The Last Spray Bottle

I was tidying up the kitchen yesterday, and I reached for the spray bottle of cleaner. I noticed it’s almost empty and reminded myself that I need to add it to my shopping list. Then my mind started its typical chain of thoughts… Rick bought this bottle. He bought a couple of bottles at the same time and this is the last bottle… It’s the last bottle Rick bought… And it’s nearly gone.

So, of course, I started to cry. Why? Because it’s one more “last” thing, one more reminder that at some point, there will be nothing left of him here, no item he touched. Eventually, every small insignificant item that he purchased will be used up, emptied, and discarded, like the old frozen meat I found last month in the back of my freezer, or the outdated ketchup in the door of the fridge.

Rick’s been gone more than ten months, almost a year now. That in itself is difficult to comprehend. He was just here, wasn’t he? We were just together, happy, blissfully unaware of what was ahead. Weren’t we?

No, finding outdated food and coming across nearly used up cleaning supplies reminds me that he’s been gone a long while, and even longer before that was the “normal” time when he did all the shopping and fetching, because in the last months before he died, he was sick or weak or enduring medical treatments, and not up to shopping.

Rick LOVED to shop – even grocery shop. I never understood the appeal, but I relished the fact that he did, and reveled in the luxury of never having to step foot in a grocery store because of him. And this bottle of spray cleaner at one point had absolutely no significance in my life. It was just one of many things Rick bought on his numerous shopping trips each week.

Until now, months after his death, when realizing the cleaner is nearly empty is somehow a significant emotional trigger. These days, more than a year since he was healthy enough to shop, finding an outdated food item in the bottom of a cupboard can transport my mind back to when life was normal. Finding an old can of bouillon he bought to use in his favorite chicken soup recipe – or the expired can of diced tomatoes he put into his “secret” marinara sauce – conjures up the smells and sounds of him cooking, brings back the memory of our simple, happy life together, and reminds me how long it’s been since those days were here.

But thinking about this particular spray bottle of cleaner also makes me realize the more complicated part of these memories, and that is WHAT I choose to remember. Each once-insignificant item can generate thoughts that encompass an entire history surrounding its origins, and sometimes provokes memories I’d rather leave forgotten.

Take the spray bottle…Rick purchased this particular brand because I was so disgusted with the type he had bought before. He bought a spray cleaner with bleach to use in our kitchen. And the bleach got on my clothes when I used it to perform a quick kitchen counter clean up. And I bitched about it, but he didn’t think my complaints were important and, besides, he liked the cleaner with bleach. So I bitched some more, and he eventually bought another brand – this one – and what’s left in this last bottle is all that remains.

And, of course, this triggers the regrets…why did I complain about such stupid things? Why didn’t I just throw my arms around him and thank him for all that he did? He bought the damned groceries and spray cleaner in the first place – and then I had the nerve to complain! Why did I cause him one moment of upset? Why wasn’t I kinder to him? Why didn’t I appreciate the millions of things he did for me? Why did I argue with him about something so petty?
What kind of wife was I?

A human one.

A human wife, with human foibles who is now a widow who regrets nearly every poor decision, complaint, lack of appreciation, harsh word, and moment not spent with the man I now miss with an agonizing intensity. A human wife who couldn’t see or imagine a future without this husband who cherished and loved me and did small acts of kindness for me many times every day.

So now, I battle with myself every time I come across these small “last” items, these insignificant grief triggers. I try to ignore the bad memories, the regrets, the parts I can’t go back and change. I loved him with all my heart, and he knew it. Didn’t I thank him for shopping all the time? Didn’t I perform a million small acts of kindness for him, as well? Didn’t I rub his back, praise his deeds, tell him how proud I was of his talents, thank him for small favors?

Yes, I did. And I’ll struggle to remember those loving acts instead of vilifying myself for every small transgression. He knew I loved him. I told him, held him, kissed him, praised him, and did anything I could to prove that throughout our marriage, and then I told him, loved him, held him, and kissed him at his bedside, until he took his last breath. I wasn’t perfect. I was human, and so was he.

And now that he’s gone, I need to focus on remembering the wonderful life we shared, and stop the nagging thoughts about those petty misunderstandings from intruding and ruining those glorious memories.

Dealing with grief and triggered memories is a complicated thing. There are so many things I can’t control. I can’t stop life’s forward motion. I can’t change the fact that the man I love is gone, or that I’m left in our home alone, with a million reminders that, day by day, my life with Rick continues to recede more into the past. I also can’t change anything I regret from those times we shared. I don’t have any choice about so much that occurs in my life, but I can choose to focus on the caring memories and the kind deeds, to reminisce about the thousand precious little loving things we did to show one another how much we cared.

So maybe I won’t focus on the argument about the spray cleaner, or the fact that Rick won’t be around to purchase the next bottle. Maybe I’ll remember how much I loved the man who did all our shopping and appreciate all the times he brought me little gifts and trinkets from those numerous shopping trips.

As I use the cleaner on the countertop, maybe I’ll think about how we enjoyed working together installing that counter on the new kitchen island when we remodeled the house. Or remember how important it was to Rick to build the spacious island in the middle of the kitchen so he’d have plenty of room to roll out the dough for pizza crust, and how we meticulously measured and planned the cupboard arrangement and labored together to assemble it.

Or perhaps I’ll envision the production he made every Friday “pizza night.”  Our favorite music playing in the background, me sitting on the stool next to the island…  I loved to watch him roll out the dough with his huge, massive hands before spreading on some of that home-made marinara sauce, adding spices and lots of mozzarella cheese, and then inviting me to choose from the piles of toppings he’d laid out for my selection: pepperoni, chopped ham, diced onions, mushrooms, green peppers, jalapenos, and cilantro. And afterwards, after the pizza had been eaten and the wine had been drunk out on the back deck, and it was nearly time for bed, I’d use that bottle of spray cleaner to clean up the food splatters while Rick wrapped up the leftovers at the end of another enjoyable evening spent together.

So maybe I’ll remind myself not to focus on the last nearly empty spray bottle or the argument that led to him buying it. There are a million wonderful memories from my life with Rick that can bring me a smile, so maybe, just maybe, I’ll choose one of those instead.

About the author

Katherine Billings Palmer is a technical writer, poet, and essayist from Garden City, Michigan. She’s won several academic writing awards, including first place in the University of Michigan Dearborn Critical Essay Contest for her work about poet John Donne: “‘The Sun Rising’: A Lover’s Boast.”

In 2017, Katherine’s husband, Rick, died of complications from small cell lung cancer. She wrote a series of poems and essays about her struggles to cope with her grief. I Wanted to Grow Old With You is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.

Her latest book, A Widow’s Words: Grief, Reflection, Prose, and Poetry – The First Year was published in January 2019 and is also available on Amazon.com.

Katherine is a guest blogger for the Hope for Widows Foundation and writes about her grief journey at www.TheWritingWidow.com.

Comments

  1. I love your writing! It really hit home this morning. My husband did all our grocery shopping and even 22 months later I have to talk myself through the anxiety of going to the store. It was such an act of love. Then shopping for us. And I didn’t even appreciate it. But now I do and I’d give anything to make a grocery list for him today. I too have found so much peace in writing since he was diagnosed. I would love to connect with you! It’s hard to find others that have been through this experience. Have a good day!

  2. I just discovered you on the Hope for Widows group. I love your writing! Everything you’ve written could have been pulled straight out of my heart. My husband, best friend, lover died 9/25/17 after a 3+ year illness. I haven’t the energy yet to put pen to paper but you have done it eloquently for me. “The spray bottle” resonated as I go through papers, clothing, household chores. The freezer, with the last of his favorite frozen mini cream puffs. Will they last forever? Or will I yield to temptation and pop one in my mouth, remembering how he enjoyed them. I am going to follow you and savor your memories while blending them into my own. I would like to share some your writings.

    1. Thank you so much! I know everyone grieves differently, but I have found so many of us share and feel the same triggers – and pain. I know reading what others share has help me a great deal. I’m so glad that some of my writing has resonated with you, too. Please feel free to share what you’d like. I know it was a scary step when I decided to “go public” with my blog, but the response has been rewarding, so I’m “out there” now. Thanks again for writing!

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