stopped turning. He brought letters addressed to Jessica that had important things to say about her mobile phone, or her library books, or which bulbs she might like to order for planting in the autumn, or the amount of credit she had on her British Home Stores card, or the fact that she had come so close to winning eighty thousand pounds in some magazine draw that the act of returning the enclosed slip and ordering a year's subscription to the magazine in question was little more than a tedious formality. I answered the ones I needed to and tossed the rest.
One or two were innocently cheerful communications from friends or acquaintances from the past who knew nothing of what had happened to Jessica. I replied with as much brevity as politeness would allow and tried to spend as little time as possible looking at the letters of condolence that followed.
One summer morning, six months to the day after I had leaned down to kiss my wife's cold lips for the last time, a letter with a Gloucester postmark dropped onto the front mat. It turned out to be from one of Jessica's oldest friends, but it was not for her. It was addressed to me.
Excerpted from GHOSTS: The Story of a Reunion © Copyright 2011 by Adrian Plass. Reprinted with permission by Zondervan. All rights reserved.